How to save liberal arts education

We can start by making it useful

Student reading
(Image credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

Will the liberal arts survive the economic and technological disruptions of the present moment? Probably — though probably not with anything like the prestige and power that they acquired in the postwar university. The structural trends working against the humanities are just too strong.

There is, for one thing, the way that the old-fashioned American concern with the utility of education has been accentuated by an anemic economy. Employers now want clear evidence that would-be employees possess skills and knowledge directly applicable to a 21st-century economy, and students want to acquire those skills and knowledge in order to be competitive. The ability to analyze a poem or identify a logical fallacy in an argument is impressive in its way, but it's less obviously marketable than what a student can learn from a major in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics).

Add in the astonishingly high cost of a college education today, and the pressure to choose a major that will lead to a job with a salary high enough to cover stratospheric monthly loan payments becomes still more intense. And even when parents can bear all or a large portion of the cost, there just seems to be something a little self-indulgent about paying nearly a quarter-million dollars for four years of reading novels and treatises that have no obvious link to life after graduation.

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That link has been rendered more tenuous than ever by the cultural radicalism that characterizes so many of the fields in the humanities at the country's leading universities. Whatever its value in scholarly research, such politicization makes the study of classic texts seem like a dreary and tedious waste of time and (once again) money. (Yet another class devoted to exploring the myriad ways that sexism, racism, and homophobia suffuse the literature of Western civilization? Zzzzz.)

Finding a way for the liberal arts to break out of their downward spiral will be difficult. But surely the most promising approach will be one that emphasizes that studying the great books of world civilization is immensely useful after all — not necessarily for landing a high-paying job right after graduation, but for something even more important: learning how to live.

As I've argued in other contexts, we're living at a time when public moral deliberation is rapidly moving away from considerations of ultimate ends, ideals of human flourishing, in favor of a morality of rights that is largely indifferent to what individuals do with their freedom. As long as you refrain from harming others, you are free to pursue happiness however you like, no questions asked.

Politically speaking, this might be the best available strategy for people who disagree about the highest good to live together pluralistically in relative peace. But this doesn't mean that it's possible for individual human beings to forego the question of how to live, to bypass the question of human flourishing — what it consists in, and how to achieve it. In fact, with the retreat of institutions that once proposed compelling comprehensive visions of the good life, the burden of choosing among various ways of life falls more than ever on the shoulders of individuals.

The liberal arts can justify themselves as providing an education in how to choose among these ways of life, by exposing students to the answers that have been proposed by the greatest philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, and novelists in human history. That's a vision of usefulness that transcends income and career to encompass the whole of life.

For one example of what a liberal arts education can look like when it's oriented toward the question of how to live, take a look at a lecture delivered by my friend and former teacher Mark Lilla from Columbia University (not coincidentally, one of the few remaining schools in the United States that still boasts a first-rate core curriculum in the humanities).

Lilla's lecture attempts to synthesize a wide range of classic texts by highlighting four distinct ways of life explored within them: that of the soldier, the sage, the saint, and the citizen. Each way of life valorizes certain human qualities and downplays others, bringing out distinctive forms of excellence while covering over and concealing other possibilities.

One could imagine a liberal arts education organized around Lilla's four ideal types and adding others, some of which have arisen in more recent times: the entrepreneur, the scientist, the chief executive, the bourgeois, the bohemian, the activist, and so forth. Each could be explored in works of art, literature, social criticism, and philosophy. Students would be introduced to various ways of life, as well as to a wide range of books and artistic expressions. In the process, they would be transformed into culturally literate members of our civilization, while also becoming well-informed about the big questions of human life and prepared to make informed choices among the various options.

The practical skills developed by such an education — critical thinking, open-mindedness, thoughtfulness — would surely be rewarded on the job market. But the knowledge and wisdom acquired would be even more valuable, not just at work but in and for the rest of the student's life.

How can liberal education be saved? By becoming truly, enduringly useful.

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