Yes, the Liberal Arts Are In Decline—and the World’s Really Not That Sad About It

The defensive impulse is baked into the self-definition of the liberal arts as we know them, so it’s no surprise that liberal arts partisans are buzzing around as busily as ever complaining that their disciplines are in decline and looking for someone to blame.

The most recent blast from the liberal arts’ crumbling ramparts was sounded in September by Joseph Epstein in The Weekly Standard. Approvingly citing Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Epstein decries a system of higher education that’s become more interested with vocational training and profit than with the betterment of the human soul. In Salon, Katie Bilotte fires back that conservatives, having long fought for the privatization of education, are to blame for this situation. Roger Ebert blames the students, who want jobs and have no patience for the great books (or, he seems to believe, for any books at all).

Around the turn of the 21st century, David John Frank and I spent several years studying the rise and fall of disciplines over the course of the 20th century in universities worldwide. We published our findings in the book Reconstructing the University (Stanford University Press, 2006). Our findings could certainly fuel the fires of those who are concerned about the humanities: our data provide clear evidence that indeed, the humanities declined sharply as a proportion of both research and teaching activity in universities worldwide. The slack was taken up not by the natural sciences—they were already strong at the beginning of the century, and simply remained so—but by the social sciences (economics, sociology, psychology, and others), which were comparatively tiny in 1900 but by 2000 had become central to higher education.

So who’s to blame? Our answer: everyone. All of us are to blame, although for reasons that don’t seem to sound blameworthy when they’re not directly linked to the declining prospects for tenure in departments of philosophy.

Consider these related developments. Would you say that these are bad things?

• Educational attainment is increasing dramatically: more and more people, around the world, are finishing grade school, and then high school, and then college every year.

• The college student (and faculty) population is diversifying. Though there’s still a long way to go before the college-educated population reflects the population at large, the average college looks a lot less male and a lot less white than it did a century ago.

• Students are now expected to be more active learners than they were in the past. Ebert thinks instructors are assigning less reading because they don’t think students will do it, but it’s also the case that college instructors today expect students to spend more time actively investigating, synthesizing, and problem-solving than they did in the golden era of liberal arts—when “active learning” meant “translating Ovid.”

• An inclusive social context is now considered to be important. Scholars are asking what voices were omitted from histories and novels written by the white guys who used to do most of the history-writing and novel-writing. The “great books” are no longer seen as being self-contained.

• The world is changing more quickly than ever, and university research and education is designed to reflect that. Curricula are regularly evaluated by diverse constituents.

There are certainly people who will carp about some of those trends, but on balance, most people—probably including you—think that all five of those things sound like positive developments. Higher education is becoming more inclusive, more dynamic, more democratic. With that, yes, comes more business education and fewer classes on Proust, but saying that the decline of the liberal arts is the “fault” of career-oriented students or money-grubbing businesses or even small-government conservatives is to grab at a red herring. The true answer can be understood only by looking at the big picture. In that big picture, the liberal arts—to be precise, the humanities—can not continue to reign in a democratizing, globalizing world.

All three of the writers linked above argue, in some form, that the humanities should be preserved precisely because of their supposed power to liberate: to free the mind from the clamoring exigencies of the here and now and to encourage reflection and critical thought. The reason they’re losing that argument—as continually manifested by the decline of their favored disciplines—is that in the traditional liberal arts, it’s the “experts” at the top of the hierarchy who tell you what you need to do to free your mind.

Students today, with the encouragement of their professors, are increasingly deciding their own paths of study through fields that are defined by general principles and methods rather than by specific works or thinkers. To some that sounds like a dishearteningly cold pragmatism, but why should anyone be surprised when a newly, and happily, diverse student body finds it hard to get excited about fields of study that until very recently defined many of them into irrelevance? The natural and social sciences have also left a lot of diversity to be desired, but at least when Marie Curie discovered radium, she didn’t have to publish her findings under a male pen name.

The liberal arts are adapting, yes, but as they adapt, they come less and less to resemble what their defenders are mourning: a dedication to “great books and grand subjects,” in the words of Epstein, who makes clear his loyalty to a particular flavor of “greatness” when he, quite candidly, decries the decision that “the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture.” Epstein preferred a world when there was a “general consensus” about what needed to be taught in college, and that consensus included the conviction that ancient Greeks and Romans were more important to study than—this comes straight from Epstein—African-Americans.

Epstein doesn’t think we’ll find his perspective offensive, because he writes from a perspective that has presumably measured Frederick Douglass against Aristotle and, after careful and fair consideration, given the prize for sagacity to Aristotle. He’s counting on us agreeing that it’s outrageous that Douglass would be taught instead of Aristotle—but that’s a cheat. Just because Toni Morrison has now bumped, say, Proust from syllabi of world literature does not mean that the notion of a “general consensus” about whose books should be taught is any more defensible than it was when African-Americans needed to found their own colleges because the “general consensus” was that blacks didn’t belong at white colleges.

This isn’t a manifesto: I’m not saying we should replace literature with sociology, or philosophy with physics, or poetry with calculus. What I’m saying is that empirically, the world is changing, and higher education is changing along with it. What we now understand, and that Epstein et al seem loath to admit, is that the “general consensus” that defined the humanities in their heyday was never really all that general.

- Jay Gabler

Photo by Patrick Correia (Creative Commons)