Why We Still Need the Liberal Arts


Philosophia et septem artes (12th century)

Yesterday a colleague of mine made the statement that he thought the government shouldn’t fund the liberal arts. That is, public fund shouldn’t be used to subsidize the humanities at colleges and universities, only practical “STEM” majors in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. His argument was twofold: (1) the humanities don’t pay for themselves, and (2) they don’t add enough value to society. I mean, what good is a literature degree compared to engineering? At least an engineer can build stuff. What’s a literature major gonna do, write a haiku? Someone with a history degree might get a job teaching history but how long would it take to pay back $80K in student loans? A lifetime? I fumbled my response. This blog post is an attempt to redeem myself, and, if nothing else, provide a morale boost to my fellow liberal arts degree holders.

Off the bat I must concede that the cost of college education is out of control in the United States no matter what one chooses to study. The ridiculous cost of a university education in America is a problem that won’t be solved by excluding the liberal arts from public funding.

An easy way to answer the cost-benefit objection liberal arts degrees is to say that money isn’t the measure of all things. Earnings potential shouldn’t be the only or even the primary yardstick by which to measure an education. Teaching, public service, and a host of altruistic endeavors would be automatically eliminated as viable career choices, if money were seen as the greatest good. Even those with marketable degrees such as computer science or math would have to steer clear of lower-paying but highly rewarding jobs to justify the cost of their degrees. Yet intuitively we know that there is great value added in having teachers, public servants, and others who earn far less than they could in profit-oriented careers.

The original purpose of higher education wasn’t to train worker bees but to produce better citizens and even better human beings. The term “liberal arts” has nothing to do with political liberalism. The term derives from the Latin artes liberales, meaning “skills fit for a free man.” The focus of an education for the children of the wealthy in the Greco-Roman world was to train them for careers in public service, not for building a better chariot wheel. Slaves received such practical training, not those who were being groomed to serve in the Roman Senate or a king’s court. Liberal arts education is still needed today. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” A liberal arts education teaches wisdom; technical training does not.

No one would question the contributions to civilization made by scientists and inventors. Neither should anyone question the contributions of poets, philosophers, musicians, and painters. Even though college graduates with STEM majors typically earn more than humanities majors, this fact shouldn’t be seen as a measure of their intrinsic worth or value to society. An engineer may be trained how to build a nuclear bomb, but unless he has had some education in the humanities he won’t be equipped to decide whether it should be dropped on a city.

The reason I value my history degree isn’t because of how much money I am able to earn as a historian, which isn’t much. I value my history degree because it taught me critical reading, thinking, and communication skills. Those skills are useful in a variety of pursuits outside the field. I also value my history degree because it helped me see the world through another’s eyes. In other words history developed in me the virtue of empathy and made me a better person as a result. It’s difficult to put a price tag on that.


1 Comment

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One response to “Why We Still Need the Liberal Arts

  1. Yvette McCarty

    Very well said.

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