Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Liberal Arts

Next Tuesday I get to do my favorite lesson plan of the semester. In the senior capstone I will put liberal arts education on trial for its life. I should explain that the senior capstone is a course in which students review the meaning, use and significance of their education. We begin each semester with the trial of Socrates and then spend the following weeks reflecting on the value of the various disciplines that comprise the liberal arts (science, history, literature, philosophy...). Then, just as we are about to wrap everything up, I tell them that I have been lying to them these past two and a half months. So we hold a trial. The students become the jury and I act the part of the the prosecutor. For nearly 40 minutes I lead them through the case against liberal arts education. My peroration goes something like this:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, amen. Amen, amen, amen. You will forgive me, ladies and gentleman, but in my tradition we always say "amen" at the end of a prayer, and that's what you have been listening to these last few weeks, a prayer. The professor of this seminar has stood before you day-after-day making the case for the meaning, value, and significance of your liberal arts education. At times he’s been eloquent, passionate even, but that does not matter now. Now it's time to get real. I want you to remember Socrates’ admonition to his jury: “Never mind the manner, which may or may not be good; but think only of the justice of my cause.” So let's forget about your professor's passion and rhetorical flourishes, for I am about to prove to you with clear and logical arguments that he has been wrong about the liberal arts in every single instance.

Indeed, I intend to show that there are fundamental and serious flaws in liberal arts education—flaws that have cost you precious money and time in earning your diploma (You’d be done by now if you weren’t forced to take Mickey-Mouse, navel-gazing courses like this, right?). I am going to make four arguments that will do away with all the fine-sounding twaddle that institutions like this one mouth about the liberal arts. I will prove to you that they are misguided in their basic assumptions, a potential harm to a democratic society, hopelessly outdated and almost entirely ineffective in accomplishing their stated aims. I ask that you listen with an open mind, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, and if my case is sound, I urge you to vote for the summary execution of this misbegotten form of education.
The arguments against the liberal arts follow, and in a highly abbreviated form they go something like this:

1. The assumption that a person educated in the traditional liberal arts and sciences will be a more effective citizen who contributes to the betterment of society is simply incorrect. Power determines justice, not reason: A society’s sense of right and wrong is not determined by rational argument and ethical discernment; it is the result of a power structure so deeply embedded into our conception of reality that we can’t even begin to question it. Moreover, even if it’s true that you can educate some people away from ethical egoism, that doesn’t mean that social groups will change. Society as a whole is a series of highly-selfish vested interests that will only change in response to perceived self-interest or the use of coercive force.

2. Far from being valuable to a Democratic Society, the Liberal Arts are inherently elitist and anti-democratic. The so called "Examined Life” is snobbishly elitist. To say “the examined life is not worth living for a human being” implies that those who don’t do it are less than human, which can lead to intellectual elitism (as in Plato’s Republic). Intellectuals and academics have always been the greatest enemies of popular democracy. And democracy--if it is about anything-- is about freedom. But students are not free to opt out of liberal arts education. Indeed, few students come to college for such a curriculum. They come here for career preparation that increases their value to potential employers. The idea that they need familiarity with literature, history, and science is merely an elitist bias perpetuated by academics whose paychecks are derived from forcing students to take courses in subjects they wouldn’t otherwise pay for.

3. The liberal arts are outdated, irrelevant, and potentially harmful to a modern society. There is scant evidence to suggest that those educated in the traditional liberal arts are more effective employees, managers, or societal leaders than those with a more career-focused curriculum. (See AT&T’s experiments with liberal education). Besides, the liberal arts are out of date. It was one thing to educate people broadly in the 16th Century when the extent of knowledge was relatively small. The explosion of the information age makes the Liberal Arts project ridiculous. There is no way to broadly educate students in a world so overrun by information, knowledge and rapid change. Beyond their ineffectiveness, the liberal arts are dangerous to social cohesion. Dissension in fact is a far greater danger than groupthink. It is dangerous to question collected wisdom in a way that polarizes and alienates us from each other. We need a common script.

4. Whether the Liberal Arts are valuable is irrelevant because the evidence suggests that higher education today is doing a lousy job of teaching them. Higher Education has almost no empirical data to show that students are actually accomplishing the goals of a liberal arts education, and the evidence that does exist suggests woeful inadequacies in mathematical reasoning, scientific understanding, critical thinking, and historical awareness. The truth is that universities gave up on the liberal arts project decades ago to became the de facto certification arm of the private sector. It is now time to do that job in earnest and give up the flowery pretence that education today is about anything more than training people to become productive workers, innovators and leaders.  But even if the liberal arts approach worked (which it does not), it is in such an attenuated state that it has become little more than a fossilized relic serving no useful function. In this sense, the liberal arts are like the appendix in a human body. It can be removed with no harm to the body’s overall health and functioning.

All of the arguments above are accompanied by evidence (exhibit A, exhibit B...). After presenting the case I retire to the hallway. The students then walk back through the arguments. What's amazing to me is how seriously they take this goofy exercise. I always hear a rich discussion through the door, but I can never quite make out what they are saying. It is probably the most intense discussion of the semester, and it happens when I am not in the room! I have done this exercise seven or eight times and have yet to get a conviction. Maybe the students are just telling me what they think I want to hear, but I don't think so. When I debrief the jury, they defend the liberal arts a lot more than I do. In fact, there are some days when even I consider voting for summary execution.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Some of your points do make sense, but I, being a supporter of the liberal arts, would argue that some of your other points are misleading and based on incorrect assumptions, but I digress. I was wondering what you're thoughts were on the idea of instead of trying to send business students (accounting majors, finance, etc) through a liberal arts curriculum, what about having purely business schools and purely hard science schools alongside purely liberal arts schools? I get the feeling that this could solve some of the problems you mentioned.
Professor Quest said…
The arguments have a deliberate "everything and the kitchen sink" structure. At one point I am arguing that the liberal arts are lamentably elitist and exclusionary. Later I'm arguing that they are disruptive of social cohesion and common purpose. My goal with this lesson plan is not to prescribe the jury's verdict, but to ensure a good delberation,
Anonymous said…
I think social cohesion and a common purpose can be dangerous as well, especially when you have a large group in society trying to elect Donald Trump. Hitler was able to unite the German people under a common purpose and created social unity; however, that situation led to one of the biggest wars in history. Higher education is lousy, not just liberal higher education. Most of the material you learn in STEM fields are either forgotten or minimally used. Most of the skills and "real knowledge" needed for a job is acquired on the job, not in a classroom.

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