Minding the Campus’s recent symposium on the liberal arts’ troubles was enlightening and timely. Many of the contributors offered stirring defenses of a classical, liberal arts education that emphasized the indispensability of the humanities to pursuing a rich and vibrant intellectual life.
I’d like to add several points to the discussion.
Symposium contributors properly shared a deep worry about the decline of the liberal arts in American higher education. As Cardinal John Henry Newman so eloquently put it, a liberal education “aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration[.]” A populace that is not liberally educated is a populace unfit for the demands of citizenship and serious engagement with the world at large.
Surely, a liberal education is about more than career preparation, and the notion that higher education is merely vocational training must be fiercely resisted. But in a world in which workers will hold an average of 11 different jobs in the course of their working lives, and in which employers themselves value a broad-based education over narrow vocational training, a liberal education is also about equipping students for productive lives in the workplace.
Finally, it is vital to remember that college and university trustees, as well as intelligent donors, can push back against curricular degeneration. By staying informed about curricular requirements, demanding presidential and faculty action, and asking for specific curricular changes, boards can exercise their fiduciary responsibility to preserve a strong liberal arts curriculum. The Beazley Foundation of Virginia has proven incredibly successful in incentivizing schools to restore their core curricula and supporting them financially in their efforts. Several schools have strengthened their core requirements after Beazley imposed a moratorium on its higher-ed grant-making pending colleges’ development of a true core. ACTA works with college and university trustees, as well as intelligent donors, because they can be the Archimedean points by which we shift a whole university.
Though the status quo can often prove discouraging, it isn’t time to throw in the towel. As T.S. Eliot wrote, there are times when “Virtues are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.” It is still possible to restore the central place of the liberal arts in higher education, if we will only fight hard enough.