The new assault on the liberal arts

A generation or two so, liberals and conservatives fought over the nature of a liberal arts education.  Now there’s a question as to whether the humanities will survive at all.

education-in-liberal-artsOnce conservatives were represented by people such as Secretary of Education William Bennett, was that the purpose of a liberal arts education was enable American students to understand the roots and moral values of their civilization—the Western civilization, based on the Bible and the culture of ancient Greece, which emerged in western Europe.

The common progressive view was that Western civilization was one of many civilizations, and students should try to understand them all.   This was a political as well as a cultural question, because defending Western civilization was supposedly one of the goals of U.S. foreign policy.

But now liberal arts education is under attack by certain self-described conservatives on the grounds that it contributes nothing either to the lifetime income of individuals nor to the economic growth of society.  They equate conservative values with money values.

The problem, from the standpoint of self-described liberals, is that many of us are intellectually disarmed by the idea that there are no objective values to defend—only certain personal preferences that are conditioned by society and mostly serve the purposes of the powers that be.  Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty are examples of this kind of thinking.

Money values are not the highest values, but money values have the advantage that they can be measured and nobody doubts they exist.  When all other values are taken down, it is the money values that are left standing.


Why study the cultural heritage of Western civilization?  If you are a product of Western civilization, then you, like me, probably have a mind full of assumptions and beliefs whose origins and foundations you don’t automatically understand.   The study of Western civilization is a way of coming to self-understanding.

On the other hand, if you study the past, you realize that people in earlier eras didn’t view things in the same way as 21st century Americans or Europeans, but they were just as smart as people who live now.  This leads to the additional realization that people in the future won’t necessarily see things the way people do now.

The study of the past gives you perspective on the present.  It gives you a certain amount of freedom from the power of propaganda and the mass media.

You limit yourself when you limit your knowledge to your own specialty.  A friend of mine who is in business once remarked that his most useful reading for success in business consisted of military history.  He gained insights into the nature of leadership and strategy that he wouldn’t have got from studying the time value of money in an MBA program.

I think it is good for anyone to study civilizations and cultures not their own, but understanding your own civilization is the best tool for understanding other civilizations, just as understanding yourself is your best tool for understanding other people.

It works the other way, too.  Understanding others is the best way to gain perspective on yourself, and understanding other civilizations gives you perspective on your own.

Multi-culturalists have done well to call attention to unjustly neglected African-American and women writers and thinkers.  But the reason for studying particular writers is because these writers are worth studying, not a concession to their particular demographic group.

I think Afro-American studies, women’s studies and the like are perfectly valid academic disciplines, but they are best understood as sub-sets of the study of humanities as a whole.  Otherwise they become intellectual ghettoes.

For me, the most valuable study is history, because it provides a framework for fitting in other knowledge and because the key to understanding anything is understanding how it came to me.

Finally, it is too bad if universities curtail the humanities, but you don’t need to be in a classroom to read works of history, literature or philosophy, or anything else.  Any American with a minimum amount of leisure and access to a public library can do that—ideally, with like-minded friends.  You don’t need college credits to be an educated person.


How Austerity Killed the Humanities by Andrew Hartman for In These Times.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

The right’s fear of education: What I learned as a (former) conservative military man by Edwin Lyngar for Salon.

Key to the Kingdom by Tony Rabig for Notes from the Wrong Side of Sixty.  This is a review of The Priceless Gift by Cornelius Hirschberg, a outstanding but largely forgotten book on self-education.

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One Response to “The new assault on the liberal arts”

  1. Gabriel Conroy Says:

    What a good post. Your justification for studying the humanities (I’m a history guy) is probably the among the best I’ve seen, and I agree with almost all of it.


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