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liberal arts

Raphael’s School of Athens

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.

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…

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2 replies to this post
  1. Problem is that as soon as people were able to get "student loans" for college, college suddenly became a lot more expensive. I read recently that the interest on the trusts bequeathed to Harvard and Yale would actually pay the tuition for every person in the U.S. who wanted to go to college for all four years for X number of years (don't recall what X ='d). In addition, college was never meant to become a mere extension of H.S. Most colleges and universities are teaching remedial classes – which again, should never have happened if public education had done its job! College and/or university is NOT for everyone – many careers, entrepreneurs, jobs simply do not require or demand a degree!

  2. These are all symptoms. It is the death of the anticeedants of liberal arts (LA) that is at issue. LA was a value because of a conviction one could discover and know TRUTH—moral, asthetic, metaphysical and scientific (empiracle) truth. When LA was valued truth could be known, described, depicted through multiple vehicles like the study of theology (revelation), philosophy (reason), aesthetics (subjective truth), epistemology (hermeneutics, exegesis), etc., in their respective disciplines of dogmatics, logic, history, law, literature, art, which were all investigations of "truth" in it's various manifestations and applications. But we supressed truth with our view that it was relative. If truth was relative then it was at best subjective. Objective truth became viewed as unknowable only empirically.. We eventually demanded that even relative truth was defective. Now the only objective truth that is acceptable is fleeting, mutable empiracle (scientific) truth. All other truth is subjective to the individual. Why study disciplines to know truth through different means when there is now only one acceptable way to know anything, the scientific (empiracle) way. Instead of science as a valid way to reasonably know truth among other valid means of inquiry, it has crowded out other valid means to know truth so now only it remains and the others cast to the rubbish bin of a bygone intellectuality. These others were the diverse disciplines of liberal arts. Science was once viewed as a partner in the investigation of truth. Now it is a weed that has strangled the others out and with them, LA.

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