How to save the liberal arts as if society depends on it (because it does)
University presidents and professors of history, classical and modern languages, literature, philosophy, sociology and similar specialties have long commended the value of liberal arts in the education of citizens, whatever their career objectives. But over the past half century business courses have gained popularity among undergraduates. More recently, colleges and universities are responding to renewed interest in STEM careers—science, technology, engineering and math. In the current election campaigns, our political leaders promote job readiness as the main purpose of a college education. A few institutions, however, are taking action to reassert the importance of a liberal education and make it attractive to more students. How did we come to this point, and how is this revival of the liberal arts happening?
The first European universities included courses on grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, theology and Aristotelian subjects like physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy. The study of these “liberal arts” consisted in reading aimed at discovering truth accompanied by discussion and reflection that might lead to wisdom and understanding.
With the Enlightenment came the thought that one could discover truth by reason, using scientific experiment, as much as by revelation and ancient texts. Studying Newtonian physics became popular among thinkers. Universities respected scientific discovery: The honorary degree that Yale University granted to Benjamin Franklin in 1753 commends his “ingenious Experiments and Theory of Electrical fire.” Harvard University likewise recognized Franklin’s experiments. On their campuses, however, scholarship emphasized classical languages, moral philosophy and memorization.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson proposed a curriculum for the new University of Virginia that departed sharply from that of the established U.S. colleges. When Harvard was founded in 1636, Galileo was under house arrest for supporting the Copernican model of the universe, and Isaac Newton had not yet been born. Williams College, established in 1793, followed a traditional curriculum. These imitated English colleges like Cambridge, where the mission was primarily to assure an educated elite steeped in the Aristotelian worldview. At Monticello, Jefferson kept his scientific instruments as close as he kept his beloved books. For the new university, Jefferson wanted “Botany, Chemistry, Zoology, Anatomy, Surgery, Medicine, Natural Philosophy, Agriculture, Mathematics, Astronomy, Geology, Geography, Politics, Commerce, History, Ethics, Law, Art, Finearts” and the classics read in their original Latin and Greek. Work toward a bachelor’s degree would be the capstone for many citizens or the foundation for graduate work in medicine, law or ministry. A year after the founding of the University of Virginia, Jefferson wrote proudly,"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it." This was to be an education for free men living in democracy.
Before the Civil War, a growing number of colleges built observatories, and science labs slowly became important to a truly liberal education. In 1869, Harvard’s new president, Charles William Eliot, announced that “This university recognizes no real antagonism between literature and science, and consents to no such narrow alternatives as mathematics or classics, science or metaphysics. We would have them all, and at their best.”
Eliot pointed to his principal concern: “An unintelligent system of education from the primary school through the college is responsible for the fact that many college graduates have so inadequate a conception of what is meant by scientific observation, reasoning and proof.”
And he proposed a solution: “It is possible for the young to get actual experience of all the principal methods of thought.” Language study has its method, as do mathematics and natural and physical science, as does faith. Without “a general acquaintance with many branches of knowledge…there can be no such thing as an intelligent public opinion…[which] in the modern world…is the one condition of social progress.” Jefferson’s revolution in education had spread to America’s oldest university.
In Modern Times
By the mid-20th century, an educated person had experienced both the scientific and the Socratic methods of learning. Then, somehow, scholars began once again to regard math and science as separable from the liberal arts. Perhaps this trend was an effort by universities to become more customer-oriented. Some students, after all, had no interest in STEM careers. Their aspirations, if defined at all, lay more in the direction of teaching or writing, perhaps journalism, maybe law or not-for-profit work, but surely nothing where employers required competence in math or science. Lecture-format science courses with no lab experiments, often held in high-capacity lecture halls, were far less expensive than constructing new labs and stocking supplies.
To further accommodate, some colleges allowed students to opt out of all math and science courses. Credit hours once devoted to understanding nature were given instead to a variety of new courses. As long as the college had led the students to read good books, to think critically and write clearly and to consider the morality of their actions, had the college not met its obligations to the students and to society?
In 1967, Harvard-trained economist John Kenneth Galbraith expressed concern about another influence tending to separate the study of language, philosophy and great literature from math and science. InThe New Industrial State he warns: “Modern higher education is, of course, extremely accommodated to the needs of the industrial system. The schools and colleges of business administration…are preparatory academies for the technostructure…the lesser prestige and lesser support for the arts and humanities suggest their inferior role.” Professor Galbraith urged: “The college and university community must retain paramount authority for the education it provides and for the research it undertakes. The needs of the industrial system must always be secondary to the cultivation of general understanding and perception.”
But administrators were hardly able to retain paramount authority while students were, in those days, breaching all historic norms of on-campus decorum, including protesting against the Vietnam War, occupying the offices of deans and presidents and confronting police and National Guard troops. Traditionally white campuses were admitting African-Americans. Men’s colleges admitted female undergraduates. “Paramount authority” was being challenged on campus and in society generally.
Then there is grade inflation. The first studies of the phenomenon of G.P.A.’s rising faster than S.A.T. scores and national literacy scores were conducted in the 1960s. A 2013 study conducted by the University of North Texas’s department of economics summarized: “Studies often discover evidence of differential grade inflation by subject. Most commonly, disciplines that are traditionally more quantitative such as economics, mathematics, psychology, chemistry and computer science exhibit less evidence of grade inflation, while courses such as art, English, music, speech and political science typically have higher rates of grade inflation.”
Many students consider higher grades, and a higher G.P.A., vital to preserving financial aid and competing for future employment. A paper discussing the themes ofWuthering Heights is more amenable to circumspect grading than evaluation of the model structure that collapsed under the required two-kilogram load. The clear liquid sample in the 10-milliliter test tube either did turn blue or it did not, leaving little room for nuance. Accommodating the student who felt that math was too hard or that science was “not my strong point” seemed an easy concession. Jefferson’s passion for broad, liberal education and Eliot’s interest in an educated public opinion and social progress yielded to more immediate and personal concerns. Saving the 4.0 became the paramount consideration.
Finding Our Way
What is an undergraduate to do, and what should a university president endorse, in the quest for knowledge, wisdom and understanding? Can we find a way of proceeding that properly values the humanities and reinvigorates a liberal education? The rising national frenzy to get everyone to go to college, with no objectives beyond employability, will leave us with hundreds of thousands of functionaries in service of Galbraith’s technostructure. The risk is great that they will “live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population…lead[ing] to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality” (“Laudato Si,’” No. 49).
Yes, some employers want new hires who are “job-ready” for their immediate contribution to the firm. Some entry-level positions, like accounting and engineering, require a bachelor’s degree in that major. But undergraduates who forsake too many humanities courses fail to see an overarching reality: Over years and decades, leadership accrues to the man or woman who understands the human condition. George Washington was highly qualified in the science of fortifications, maneuvers and logistics. But his military skills would have been for naught without the ability to rally his officers with his address at Newburg. With that short speech he poured his sense of duty into their distraught hearts and matched their deepest wishes to his vision. That afternoon they pledged new loyalty.
Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency four times by directing his public statements to the voters’ greatest fears in each election cycle. The warmth and comforting cadence of his fireside chats and the vigor of his campaign speeches embraced the common man, and he responded.
Business confers its laurels similarly. If Steve Jobs had relied only on marketing strategy or engineering, then Apple Inc., and all the other device manufacturers, would meet in commoditized competition where the lowest price always wins. But a calligraphy class at Reed College showed Steve Jobs how the same set of words conveys very different sentiments when different fonts are used. So Apple differentiates itself by meeting human needs in its hardware and software, like commands that follow intuitive logic and anxiety-free customer support.
Great businesses, those that last for many decades without scandal, are built on functional excellence in the cause of human betterment. Their leaders see business as“a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 129).A student who has devoted real effort to discovering how humans have thought about and acted on the great questions of life has pursued the ultimate business skill—understanding human customers, workers, investors and suppliers. To paraphrase Eliot, there is no antagonism between the humanities and business.
How should colleges and universities strengthen a liberal education to prepare graduates for the challenges that must be decided by democracy today? A model can be seen in my alma mater, St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. While preserving the core requirements of theology, philosophy, language and history, St. Joseph’s now includes one year of mathematics and one year of laboratory science as minimum requirements for a bachelor’s degree in any major in the College of Arts and Science. Today, decisions of guilt or innocence often hinge on scientific evidence. We rely on models to predict next year’s economy and global climate change in coming decades. The citizen who would truly promote social progress needs an appreciation for math and its method of thought and an adequate concept of scientific observation, reasoning and proof. And the first lesson of the science lab is humility, which is a prerequisite to wisdom.
At the request of the university’s student senate, class schedules are being changed so that liberal arts majors will be able to take elective business courses, acknowledging that many of these students will seek careers in the private sector. This basic fluency in business language can help the new employee connect the work of her small team to the larger mission of the company. Business, too, has its method. That understanding can jump-start advancement up the corporate ladder. In large corporations, decisions that affect customers, workers, investors, the neighborhood and the environment are often made far below the C.E.O. level. Equipping the humanities student to understand the language and functions of business, and its role in society, seems a proper objective of the university.
Thomas Jefferson saw the need for a citizenry of broad education to sustain a republican democracy. Charles William Eliot believed that understanding and wisdom might be achieved by studying a variety of subjects. Pope Francis wants people who can help develop “decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor” (“Joy of the Gospel,” No. 204). These men challenge our colleges and universities to deliver the wisdom of ages and knowledge of today’s world, to help students fit themselves for service to others.