American society today is very much conflicted about the proper role of the liberal arts in education. Almost nobody is really happy with the present system, probably owing to the odd mix of influences that have shaped it: on the one hand, Deweyesque influences on American education have led to a steady watering-down of the traditional liberal arts curriculum, and at the same time higher education has expanded enormously so that most people get at least a smattering of liberal arts instruction. This is offered, however, in a disorganized and haphazard fashion, in courses that students commonly regard of as their least important, because they are the least directly applicable to their chosen majors and careers.
Providing a mediocre but expensive product to everyone seems like a poor solution on all counts. But do we need less liberal arts, or more? It seems to me that there are two sides to this question. First, how much does the teaching of liberal arts contribute to the economy? And second, how much does it improve the lives of human beings more generally?
My suggested answer to the first question is: more than most people seem to suppose. Of course that contribution is mostly indirect, which is why some are inclined to underappreciate its importance. But written and analytic skills are highly valued in our economy, and liberal arts instruction is the primary and best way of developing these. Still, I must admit that insofar as our interest is in maintaining a capable and educated workforce, it makes little sense to impose extensive liberal arts instruction on everyone indiscriminately. It would be far more efficient to identify the most capable students at a younger age, and to focus our attention on educating them. Other, less capable students could be redirected into unskilled jobs, or into technical colleges or apprenticeships that would enable them to develop more practical skills. This is the obvious way to maintain a sufficient supply of educated workers, while avoiding the problem of ballooning student debt.
In this post, however, I want to look more at the second question. How much would we lose as human beings if we limited liberal arts instruction to a select few? As a humanities instructor, this is the sort of question that I come back to over and over again without reaching an entirely satisfactory conclusion. As a Christian philosopher, I firmly believe that the liberal arts are the common heritage of all humanity, and that the appreciation of this treasure trove will uplift any human soul. As a teacher, though, it’s hard not to conclude that some people have a very limited capacity to develop such an appreciation. I’m sure this is partly owing to defects in their primary and secondary education; after all, I don’t meet them until they’ve already been subjected to at least a dozen years of a very flawed school system. Still, I came through that same school system, as did my more eager and successful students. I have to think that a lot of it comes back to innate differences in character and temperament. Some thirst for wisdom more than others.
I will offer one more observation, and then give my best (current) attempt at a solution. Not everyone has an equal capacity for the study of the liberal arts. Likewise, not everyone has an equal interest. But desire and capacity do not always go hand in hand. Some go far in academia without ever (in my estimation) having a serious appetite for truth or beauty. Others yearn for it, but are hindered by a lack of talent. I suspect the correlation between intelligence and appreciation is positive, but it certainly isn’t perfect, and the tracking system I suggested above would deny the curious-but-slow-witted the opportunity to share in the great works of literature and philosophy that are legitimately theirs as much as anyone else’s.
Here, then, is my proposal. Extensive formal instruction in the liberal arts should be given only to those with a demonstrated facility for writing and analytic reasoning. Others should be directed into more practical courses of study at some point in their mid-teens. At the same time, universities should not purge themselves of humanities departments. (Some downsizing is inevitable at this point, but I’m hoping it won’t be too drastic.) Instead, humanities professors should justify their existence by offering products that the general public might actually want. They should write books suitable for public consumption, and offer free or low-cost lectures and courses that are open to the general public.
Right now, universities receive heavy public subsidy (largely through government-provided college loans and scholarships). How are their energies accordingly invested? Well, considerable energy is poured into internal affairs such as administration, hiring, tenure and promotion. That could be considerably reduced, and needs to be. Another major project is the teaching of students, the majority of whom see this merely as an obstacle to be cleared en route employment. Finally, there is research. In the humanities, that mostly means writing articles, hardly any of which will be read by more than half-a-dozen people. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if humanists actually worried about finding ways to open the beauties of their discipline to the general public? Most of them, in my experience, are fairly apathetic as to whether or not anyone outside their particular sub-field is at all interested in what they do.
If we redirect our energies appropriately, I think it should be possible to make our educational system more efficient, while simultaneously making the liberal arts more accessible to those who want to learn. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too?