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How to Defend the Liberal Arts

It’s getting to be education all the time around here. At Inside Higher EducationJohann Neem argues that we shouldn’t try to defend the liberal arts by celebrating their economic value, even though “All of these claims about the economic value of the liberal arts are probably true.” Why not? Because

Who cares? Not employers. In fact, Anthony Carnevale has concluded that the economic value of a college education depends highly on one’s major now that employers want graduates with specific technical skills (although this may in part reflect the different career goals of graduates with different majors rather than the inherent economic potential of the liberal arts). Certainly, many employers value their own liberal education and will continue to hire the graduates of our nation’s top liberal arts colleges and universities. But while employers no doubt want knowledgeable, thoughtful, critical, and creative employees, they do not want nor need these qualities in all their workers. Instead, increasingly, they want technicians.

Yet we continue to argue that the liberal arts should be defended for their economic value. Such defenses of the liberal arts may turn out to be their true downfall, because they leave us with no language to make clear what the liberal arts are worth. In fact, it means that we must evaluate the liberal arts by a criterion — their profitability — that not only is irrelevant to them but corrupts them, orienting them toward goals that are instrumental in nature and preventing them from serving their true humanistic and civic purposes.

The always-incisive Tim Burke has read Neem’s piece and isn’t buying it. For him, Neem is being too much of a purist:

I hate the binarism here — that it’s either all market/entrepreneur/econocentrism/jobs or none at all. Excluded middles, fuzzy states, etc. Leisure, play, happiness, a holistic personhood, are worth rehabilitating as objectives of a sane, satisfied, wealthy, successful society. We don’t have to go the whole hardcore [Johan] Huizinga route of insisting that play is never never ever practical, worldly or useful. We don’t have to rob an entrepreneur of their humanness or citizenship by the fact that they are involved with filthy lucre — or for that matter, accept the further implication that anyone who does narrate their own encounter with the “liberal arts” as having an instrumental outcome has betrayed that education, that the person so educated must always describe their experience as having no ends, providing no concrete usefulness, always outside the world.

I think Tim is right here, because what he’s saying is that those of us who love the liberal arts don’t have to take a single line of self-defense — indeed we shouldn’t, because if the artes liberales really do liberate, they free us to make many varied choices. The 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. It’s all good.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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