Do the Liberal Arts Today Serve any Useful Public Function?

This is an edited version of a paper delivered at a recent conference on “What Is a Liberal Education For?” at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Dr. Agresto is a former president of St. John’s.


The liberal arts are dying in America, and they are dying in large measure because the public is unconvinced that any attention to these subjects, especially the humanities, are worth the cost, the effort, or the time.

Today four of the top majors – Business Studies, Education, the Health Professions, and Engineering – account for 41% of all Bachelors degrees, while English and Literature accounts for a mere 3% of all such degrees.  Today, just over 1% of our students major in any of the Physical Sciences, and Philosophy accounts for less than one half of one percent of the whole total.  In fact, there are more Bachelor degrees given in something called  “Parks, Recreation, Fitness and Leisure Studies” than are awarded in all the fields of History put together.

The liberal arts are dying because most Americans don’t see the point of them. They don’t see what “use” the liberal arts  are either to themselves or to society.

Shells of Their Former Selves

We all know how the liberal arts have marginalized themselves out of existence:  Read the course catalogues of so many college and see how, for instance, departments of literature have become shells of their former selves.  With the rise of graduate school analyses and specialization that is now so much a part of the undergraduate curriculum, how much vitality has been lost from literature. Gone today in too many places are all the stories that showed us the world with its joys and sorrows, gone all our marveling over the varieties of human types or stories of honor and treachery, of hopes ascendant and hopes dashed.  All replaced by more ideologically-driven studies; all replaced with our contemporary infatuation with race and class and politics.

Too many History departments stopped trying to show us all we could learn from the past and began to think it best to show us all we couldn’t learn from the past.  After all, to take just one example, if the Founders of this country of ours were little more than white racist slaveholders who set up a government to in order to line their pockets and protect their interests, who in his right mind would want to waste his time and his parents money to study the Founding period seriously?

Looking over the liberal arts, I’m not sure which of the many ‘isms’ of today has done the most damage.  Is it the relativism and postmodernism that we fought over so furiously in the ‘80’s? Or is it the ideology of multiculturalism, which promised to expand greatly our worldview, but instead narrowed it mortally by making us ashamed to take so seriously the works of dead white European males?  Is it the remnants of a kind of pop-Marxism, which always has us look for economic and material causes as the source of human motivation and thus diminishes what used to be seen as the sovereign power of arguments, thoughts, and ideas? Is it the rise of an ideology of “critical thinking” that passes itself off as the core of the liberal activity, but, sadly, spends more of its time in being critical than being thoughtful? Or is it the rise of the specialization of the graduate schools– the engine of progress in many of the advanced sciences and technology, but also the cause of so much smallness of both mind and vision in the humanities?

Seeing the World Whole

Students are generally not the problem.  The best of them do want, in what I heard that Eudora Welty once said, “to see the world and see it whole.”  Not see it “all.”  See it “whole.” See its interconnections, see the relationship between causes and effects; thought and act, act and consequences; between love and jealousy, jealousy and revenge, revenge and justice, justice and all other human goods.  They have the vague sense that the universe is actually a cosmos – not a jumble of isolated and discrete, unrelated items but a web of relationships, where one insight leads to another, where one answer leads to another answer.

Students have the same questions they have always had. Some have questions that revolve around culture and art; others have questions about why the natural world or the animal kingdom are the way they are.  Almost all have moral questions — – What is just? What makes something worthy? What do I owe others? What do others owe me?

Now, that said, I do not believe that students are necessarily interested in having questions piled on top of questions in some endless stream of doubt.  (“You think you have questions?! Wait till you see how many questions I have for you!” the tutor intimates.  “And wait till this Socrates guy confronts you…then they’ll be a million questions!”) If all you have are questions, intriguing as they may be, not many students will be interested.  Even Socrates, with all his questioning, still wanted to know the answers.

All the Questions and Answers?

Still, I admit, the opposite is worse. To say that the liberal arts and we ever so humane humanists have not only all the questions but all the answers — answers that we will preach to you on every topic from the evils of capitalism to the foolishness of religious beliefs to the meaning of social justice — well, having all the answers into which we “instruct” our students may well be the most corrupting and prevalent of contemporary academic evils.   On many campuses how often is it the non-liberal studies that open up students’ minds while the humanities and their practitioners seem more intent on preaching and converting than in opening and liberating.  And what parents in their right minds want to spend 50k a year for that?

So, where does liberal education go from here?  First, let’s stop denigrating the non-liberal arts and stop questioning the motives of those who look to pursue them.  We do not build ourselves up by tearing down other worthy modes of education. Was Jefferson any less intelligent, less human or less “humane,” for having been an architect and farmer as well as a philosopher and political scientist?

Second, let’s do what we can to help our students see what the important questions are and what the variety of important answers might be.  Not what our answer is; not what the answer of the supposedly most just or sensitive or socially aware people are, but what the range and scope of all serious answers might be.

Third, let’s put aside all the overblown platitudes and flowery banalities about ourselves – how we educate “the Whole Man” or how we feed the spirit and elevate the soul, or how we are the ones who really teach people how to think, or how we are the source and font of ever so much humane and ethical instruction.

OK, if overblown hoo-ha isn’t what we should be chasing, what should we be doing? What actually IS the peculiar excellence of the liberal arts that we should present to prospective students and their parents?

What Newman Said

Let me cite a modest statement by John Henry Newman:  The liberal arts are that “great but ordinary means to a great but ordinary end.”  What ordinary but great things might he be talking about?  How about learning how to read.  Read?  What an ordinary thing you say.  Yes, but when you read carefully and sympathetically (again, not exactly “critically” but sympathetically) you open the door to an amazing thing – You open the door to another person’s mind.  You have the ability to do a truly great thing – you now have the ability to possess another’s thoughts.  It’s truly marvellous:  We humans may want someone else’s beauty or strength; we may want something physical and bodily.  But we can’t.  We can never really possess someone else’s material body even with the best of medical science at our disposal.  But we can have the part of him or her that’s not material.  We can possess someone else’s mind.  Jefferson’s body may be mouldering in the grave; but his mind can still live in ours.  His mind, his ideas and reasons, can live forever in us because he wrote and we have learned how to read.

I was reminded recently – not by Cardinal Newman but by Josef Pieper – of a sentence in Aquinas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics:  “The Philosopher and the Poet have this in common – they both begin by marvelling.”  The liberal arts do not begin in doubt, not even exactly in questioning, but simply in wonder, in marvelling. From there, all our questions flow — Why are things as they are; why is the universe as it is?  What are people really like? What am I to do?

To begin here, with wonder, is perhaps a start in answering the first part of what we seek – What is the use of a liberal education for me, for the individual.  In this account, the first benefit is that it begins to satisfy the human craving to know, to have insight into serious answers to our most serious questions, perhaps even “to see the world and see it whole,” when that longing in us is most alive.

Does this education have any other more outwardly useful or practical import for us as individuals?  Yes, it does.  Again to refer to Newman, such an education gives us a clearer and more conscious view of our own opinions and refines them. It helps us “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what’s sophistical, and discard what’s irrelevant.” It shows us “how to influence others, how to come to an understanding with them, and how to bear with them.”  In overcoming our ignorance of the past through history and our ignorance of human nature through philosophy and literature, we are less likely to be ruled by slogans or unexamined opinions, less likely to be moved by emotion simply or demagogues, less easily duped because we lack a conception of the evil possibilities of our natures.

I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln, who, while he hardly went to school at all, was by any and every measure “educated,” liberally educated.  He read, as we know, biographies and histories, he read the Bible and Shakespeare, and he read literature, especially poetry.  He did this for a kind of highest use.  He did all this, as one of his biographers said, not just to know how better to write or speak but “to learn what the patterns of a man’s life might be like.”

Still, if all his education did was make Lincoln into a private man useful to himself in his everyday life, none of would notice, none of us really care.  What we remember was that Lincoln – and before him all the great men of the American Founding – knew that what was good for them as private intellects might also be of great value, of great use, to creating and then re-creating a whole nation, perhaps a whole world.  Jefferson learned from the study of modern moral and political philosophy the self-evident truths that lay behind the writing of his (and our) Declaration of Independence.  Or consider James Madison: Without the study of the history of all prior democracies or his inquiries into all confederacies, both classical and modern, coupled with his deep reflection on what we were once bold to call “human nature,” Madison could not have become the Father of the Constitution.  Without their philosophical, political, and historical studies of the preconditions of popular governments and the nature of tyrannical rule, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay could not have written the Federalist Papers, nor could the populace have read them.  It was hardly modern political science that was behind the making of America – it was the liberal arts.

But let me go beyond talking about the liberal arts and high statesmanship and spend a minute just on the liberal arts and the rest of us. What else might the liberal arts do that’s of use, of value, for all society?

 A Gift to Society

Again, from Newman: Our studies aim “at raising the intellectual tone of society, cultivating the public mind, supplying true principles to popular enthusiasms and fixed aim to popular aspirations, giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, and refining the intercourse of private life.”  Let me spend a minute on just one that has always struck me – the cultivation of the public and the public mind.

Indeed, while I know it’s unfashionable these days to say this, I also know that the liberal arts once gave a lovely gift to society:  It transmitted the great heights of culture, this culture, to everyone.  While other parts of a university education might be progressive and forward-looking, the liberal arts had no hesitation in looking backwards.  It understood it had a conserving function to play. It preserved for everyone, not just the elites, beautiful music, fine art, high culture, fabulous literature, good poetry.  In this regard it wasn’t ashamed to be Western, or even Eurocentric.  Indeed, it had a kind of honest pride in being the caretakers of such wonderful treasures, our treasures.  Liberal education once knew that its keeping the culture alive was actually one of the most publicly useful thing it could do.  It gave beauty and intelligence, tone and cultivation, as Newman says, to the whole society.

In this way the liberal arts were for more than the simply the enjoyment of a few lucky students or the domain of the rich and well-born – they were the gift the liberal arts gave to everyone.  Back then, the liberal arts didn’t feel bad that Dante and Homer were dead white males.  Nor did we, the children of working men and the grand children of immigrant women, feel bad about it either. In fact, back then humanists actually thought, and rightly so, that keeping Shakespeare alive was a universal gift, not an ethnocentric act.

Having been given such treasures, it is now our turn to repay Shakespeare and Milton, Aristotle and Madison. So, we repay them as best we can – by keeping them alive.  Their bodies, as I said before, may be dead, but they aren’t.  And keeping the words and thoughts and works of great men and women alive is not only of the highest use for us both individually and as a society, but an act of repayment, of justice, to each of them.


Inside Higher education  ran an article by Paul Jay yesterday(Oct. 27) critical of the Agresto paper. Here is the link to that article, followed by a reply from Dr. Agresto.

John Agresto:

1) While he (Paul Jay) makes a big deal out of the fact that English majors were 4.4% in 1975, he shies away from the fact that they were 7.6% in 1971.  Still, it’s no big deal, since it’s not just English Literature that has fallen so badly but all the liberal arts.

2) There’s nothing in what I wrote or said that implied we needed to increase students “critical thinking skills.” Indeed, that was an extrapolation inserted by the IHE reporter, who probably couldn’t believe I actually suggested something quite contrary.

3) I’m pleased that he might see that I’m in a small way on his side, since the last thing I was arguing for was that  the liberal arts “fall back on well-worn, boilerplate defenses of the humanities that characterize their value narrowly in terms of the inner journey they promote and the big questions they pose, as a place where we can help our students to discover the meaning of life and to find themselves.”  I used, as your readers will note, the proper scientific term to describe such a position.  I called it “overblown hoo-ha.”  Indeed, I hope he can read all I wrote so he doesn’t think I was picking on just him.  I had a whole universe of people to pick on.


  • John Agresto

    John Agresto, former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, holds a PhD in political science and has taught at the University of Toronto, Kenyon, Duke and the New School.

One thought on “Do the Liberal Arts Today Serve any Useful Public Function?”

  1. There is a presupposition that the general population (the masses) are capable and more importantly interested in theoretical subjects that once were the domain of the few (“the Guide for the Perplexed”). While it is true that the few were those with social privileges and of wealth, they were the leaders of nations irregardless of their natural propensity for those liberal subjects and amongst that few you had the occasional Bacon or Descartes. The masses will always have practical living as their priority with little interest in the subjects whose heights when ascended leave the mind gasping for oxygen extinguishing the weaker minds and only sporadically sustaining the stronger of them. The question may be is modern education failing the masses by introducing or forcing them by way of required curricula into subjects that are completely useless to them for daily living (wasting precious months or even years) instead of making more appropriate offerings in practical subjects, while at the same time making available for those few meaningful liberal arts courses. Now of course that wouldn’t work for two reasons 1) Universities would no longer be funded (financial aid each student brings in) as liberal arts institutions thus eviscerating 90% if not more of them leaving without jobs those professors that fortify those walls, and 2) How would political society have control of the masses especially given the scientific movement initiating the idea of equality regardless of kinds (or in this case societal hierarchy).

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