The Decline of the American Liberal Education


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It’s no secret on college campuses that interest in the humanities has noticeably declined. In 1991, Yale’s two most popular majors were English and history. By 2013, they were political science and economics. In 1984, the University of Virginia graduated 501 English majors. By 2012, the number had fallen to 394. The trend also holds true nationally. In 1966, about 14% of all students graduated with a degree in the humanities. As of 2010, the number had fallen by half, to just 7%.   

In this article, VPR alumnus Christian Talley ‘16 and guest writer Alexander Billington present alternate theories about the decline of the humanities. Billington, a native of England, is a student at Long Island University-Post. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in political theory and was a 2015-2016 Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

Billington argues that globalization and the neoliberal economic paradigm based on privatization and free markets have re-oriented higher education toward ‘practicality’ rather than critical thinking, thus damaging the mission of the liberal arts. He concludes by considering the sociopolitical implications of the humanities’ decline.

Talley responds that while economic motivations are important, the American far left has accelerated the decline of the humanities. The new central focus on political correctness and cultural relativism has undermined the central justification for study of the humanities: the cultivation of critical thinking.

BILLINGTON: The neoliberal economy has undermined the liberal arts

Traditionally, a liberal arts education sought to expose the young and curious to an array of information in the hope they could achieve intellectual growth and step out into the world as well-rounded, actively conscious individuals. However, the unfortunate reality is that the true liberal arts education is under threat from the highly competitive neoliberal economy that is infiltrating institutes of learning. The corrosion of the liberal arts education is already affecting the sociopolitical arena, yet, if the decline continues unchallenged, the forecast could be damningly ominous.

Although neoliberalism is, effectively, the ideology governing the world economy, its definition is seldom the focus of conversation outside academia. A recent, rather critical Guardian article attempted to define the essence of neoliberalism: “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.” By this definition, neoliberalism is an ideology that propels society with competition and privatization as the fuel and blind consumerism as the oil.

As for liberal arts, Yale describes the charge of a liberal education: “Yale is committed to the idea of a liberal arts education through which students think and learn across disciplines, literally liberating or freeing the mind to its fullest potential. The essence of such an education is not what you study but the result – gaining the ability to think critically and independently and to write, reason, and communicate clearly – the foundation for all professions.” The liberal arts are intended to create diverse individuals with complex and capable minds prepared for a range of future possibilities. The humanities have always been thought of as integral components of a liberal arts education. By exposing students to the varied perspectives through which the world can and has been viewed is a way to push young adults to question the foundations of their views and to equip them with the tools to contemplate. The goal of a liberal education is just that: to instill the ability to question and to stand back from experience and consider life’s metaphysical implications.

A developing mind is susceptible to external influences, and these influences govern that mind until it can effectively evaluate such influences for itself. It is in college that all minds, with the help of the liberal arts, should learn this evaluation. It is in college that the soul should make its full debut and begin to formulate consciousness in a way that maximizes autonomy. Achieving autonomy allows consciousness to work alongside the functional mind and to attempt to make morally conscious decisions independent from the external influences that once bound it.

The issue with modernity in a neoliberal economic system is that thought and questioning are not perceived as efficient. There must be minds capable of entrepreneurship to drive competition, but on a broad scale the neoliberal economy requires complicit workers rather than contemplative critical thinkers. It is here that the economy has begun to take hold of education and shape it in a way that better suits its needs. Thus, the motivation for education changes. The purpose becomes to produce narrowly skilled consumers capable of carrying out a function, to become a cog in a machine, a cog without questions. The economy achieves this by making the rewards for such skills extremely lucrative. According to a Business Insider article, “Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (aka STEM) majors still have the best overall job prospects…while arts, humanities and liberal arts, psychology and social work, and life/physical science majors tie for the lowest earnings.”

As the reward for an education tailored to neoliberalism soars, institutes of learning have changed their ethos to adapt. Funding to the humanities is declining while funding for more ‘practical’ majors is increasing. Departments are merged and made more efficient—political science with history and philosophy with sociology. Tenure track professor positions are becoming scarce, and the more cost-effective part-time positions are becoming the prerogative of academic institutions. Classes are forced to be more practical, and professors must sell their classes based on potential utility.

If there is no longer emphasis on exploring morality, no longer significant stress placed on delving into the depths of history to understand society’s defining moments, how is our society supposed to continue to develop morality and understanding?

A short stroll through a small, private liberal arts school in New York, gives abundant examples of neoliberalism’s effect. You will see student-run businesses and a newly installed Bloomberg terminal to encourage financial entrepreneurship. Next you may encounter a seasoned philosophy professor selling his soul in the name of neoliberalism: “Take this critical thinking course not because critical thinking is an end in itself, but because it will help you on the LSAT.” Education expert Henry Giroux gives a potent explanation outlining just how these universities are changing, “Universities are being defunded, tuition fees are skyrocketing, faculty salaries are shrinking as workloads are increasing…Corporate management schemes are being put in place, underpinned by market-like principles, based on metrics, control, and display of performance.” It is these changes, amongst a whole host of others, that elucidate the changing landscape of traditional American liberal arts colleges.

There is no longer a question that the neoliberal economy has infiltrated education. The question has become, what does it mean for society if the liberal arts continue to decline? The neoliberal economy drives education, and education, without an emphasis in high school or college on the liberal arts, produces consumers and producers who drive the neoliberal economy—not with contemplation but with compliance. How then does the system heal itself when it encounters problems? If trained contemplative thinkers produced from the arts are on the decline, and critical thinking is not sought, where do the solutions come from? Reflection is society’s immune system. Possessing the ability to understand how we arrived at the predicaments we find ourselves in and how we might remedy them are not gained through memorizing knowledge but by truly learning to think.

True liberal education also faces a growing stigma. Former 2016 Presidential candidate Marco Rubio stirred up a storm by urging that “We need more welders and less philosophers.” If this attitude disseminates and both government and universities become completely complicit in the move towards utility, who is going to protect the liberal arts when those who were educated by it and appreciate its value begin to dwindle?

Indeed, if there is no longer emphasis on exploring morality, no longer significant stress placed on delving into the depths of history to understand society’s defining moments, how is our society supposed to continue to develop morality and understanding? Technological growth is exponential, yet where is the progression of morality? Heidegger saw technological growth as a danger—not a danger in itself, because technology is neutral, but a danger to the human spirit. He saw the potential for technology to be used irresponsibly by humans, which would eventually render us less human.

Critical thinkers are more important than ever. Attending a liberal arts school provides the individual a chance to learn, a chance to think freely whilst partially shielded from the pressures of the markets. However, learning sits in the grasp of the economy. It is this very learning that currently faces a distortion away from being an integral part of human growth, into merely a stepping-stone to a career. Such a loss of focus on true education is worrisome, and its socioeconomic effects are sure to be felt in the years to come.

TALLEY: The far left has accelerated the humanities’ decline

Alex is quite right to point to economic forces as a major culprit behind the humanities’ decline. For certain, the 2008 recession and globalization generally have placed a new emphasis on obtaining a “practical” education. But I believe that economics is only half the story. The other half is the inept way in which the humanities have responded to this challenge. I contend that the Academy’s growing leftist wing has accelerated the decline of the humanities by undercutting the foundation of a traditional liberal education.

What, then, is the ‘true’ mission of the liberal arts curriculum? Traditionally conceived, study of the liberal arts sought to cultivate a discerning mind and a mature soul, founded, above all, on the supreme value of critical thinking.

The liberal curriculum’s cultivation of intellectual autonomy is its strongest advantage against other disciplines. Implicit in this mission are the prerequisite assumptions of intellectual tolerance and the validity of certain value judgments. Tolerance entails that one should consider all serious viewpoints rather than accept ideological constraint by dogma; value judgment that we can, and should, be able to say what is right or wrong; up or down; evil or just.

If critical thinking, with its components of tolerance and judgment, is the strongest argument for the humanities, academia’s sharp leftward turn has usurped this mission. Central to my argument is the notion that the Academy has drifted leftward in recent times. This is true both quantitatively and qualitatively. According to a meta-analysis by Heterodox Academy, in the last twenty-five years professors have become sharply more leftist. In 1990, about 40% of academics identified as far left, about 40% as moderate, and about 20% as far right or conservative. By 2010, that ratio was 60% far left, 30% moderate, and just 10% conservative. Even more tellingly, most of the 10% of today’s conservatives came from STEM departments rather than from the humanities. This trend presumably holds true on Vanderbilt’s campus as well, where respondents to VPR’s recent faculty poll were more likely to identify as socialists than as Republicans. This consolidation of the left represents the danger of a burgeoning orthodoxy and an intellectual stasis on campus.

Yet the Academy’s leftward turn also involves more than simply the homogenization of partisan identity. It is also a philosophical and even a moral shift, motivated by the rise of cultural relativism. As Jason Willick has written, the shift grew out of the “canon wars” of the 1980s, themselves a product of the radicalism of the late 1960s and ‘70s, in which multiculturalist academics attacked the value of the Western canon as the foundation of a liberal education. The philosophical underpinnings of the multiculturalist charge sprung from postmodernism’s attack on the notions of artistic and literary merit, non-relative morality, and on the idea of truth itself. If these were all merely subjective social constructions, then, it was said, they had no inherent or transcendent value. (As Noam Chomsky has quipped, “it’s not easy to come up with exciting new ideas, so you have to come up with crazy ones.”) With the framework of traditional value judgments dismantled, there was little justification to preserve a liberal curriculum.

In the “zero sum game” of syllabus writing, the new relativism manifested itself in an attack on the traditional Western program, then known as the “liberal arts.” If aestheticism is groundlessly subjective, why study Shakespeare and not Anne Carson or Tracy K. Smith? Why not read Chinhua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but censor or avoid Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? (I suspect Achebe would be happy with this arrangement.)

It is no wonder that the humanities have crumbled in the face of external pressures. The primary justification for their study—the cultivation of critical thinking—is currently under an unprecedented internal assault.

The leftward turn, and the subsequent invalidation of core curricula in the liberal arts, thus produced a qualitatively leftward shift in the Academy as well. This “invasion of political agendas” into the classroom, aggressively supplanting classical liberal education, helped to erode viewpoint diversity and critical thinking amongst student bodies. As the late Tony Judt, a self-identified “old liberal” at New York University argued, “multiculturalism” and the new obsession with identity “‘created lots and lots of micro-constituencies, which universities didn’t have the courage to oppose. It’s much more like a supermarket — students can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish students take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies”— on some campuses, there are now even fat studies programs— “You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves.’” And hence, as Allan Bloom warned, the American mind began to close.

The decline of the liberal spirit has also manifested itself in cruder ways on college campuses across America. It used to be the case that universities were the last best hope of free speech—if speech was not free on campus, then where could it possibly be free? Yet the ideal of free speech and the free exchange of ideas are now seen not as sacred rights of Western liberalism, but as code words for “offensive” speech. Recent polls revealed that 40% of Millennials would support bans on offensive speech. In the name of tolerance and inclusion, it is now not only permissible but also fashionable to shout down those who dissent from left-wing orthodoxies, as seen on the campuses of Yale and the University of Missouri.

The growing echo-chamber effect in the Academy has thus starkly undermined the mission of the liberal arts. While the college protests of late are arresting for their own self-righteousness and vapidity, they are the natural consequence of relativism’s pernicious spread. Students inculcated with the value of “inclusion” feel uncomfortable or unable to make important ethical or practical judgments for fear of causing offense. Even professors remain on guard with self-censorship: 58% of Vanderbilt professors in the VPR faculty poll admitted to self-censoring their speech to avoid offense. And those who dislike free speech and the roots of the liberal tradition have been armed with a new toolbox of leftist rhetoric to validate their own anti-civilization behavior.

It is no wonder that the humanities have crumbled in the face of external pressures. The primary justification for their study—the cultivation of critical thinking—is currently under an unprecedented internal assault.