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Who Killed the Liberal Arts?

And why we should care

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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When asked what he thought about the cultural wars, Irving Kristol is said to have replied, “They’re over,” adding, “We lost.” If Kristol was correct, one of the decisive battles in that war may have been over the liberal arts in education, which we also lost.

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’

In a loose definition, the “liberal arts” denote college study anchored in preponderantly Western literature, philosophy, and history, with science, mathematics, and foreign languages playing a substantial, though less central, role; in more recent times, the social science subjects—psychology, sociology, political science—have also sometimes been included. The liberal arts have always been distinguished from more specialized, usually vocational training. For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. If he is to remain free, in this view, he must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past, which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present.

For many years, the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age as Samson fought against the Philistines of his—though in my case, I kept my hair and brought down no pillars. As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts. Their content has been drastically changed, their significance is in doubt, and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle.

The loss of prestige of the liberal arts is part of the general crisis of higher education in the United States. The crisis begins in economics. Larger numbers of Americans start college, but roughly a third never finish—more women finish, interestingly, than do men. With the economic slump of recent years, benefactions to colleges are down, as are federal and state grants, thus forcing tuition costs up, in public as well as in private institutions. Inflation is greater in the realm of higher education than in any other public sphere. Complaints about the high cost of education at private colleges—fees of $50,000 and $55,000 a year are commonly mentioned—are heard everywhere. A great number of students leave college with enormous student-loan debt, which is higher than either national credit card or automobile credit debt. Because of the expense of traditional liberal arts colleges, greater numbers of the young go to one or another form of commuter college, usually for vocational training.

Although it is common knowledge that a person with a college degree will earn a great deal more than a person without one—roughly a million dollars more over a lifetime is the frequently cited figure—today, students with college degrees are finding it tough to get decent jobs. People are beginning to wonder if college, at its currently extravagant price, is worth it. Is higher education, like tech stocks and real estate, the next big bubble to burst?
A great deal of evidence for the crisis in American higher education is set out in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Its author, Andrew Delbanco, the biographer of Herman Melville, is a staunch defender of liberal arts, as he himself studied them as an undergraduate at Harvard and as he teaches them currently at Columbia. The continuing diminution of the liberal arts worries him. Some 18 million people in the United States are now enrolled in one or another kind of undergraduate institution of higher learning—but fewer than 100,000 are enrolled in liberal arts colleges.

At the same time, for that small number of elite liberal arts colleges—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, the University of Chicago, and a few others—applications continue to rise, despite higher and higher tuition fees. The ardor to get into these schools—for economic, social, and snobbish reasons—has brought about an examination culture, at least among the children of the well-to-do, who from preschool on are relentlessly trained to take the examinations that will get them into the better grade schools, high schools, colleges, and, finally, professional schools. Professor Delbanco is opposed to the economic unfairness behind these arrangements, believing, rightly, that as a result, “the obstacles [to getting into the elite colleges] that bright low-income students face today are more insidious than the frank exclusionary practices that once prevailed.”

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