Is a university a university without the liberal arts? Marymount University seems to think so. The institution’s trustees voted unanimously in February to eliminate majors in mathematics, art, English, history and philosophy, among other fields. It is the latest in a very long line of defeats for the liberal arts. Between 2013 and 2016, across the United States, 651 foreign language programs were closed, while majors in classics, the arts and religion have frequently been eliminated or, at larger schools, shrunk. The trend extends from small private schools like Marymount to the Ivy League and major public universities, and shows no sign of stopping.
The steady disinvestment in the liberal arts risks turning America’s universities into vocational schools narrowly focused on professional training. Increasingly, they have robust programs in subjects like business, nursing and computer science but less and less funding for and focus on departments of history, literature, philosophy, mathematics and theology.
America’s higher education system was founded on the liberal arts and the widespread understanding that mass access to art, culture, language and science were essential if America was to thrive. But a bipartisan coalition of politicians and university administrators is now hard at work attacking it — and its essential role in public life — by slashing funding, cutting back on tenure protections, ending faculty governance and imposing narrow ideological limits on what can and can’t be taught.
Students do not select majors and courses in a vacuum. Their choices are downstream of a cultural and political discourse that actively discourages engagement with the humanities. For decades — and particularly since the 2008 recession — politicians in both parties have mounted a strident campaign against government funding for the liberal arts. They express a growing disdain for any courses not explicitly tailored to the job market and outright contempt for the role the liberal arts-focused university has played in American society.
Conservative assaults on higher education and the liberal arts often grab headlines, but cutting education funding — or selectively investing only in vocationally inclined departments — is a bipartisan disease. Former Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on higher education in Wisconsin formed the bedrock of many later conservative attacks. His work severely undermined a state university system that was once globally admired. Mr. Walker reportedly attempted to cut phrases like “the search for truth” and “public service” — as well as a call to improve “the human condition” — from the University of Wisconsin’s official mission statement. Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attack on academic freedom in Florida that has captivated the national press, alongside his preference for vocational classes, is from the same playbook.
But blue states also regularly cut higher education funding, sometimes with similar rationales. In 2016, Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky at the time, suggested that students majoring in the humanities shouldn’t receive state funding. The current secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, a Democrat, seems to barely disagree. “Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global work force,” he wrote in December.
Federal funding reflects those priorities. The National Endowment for the Humanities’ budget in 2022 was just $180 million. The National Science Foundation’s budget was about 50 times greater, having nearly doubled within two decades.
What were students meant to think? As the cost of higher education rose, substantially outpacing inflation since 1990, students followed funding — and what politicians repeatedly said about employability — into fields like business and computer science. Even majors in mathematics were hit by the focus on employability.
Universities took note and began culling. One recent study showed that history faculty across 28 Midwestern universities had dropped by almost 30 percent in roughly the past decade. Classics programs, including the only one at a historically Black college, were often simply eliminated.
Never mind that neither politicians nor students seem to have a particularly good idea of which college majors will actually prepare young people for the work force. History majors had a lower unemployment rate than economics, business management or communications majors, and their salaries barely lag behind in those fields, according to a recent study. Art history majors do just fine, too, with strong projected job growth in the next decade. And despite the sneers, those with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy have an average salary around $76,000, according to PayScale. But this is a grim and narrow view of the purpose of higher education, merely as a tool to train workers as replaceable cogs in America’s economic machine, to generate raw material for its largest companies.
Higher education, with broad study in the liberal arts, is meant to create not merely good workers but good citizens. Citizens with knowledge of their history and culture are better equipped to lead and participate in a democratic society; learning in many different forms of knowledge teaches the humility necessary to accept other points of view in a pluralistic and increasingly globalized society.
The university as we know it emerged in the Middle Ages, founded around the study of rhetoric, grammar, logic, astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music — or what the Romans had called “artes liberales,” meaning “the arts of free people.” The first three disciplines evolved into the modern humanities and arts; the others evolved into natural and social sciences.
It was Cold War-era American nationalism that reframed this course of study, once available only to the wealthy few, as something essential for American success. In 1947, a presidential commission bemoaned an education system where a student “may have gained technical or professional training” while being “only incidentally, if at all, made ready for performing his duties as a man, a parent and a citizen.” The report recommended funding to give as many Americans as possible the sort of education that would “give to the student the values, attitudes, knowledge and skills that will equip him to live rightly and well in a free society,” which is to say the liberal arts as traditionally understood. The funding followed.
The report is true today, too. There is still value in our health professionals knowing something about literature, our financial professionals knowing something about history and our political leaders knowing something about ethics. But as that funding is dismantled, the American higher education system is returning to what it once was: liberal arts finishing schools for the wealthy and privileged, and vocational training for the rest.
Reversing this decline requires a concerted effort by both government and educational actors. On the federal and state levels, renewed funding for the liberal arts — and especially the humanities — would support beleaguered departments and show students that this study is valuable and valued.
At the university level, instituting general education requirements would guarantee that even students whose majors have nothing to do with the humanities emerged from college equipped to think deeply and critically across disciplines.
Liberal arts professors must also be willing to leave their crumbling ivory towers and the parochial debates about their own career path, in order to engage directly in public life. Expectations for hiring, tenure and promotion at colleges should shift, rebalancing away from a narrow focus on research produced almost entirely for other academics.
The sight of a free country robbed of the arts of free people is grim indeed. When it is done, there will be few left to mourn the loss. We should not dismantle the educational assets that built America’s 20th-century success.
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