Redeeming the Liberal Arts
Few subjects have suffered as much as the liberal arts from the numbing power of stale rhetoric, hollow appeals to tradition, and unrelenting journalistic misrepresentation. Together, these three factors have generated and legitimated public skepticism about the liberal arts. A liberal arts education (which is rarely identified with the acquisition of scientific literacy) seems either a useless enterprise or a decorative habit cherished by a narrow elite, comparable to someone’s adherence to religious ritual without inner conviction. The brutal facts of a demographic decline in the college-bound population in the decades ahead and the steady decrease in net tuition revenues since 2007 (which sparked the need to bring down the cost of a college education through discounts and financial aid) have added a severe financial dimension to a wider crisis of confidence for liberal arts institutions. Indeed, the unprecedented existential predicament now faced by liberal arts education is widely understood. Less well understood is how to counteract the mix of ignorance and falsehoods about the liberal arts. It is clear that there are no superficial remedies. Only bold responses will work.