In the golden age of American higher education, roughly 1945-1965, the question was hardly worth asking. The economy was expanding, government subsidies were assured, and most graduates found good jobs. Those favorable conditions were interrupted by the political upheavals of the 1960s and economic downturn of the 1970s. But the good times seemed to be back as recently as the 1990s. For all the polemics that they generated, the so-called culture wars were based on the shared assumption that history, literature, languages and other liberal arts were at the core of higher education.

That assumption is no longer widely held, and may not even be plausible any more. In an age of rising sticker prices, low graduation rates, increasing enrollment by non-traditional students, dim job prospects, and weak learning outcomes, many students, parents, academic administrators, and politicians are asking whether a degree in History or English is worth the effort and expense. The answer is not clear: to mention one complication, liberal arts graduates have higher initial unemployment rates than graduates in vocational fields, but appear to earn more at mid-career. The question itself, however, is not going to go away.

There are, of course, a vast number of answers. Over the last year or so, however, three main currents of thought have emerged.

A first position, recently advanced by Johann Neem, holds that “the liberal arts and sciences have no economic value…” On this position, the skills and virtues cultivated by the study of ideas, texts, and languages simply don’t make us richer, more productive, or more innovative.

But that doesn’t mean that the liberal arts are worthless. Rather, they provide essential training for responsible citizenship. As Neem observes, this point of view corresponds closely to the classical understanding of the liberal arts as the studies worthy of a free man with the leisure to participate in the political community. In a democracy, the argument goes, everyone should have the opportunity to engage in the reciprocal activities of ruling and being ruled. Everyone, then, needs the liberal arts.

One problem with the political argument for the liberal arts is that the study of history provides little reason to think that it’s true. Although democratic societies have often been governed by people who enjoyed a liberal education, none has ever had a liberally-educated citizen-body.

That might be seen as a reason to expand access to the liberal arts. On the other hand, the expansion that did occur after World War II in the United States and elsewhere does not seem to have produced any general improvements in  judgment or wisdom, let alone an elevation of the tone of public life.

What’s more, the political argument tends to mistake serious practice in the liberal arts for the completion of courses. There is much to be learned about politics from Cicero and Tocqueville, to mention only two names. But learning what they have to teach requires a lifetime of careful reading. A course in Western Civ just won’t cut it.

A second school of thought, represented at TAC by Alan Jacobs, agrees that the usefulness of the liberal arts cannot be understood in terms of dollars and cents. Still, it rejects the implied dichotomy between economics and politics, between public and private goods.

The liberal arts are useful, on this view, less because they cultivate the ideal citizen of the classical imagination than because they liberate modern individuals to make reflective choices about the relations between their various commitments and practices. As Jacobs put it in a post last month, “[t]he person whose liberal-arts education serves him best as a father of children offers as strong a testimony to that education’s value as the person who instead devotes herself to a life of solitary scholarship; and even astonishingly rich entrepreneurs may justifiably celebrate the marriage of technology with the liberal arts.”

Like the first position, this argument contains much truth. But it doesn’t shed much guidance on how much of their limited resources individuals, families, and governments should devote to formal instruction in the liberal arts. Perhaps reading Homer or Shakespeare does make one a better father. But is it essential to get a degree in Classics or English to achieve those benefits? Again, the focus is on the liberal arts as a permanent feature of one’s life. Formal instruction at the college level is not a sufficient condition of that commitment–and may not even be a necessary one.

Although it cannot be narrowly utilitarian, a broadly appealing case for the liberal arts  has to be more pragmatic. William Durden, the president of Dickinson College, makes the attempt at Inside Higher Education. Following Thomas Jefferson and Dickinson’s founder, Benjamin Rush, Durden defends a “useful liberal education” that responds to the present without neglecting the past. In the 18th Century, Durden argues, this involved adding the experimental sciences to the curriculum and deemphasizing the study of Greek and Latin in favor of modern languages.

Durden’s piece is light on details about what that might mean to today. But he offers his own resume as exemplary:

My own experience offers a definition for the 21st century, in fact, for any century, where economic uncertainty prevails. I was a German and philosophy double major. At first glance, what could be more useless? And yet, my professional life has proven such a conclusion wrong.

I have been — sometimes simultaneously — a military officer, a pre-collegiate teacher, administrator and coach. I founded an athletic team, developed a major center at a prestigious research university, acted as a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of State with diplomatic status, served as a corporate officer at two publicly traded companies and now serve as president of Dickinson College. For none of these careers did I ever study formally or take a class.

Despite the vagueness of his argument, Durden seems to be on the right track. In America, especially, no argument for the liberal arts is likely to succeed unless it navigates between the extremes of public and private virtue. In other words, it has to make a plausible case that study of the liberal arts will actually help students find and succeed in rewarding careers. In trying to make that case, however, Durden avoids an important question. For whom are the liberal arts likely to have that effect?

The answer, I suspect, is relatively few of the students currently enrolled in higher education. As my old professor Jackson Toby has observed, students who enter college with strong preparation in reading and writing, abstract reasoning, and simple concentration can profit a great deal from study in the liberal arts. But students who lack these skills are unlikely to learn much in college. And that’s almost always too late for fundamental remediation.

The conclusion that the liberal arts are useful for students who are prepared to benefit from them before entering college is backed up by Durden’s CV. Although he doesn’t mention it in the piece, Durden attended Albany Academy, a respected private day school, before taking his double B.A. at Dickinson.

That doesn’t mean Durden was child of privilege. According to his Wikipedia entry, he was the first in his family to attend college. But it does mean that he began higher education with the skills he needed to make good the implicit usefulness of the liberal arts. Students who struggle with basic tasks in reading and writing can’t do that, no matter who their parents are.

I plan to consider the policy implications of these observations in a future post. The bottom line, however, is that the question of the usefulness of the liberal is often badly posed. The threats to the future of the liberal arts make it necessary to think about their use-value. But we must not assume that the answer will be the same for everyone.