Please, Save the Liberal Arts

Nathaniel Urban is an Ashland University graduate and Associate Director of Curricular Improvement, American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He participated in the 2020 Scala Foundation and Pepperdine School of Public Policy DC Summer Scholars Program “Humanizing Education Policy: A Study of Foundational Philosophies.”

This blog first appeared on August 20, 2020, on the New Lyceum blog. Re-posted with permission.

COVID-19 has disrupted higher education, forcing colleges and universities to shift to online learning, refunding room and board fees, or to close permanently. In response, dozens of institutions are now beginning to phase out low-enrolled degree programs, with many of these programs centered in the liberal arts. The “high-performing” degree programs–business, nursing, education–are safe; and while the value of our businesses, healthcare professionals, and teachers should not go unnoticed, the liberal arts still play a crucial role in shaping the character of those who pursue these noble professions, informing them how to think about their roles as human beings and citizens. 

Early civil rights activists W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington both shed light on this topic. According to Du Bois, Washington recommended African Americans “give up, at least for the present, three things—political power, insistence on civil rights, higher education of Negro youth—and concentrate all their energies on industrial education and the accumulation of wealth.” 

Washington recognized African Americans were at a societal disadvantage. Through trade work, he believed, African Americans would secure private wealth and earn the community’s respect. But Du Bois criticized Washington’s one-size-fits-all method of education. Du Bois acknowledged that the roles of free men, of members of the country, are many. Thus, the carpenter needs a different method of education than the theologian and vice versa. However, the skilled laborer and skilled thinker are interdependent. The carpenter and theologian are equally free men and citizens. Du Bois said, “Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negros as men and American citizens.” Du Bois was right. Washington overlooked a crucial element of higher education: students need to think about their roles as free men and citizens. 

Du Bois, however, did not discredit the value of trade work. He wrote, “How foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in the liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think.” This is where Du Bois differed from Washington: Du Bois ruled in favor of integrating the liberal arts into education alongside trade work. Trade work, alone, is an insufficient end to contemplating the things that make us human and good members of society. The value of education is in acquiring practical skills and insight into the human soul. 

Students do not know why nearly one-third of their undergraduate degree is outside their major. General education is fragmented, and students feel like they are wasting energy, time, and money. “The major” is designed as a means of obtaining skills suited to a particular industry, whereas “general education” is seen as a vague cornucopia of courses used to check off a list of requirements in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. But students are unaware that these classes are meant to inspire in them a love and appreciation for our shared humanity and their particular roles as human beings and citizens. 

At the end of my undergraduate education, a professor reminded our class “you have proven you are capable of thinking about difficult questions. Your inability to answer these questions fully leaves you with the desire to continue thinking about them, and you all will face more difficult questions in your lives as human beings and citizens.” Our professor was right. Reading Aristotle made our class discuss the possibilities and limitations of human nature, the reasons why some forms of government are better than others, and the qualities of good, virtuous leaders. 

Pride and Prejudice was less about understanding the societal structure of 19th century England and more about looking at the emotional complexities of Elizabeth Bennet’s and Mr. Darcy’s relationship. Elizabeth’s wit, Mr. Darcy’s quiet demeanor, and their ever-growing love for one another are very real human qualities and experiences. Our class immediately realized the vast complexity of human nature and our desperate need of grace, guidance, and love. Our professor understood this complexity, but made no less of an effort to show us that we were not alone in thinking about difficult questions. 

In her essay, Learning in Love: An Awakened Desire is the Basis for a Truly Liberal Education, Dr. Elizabeth Corey of Baylor University asserts that a student admires the liberal arts because a particular person, often a professor, recognizes the student’s longing for truth. Dr. Corey writes, “We need a particular person to tell us about a particular book or author or field of study, to demonstrate its significance in practice, to act as a master to whom we can apprentice ourselves.” Students need guidance, structure, and order from both their professors and academic programs. Their academic programs cannot exclude the liberal arts. The future of their roles as human beings and citizens depend on it. 

Higher education cannot disregard the value of the liberal arts. The liberal arts have an equal footing alongside more practical pursuits, and students need the liberal arts now more than ever. During an era of increasing isolation and polarization, students need to acknowledge the shared challenges facing humanity. They also need to understand their responsibilities as citizens. Higher education must ensure the liberal arts do not disappear from the curriculum.