The Liberal Arts Can’t Fix Higher Education


For the past two autumns the two leading academic reform organizations, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), have held events offering high praise to the liberal arts as a means to improve students’ writing and to provide them with the classical culture that Mathew Arnold calls sweetness and light.

On September 30, 2014. NAS held a screening of Andrew Rossi’s CNN documentary Ivory Tower, which is about students’ inability to afford tuition in light of their poor record of achievement and poor job opportunities.  Following the screening, Professor Andrew Delbanco, who is featured in the film, together with his colleague Roosevelt Montas, Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia, spoke about the need to refocus American higher education so that all Americans get a liberal arts education.

This year, at its ATHENA roundtable, ACTA featured an impressive array of speakers, three of whom–ACTA’s president Anne Neal, education researcher Richard Arum, and popular  historian David McCullough—also advocated expansion of liberal arts, English, and history departments to strengthen students’ competencies, especially with respect to writing and history.

I disagree: The liberal arts cannot fix higher education. First, the American professoriate, including the liberal arts faculty, is not interested in teaching liberal arts.  In the late 1930s Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, argued, as do Delbanco and Montas,  that liberal arts should be the universal foundation for undergraduate education.  Hutchins reorganized the undergraduate program at Chicago along those lines, but Hutchins’s reforms foundered on the rocks of the German research university model, which Daniel Coit Gilman had introduced at Johns Hopkins in 1876 and which Chicago had adopted from its inception.

Today’s professoriate is specialized, research-oriented, politically correct, and narrowly focused.  In contrast, good liberal arts instruction is broad and integrates flashes of insight with competency building.  The cadre of faculty necessary to do a first-rate job of teaching liberal arts to American students hardly exists. Moreover, it is as likely to exist in departments outside the liberal arts as within it.

Second, the majority of students has no interest in and lacks the ability to benefit from liberal arts.  Charles Murray has written that only about 16 percent of the population has the IQ to benefit from college. According to the New York City Board of Education, 35 percent of 2015 New York City public high school graduates are college ready, but the college at which I work, which rejects half its applicants, accepts students with SAT scores of 1,000,  the 50th percentile.

In part because there has been a belief among progressive educationists that development of cognitive skills like writing and the multiplication tables is unimportant to basic education, high school preparation has been deficient. As well, political correctness influences the content of history courses at both the high school and college levels; further, English departments, which specialize in literature, often do not see teaching writing as part of their educational mission.

In their Academically Adrift Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that nearly half of all sophomores show no gain in their scores on the College Learning Assessment, an innovative measure of critical thinking, reasoning, and writing ability.  Nevertheless, in the 2015 ACTA panel Arum claimed that the same liberal arts departments that have failed to nurture students’ skills are the ones best equipped to address the skills gaps.

Via email, I suggested to Professors Delbanco and Montas that many of my students, who come from low socioeconomic status, inner city backgrounds, have not benefited from my college’s liberal arts requirements.  Despite fourteen years of education, the business student I quote lacks practical skills.  She will pay a penalty in the job market.

Professor Montas’s response was this:

[T]his student would most decidedly benefit from a rigorous liberal arts education…. I understand a liberal education as aimed at developing a student’s full humanity: the humanity of the welder as well as the humanity of the lawyer.  The aim of the liberal arts is not that you excel in the liberal arts, but that you excel as a human being in whatever individual form that takes.

The unconstrained vision of liberal arts as all things to all students, including students who lack ability and motivation, ignores costs. Students who cannot benefit will lose years of their lives and will spend tens of thousands of dollars—as will taxpayers–for pursuits in which they are not interested and from which they will not benefit. They will in the end fail to find the kind of jobs they seek.

Mitchell Langbert is an associate professor of business at Brooklyn College.  


2 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts Can’t Fix Higher Education

  1. “The passionate endeavors to eliminate the classical studies from the curriculum of the liberal education and thus virtually to destroy its very character were one of the major manifestations of the revival of the servile ideology.”

    –Mises, Ludwig von, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, 1956

    What passes for Liberal Arts today seems more designed to inculcate the servile ideology Mises speaks of rather than classical liberalism.

    “We are informed by many that education is failing us. And well it may he so, if producing books is eulogized and repaid by advancement, while the efforts to produce men are scoffed at. It has been dinned in our ears that education must save us at the present juncture. To which, if true, I reply that, unless we regain the love and art of teaching, we are lost.

    “The truth is that at present the teacher exists by sufferance only, and stands against the current in the scholarly fraternity-a fact recognized by students as well as by faculty. For the educational field has been preempted by the so-called “research men.” Their standards of scholarship have been set up as the only norms.”

    The Ban on Teaching by AN Instructor, Scribner’s Magazine, Vol 73, 1923

  2. Leo Strauss held that true education is a matter of character formation, not of training. Professor Montas seems to suggest this, although I agree with Prof. Langbert that the idea of a liberal arts curriculum as a one-size-fits-all method of developing anyone’s and everyone’s “full humanity” is absurd.

    But more importantly, I think Langbert does not sufficiently examine the degree to which modern US liberal arts faculty are, true to Strauss’ dictum, aggressively engaged in a character-formation mission; not, however, according to the classical model that gave rise to the idea of “liberal arts” in the first place, but along the lines of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Modern liberal arts faculties are doing their utmost to form characters that are conformist and unreflective, deliberately steering students away from classic texts because those are known to stimulate independent thought (which is why they must be relentless disparaged as being too white, too male, too Western, with these epithets being received by impressionable kids as self-evident proofs of their irrelevance (whatever that means) and general moral defectiveness) and toward modern “scholarship” that, from what I have seen, consists almost entirely of what an unbiased observer would describe as propaganda. In part this is a result of the “research” mentality Langbert mentions, but mostly it is a function of ideology.

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