Why Liberal Arts Education is Dying (or Already Dead)

by Mark Gordon

This originally appeared at Aleteia

Here’s something to ponder: If you put one hundred American high school seniors together in a room, how many do you suppose could tell you who Pericles was? How about Cicero? Which of those students could describe the Pythagorean theorem or even fix the branch of mathematics to which it belongs? How many could translate the words, “quo vadis,” give you the title of the first true autobiography in Western culture, or describe the controversy that resulted in the Great Schism of 1054 AD? A little closer to our own time, whom do you suppose those seniors would say wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, or composed the “Mass in B Minor,” or painted “Girl with a Pearl Earring?”

Now, imagine posing the same questions to one hundred American college seniors. Do you think you would receive more or fewer correct answers from that group? Most people would likely say “more,” because the common conception of what post-secondary education is and does is still rooted in the old notion of college as a place where students receive an intense immersion in the history and collected wisdom of Western civilization, or what used to be called a ‘liberal arts’ education. In fact, that model of higher education is disappearing and being replaced by what is euphemistically called ‘career education,’ or what were once known as technical or vocational schools. The question is: What does the slow but steady demise of the liberal arts augur for the future of a democratic republic?

Under the pressure of competition in a global economy, and in response to the demands of students (and parents) for coursework that directly leads to professional employment, many high schools and colleges today are simply dispensing with the liberal arts and turning their curricula toward ‘practical’ subjects like business, computer programming, and various engineering specialties. This trend has been accelerated – though some would say created – by public funding preference given to the so-called “STEM” fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In fact, in his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama made explicit reference to STEM and linked investment in those fields with global competitiveness.

“Think about the America within our reach,” said the President. “A country that leads the world in educating its people; an America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.”

This is not a new theme for Obama. In his 2012 State of the Union speech, the President called for training 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next ten years. This year, he suggested STEM might be the answer to persistent unemployment. “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills,” he said. “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that – openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. That’s inexcusable, and we know how to fix it.”

Despite generous funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, as well as corporate grants available at most colleges and universities, enrollments in science and engineering majors have risen, but perhaps not as quickly or sharply as STEM education promoters might have hoped. The same cannot be said for other forms of ‘career education,’ such as majors in culinary arts, business, and criminal justice, which are gaining in popularity. The number of post-secondary degree-granting institutions in the United States has risen from 3,500 in 1990 to almost 4,500 today, and many of those are for-profit enterprises, one of the hottest new trends in higher education. These schools invariably feature study-to-work majors as the major element in their “sell” to prospective students and parents. Many also entered the market in order to take advantage of the billions of tuition dollars that have been made available to returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, there are 2.4 million students enrolled at for-profit post-secondary colleges and universities, or over 10% of all college students in the United States (and the numbers are rising year after year). At the same time, liberal arts colleges are dissolving or transforming themselves into ‘career’ schools at an alarming rate. According to a study by Michigan State University researcher Roger Baldwin, “of the 212 liberal arts colleges identified in a landmark 1990 study, only 130 remain in their traditional form – a 39 percent reduction.”

It is possible to grant that STEM and professional education is important – both for the economy as a whole, as well as for the employment prospects of college students themselves – and still be worried about the apparent demise or marginalization of the liberal arts in American education. And surely one can agree that for-profit enterprises have a place in the array of post-secondary options and yet still legitimately ponder the broader cultural effects of turning higher education into just another business opportunity. Does society benefit from conditions in which only a very few have been truly educated in the received wisdom of the civilization they are inheriting? Can a democratic polity endure without a robust civil society populated by citizens conversant in the humane arts and sciences? Or will such a polity eventually yield its soul to the commercial logic of the market or the collectivist logic of the state?

In his book, “Redeeming the Time,” the 20th Century philosopher Russell Kirk outlined the value of a liberal education, both for students themselves as well as for society at large. Kirk wrote:

“By ‘liberal education’ we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person – as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’

“Liberal education is conservative in this way: it defends order against disorder. In its practical effects, liberal education works for order in the soul and order in the republic. Liberal learning enables those who benefit from its discipline to achieve some degree of harmony within themselves. As John Henry Newman put it, in Discourse V of his Idea of a University, by a liberal intellectual discipline, ‘a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; of what… I have ventured to call the philosophical habit of mind.’

“The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all-in-all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy. True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state. We tend to ignore the fact that schooling was not originated by the modern nation-state. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.”

“True human beings, living within a moral order.” That is what we risk if we abandon liberal education in favor of career education.

Perhaps the solution isn’t to focus on college at all. Perhaps the solution is to return to the first paragraph of this essay and demand to know why American high school seniors aren’t provided with a liberal education. After all, only around 64 percent of high school graduates ever attend college, while the rest go directly into the labor market in one form or another. If we made the liberal arts the foundation of all K-12 education, particularly at the middle and high school levels, we could be confident that no matter what happens with higher education, our republic would be full of citizens capable of fixing their place within the context of Western civilization and giving it meaning.