Religion & Liberty Online

Are the Liberal Arts Elitist?

Williams College in Massachusetts (Image credit: Shutterstock)

If our liberal arts colleges are to survive, they should try to instill an appreciation for rather than attempt the destruction of our cultural heritage.

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We have interesting classifications of our institutions of higher learning. The Carnegie classification of major research universities distinguishes between R1 and R2 schools. The well-known U.S. News & World Report Rankings separate national universities from regional ones, and also from national liberal arts colleges. Alongside the state university system, the Selective Liberal Arts Colleges (SLACs) are the pillars of American higher education. While many have complained that our schools have become less interested in education than indoctrination, an equally pernicious problem is that our liberal arts colleges operate with very little understanding of what the liberal arts are or why they matter. In one of my puckish moments when I was sitting in a faculty meeting, I offered $50 to any of my colleagues who could identify the quadrivium and the trivium. Needless to say, I walked away none the poorer.

Those who run liberal arts colleges tend to confuse being liberally educated with being broadly educated, but even that might be too generous. More often than not, they confuse “broadly educated” with “having dabbled in a smorgasbord of subjects,” those classes, yielding to an interdisciplinary or “competencies” mania, themselves more and more detached from any academic discipline. Liberal arts curricula often are frequently organized solely around faculty interests.

Furthermore, almost all academic institutions have elevated the servile arts over the liberal ones; that is, they have sold themselves as institutions of upward mobility. The triumph of the corporate or employment model means that a genuinely liberal education, one that aims at no extrinsic goods, has virtually disappeared from the American landscape.

Back when I was on the faculty, I was frequently asked to meet with high school students, parents in tow, who were interested in attending Hope College and thus visiting the campus. Almost always the question arose: What can I do with a political science degree? I would reply that, with all due respect, this was the wrong question to be asking, and not only because most students changed their majors while in college and most graduates would end up in a career unrelated to their college major. I suggested to them that if that< was the question that motivated them, they would be better off attending the state university down the road for a fraction of the cost.

This usually solicited confused looks and then the follow-up: “Well, what question should I be asking?” My reply: “College is a time of enormous growth and transition. You can be intentional about such change, or you can just let it happen to you while the only constant in your character is your desire for what you think is a secure income. You need to be asking yourself what kind of person you want to be four years from now and then choose the college that is best situated to help you become that kind of person. Do you want to be a person who is employable or a person who knows things, who has developed his or her capacities, who understands how to locate a job or career in the broader context of a life well and fully lived?”

Often the student or, more often, the parent, would reply that this was all well and good but at this price there better be gainful employment on the other side. I was not indifferent to this but reiterated my insistence that gainful employment could be had for a fraction of the cost elsewhere. A liberal arts college, by definition, did not concern itself with such concerns but aspired to help students (as I would say) to liberty beyond their fingertips. I assured them that they would get a job when it was all done and would probably advance more quickly than those with business degrees, but I had no idea what the job would be. I simply assured them that they would not be defined by it.

The story points to the underlying crisis of the liberal arts: we live in a pragmatic world, an economic dynamo that transforms our institutions into graduating young people who are not prepared for the heroic journey of freedom but instead makes them compliant political and economic actors. To paraphrase Gandhi: The liberal arts? I’d like to see them tried.

The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education, edited by Jeffrey Bilbro,* Jessica Hooten Wilson, and David Henreckson, addresses the underlying crises facing liberal arts colleges. Many of the authors have directly felt the consequences of the failure of institutions that claim to be liberal arts colleges, having lost their jobs as a result of the scaling back caused by the subordination of a liberal arts curriculum to a practical one. Anyone in tune with the contemporary character of the academy knows victims of this paradigm shift; indeed, not just professors but colleges themselves. Now completely dependent on the fluctuations of the labor market—fully exposed during the COVID crisis—many schools found themselves unable to articulate any compelling reason why an 18-year-old ought to pony up north of $200,000 and significant opportunity costs for an uncertain outcome. Having lost their way, they found it impossible to get back despite Henreckson’s optimistic claim that “in anxious times, we are driven back to first principles.”

One of the merits of the book is that it doesn’t ignore some of the practical realities and criticisms concerning a traditional liberal arts education. Indeed, the book is organized around a series of questions that yield quite a lot to those who see the liberal arts as irrelevant. Aren’t the liberal arts elitist? progressive? a waste of time? racist? outdated? out of touch? unmarketable? just for smart people? The chapters begin with a practical example related to such a question, followed by an analytical essay; they conclude with a brief responsory essay.

These chapters are uneven, in part because some of the questions are inherently more interesting than others. But the book operates out of a fundamental tension: on the one hand, it wants to defend the liberal arts against the compulsion for relevance; and on the other, it wants to argue that, despite that, they are relevant. I’ve seen this dynamic at work for years: the liberal arts in their nature do not serve extrinsic purposes, but you’ll be happy to know that they serve extrinsic purposes. So faculty at SLACs end up trotting out “studies” that assure parents and prospective students that their majors actually make more money than those with professional degrees, and advance more quickly in their careers than do those who majored in something practical. A good example of this is Rachel Griffis’ essay that seeks to break down “false dichotomies between the liberal arts and earning potential.”

I liked that essay not so much for its economic argument but because the latter half addresses what I think is an important issue. Matthew Crawford, in both Shopcraft as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head, argues that, in many ways, our emphasis on the contemplative life, the life of the mind, truncates our being as embodied creatures. He encourages engagement with the physical world and also stresses the importance of manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.” Our college campuses have become central agents in downplaying the importance of manual labor and trades, and those with college degrees often look down their noses at “mere laborers.” But Crawford insists that these trades suggest something more fundamental about us than does mere intellectual work because it subjects our efforts to “the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”

If the liberal arts, as traditionally understood, give short shrift to our work and action in the world (a theme in Hooten Wilson’s essay), then the practical arts give short shrift to our leisure, to take something in its “thatness” as something to be enjoyed. In other words, we’re dis-integrated, and Griffis draws our attention to college programs that seek to combine a practical degree with liberal learning. I’d also draw the reader’s attention to Brad East’s essay that reminds us that the treasures of culture are not to be hoarded but shared with all, and that such treasures can become a source of delight for everyone. Even an illiterate person can view the world around him—the starry skies, a beautiful melody, a poetic verse, a perfectly symmetrical figure—as a gift that provides great pleasure in which the self can be lost.

This, too, poses a problem. Let’s take a typical college curriculum: courses in the natural and social sciences, the former requiring lab work and the latter some mastery of statistics and data; the humanities, with an ability to read and interpret difficult tasks; proficiency in a foreign language; the ability to decipher complex mathematical formulas; an ability to engage in abstract reasoning, and so on. What kind of intellect is required to do all this well? What percentage of the population has the necessary wattage to accomplish these tasks?

This is putatively the theme of Hooten Wilson’s essay, “Liberal Learning for All,” which argues against the formal institutionalization of a liberal arts education but without making it exactly clear what the alternative would be. The examples of people who demonstrated the disposition she celebrates— Aristotle, Kepler, Bach, Anna Julia Cooper—are, let’s face it, not your typical barflies. They’re geniuses, and the formal liberal arts require a certain kind of genius for their exercise. Aristotle realized this well in his infamous distinction between the slave and the man capable of a contemplative life.

This, too, I think, points to a fundamental dilemma that helped undo the liberal arts college: it offered universally an education that in its nature is selective and elitist. I think there’s good reason to assume, looking at intelligence curves, that only about 15% of the population has the requisite brainpower to do a formal liberal arts education well, but we are sending a far greater percentage off to our colleges and universities. And this squares, anecdotally, with my own experience: I’d say in my upper-level theory classes, only about a fifth of the students could really grasp what was going on. This was at a SLAC; at lower-ranked schools, the percentage would be much lower. In other words, the expansion of a liberal arts curriculum placed all kinds of downward pressure on the schools that responded to their own financial crises by admitting more and more students who, either by nature or nurture, had very little possibility of success in their new environment, and for whom the experience of failure would undoubtedly produce negative mental health alterations. As admirable as are East’s and Hooten Wilson’s efforts to argue that the liberal arts should be universally available, that doesn’t mean skilled study of them is universally attainable. Individuals might be able to grasp them in part but not at the intensive level schools require.

The parts of the liberal arts that resonate with the rest of the population probably don’t require a liberal education for their enjoyment. Take, for example, poetry and music. At our very earliest ages, we are attracted to rhyme schemes and to combinations of tones. It’s in our DNA, and for many of us, as we grow older, our tastes might become more sophisticated even as our appreciation deepens. I know people without a lick of college education who have an encyclopedic grasp of music. So what does a liberal arts education offer us? At its best, it provides us with an analytical framework that helps us better understand the art itself and better appreciate the craftsmanship involved. How does “Prufrock” play around with sonnet form? How does Beethoven develop the two E-flat chords that start his Third Symphony? How does the instability of the seventh drive chord progressions? Such understanding may even deepen our delight, although too much analysis can kill the patient.

If only our liberal arts colleges engaged in such appreciative assessment of works of art. Instead, our colleges make it a point of emphasis to engage in critical thinking, so that rather than approaching cultural artifacts with the intention of enjoying them, we approach them with the intention of destroying them. When I would hold weekend retreats with students, I would every year invite a speaker who knew how to approach literature piously. After his presentation, many of the students would ask me, “How come no one teaches literature like that on campus? I would have become an English major if someone did.” But analysis frequently has a way of killing the joy of the thing, and this is an inherent danger in any liberal arts education.

I would not accuse any of the authors of such perfidy. East, in fact, provides a wonderful interpretation of Levertov’s “A Visit to Ducks and Chickens.” But as the authors make clear, the true subjects of the liberal arts do not require formal training for their enjoyment, any more than someone has to be able to throw a baseball 95 mph to enjoy the game. Understanding ultimately results from love, not in love.

The book’s overall argument, that the subjects that typically fall under the rubric of the liberal arts should be and are universally accessible and are essential to human flourishing, will find no disagreement here. The book, however, doesn’t provide a compelling defense of the liberal arts college as it currently exists—indeed, is quite critical of it, for not entirely nonpersonal reasons—nor even one as it ought to exist. Granted, some of the “practical dispatches” do provide helpful recommendations, but the reader will note that most of them take place outside the structure of the traditional liberal arts college. Perhaps, then, the winnowing of the professoriate might be doing those individuals, and everyone else, a favor.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I sit on the board of Front Porch Republic along with Jeff Bilbro.

Jeffrey Polet

Jeffrey Polet is professor emeritus of political science at Hope College and director of the Ford Leadership Forum at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.