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Woodburn Hall at West Virginia University.

Woodburn Hall at West Virginia University.

aimintang from Getty Images Signature

Last month, as he presided over the elimination of 28 academic programs and 143 faculty positions—most notably the dismantling of the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics—West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee tried to assure worried stakeholders of the R1, public “flagship” institution that “nothing approved today bars our students from intellectual exploration or well-rounded liberal arts education…. West Virginia University has been and always will be a university that offers a variety of majors.” Similar sentiment was conveyed by Irma Becerra, president of Marymount University, as she convinced her board at the small Roman Catholic university in Arlington, Va., to eliminate majors in English, history, math, philosophy, sociology and theology, among others, in February. “We are not eliminating the humanities or social sciences from our curriculum, nor are we turning our back on our Catholic traditions.”

These presidential words fell on my ears as excruciating insult upon intolerable injury. I graduated from WVU, whose main campus is in my hometown of Morgantown, learning there the Latin, French and Old English I would use throughout my teaching and research career as a history professor and, through the rest of my liberal arts curriculum, the cultural literacy and breadth of knowledge that would serve me as a department chair and a dean. I also spent fifteen years on the faculty and administration of Marymount, helping build many of the programs that were torn down earlier this year. The statements issued by the leaders of these two very different universities show an utter incomprehension of what a liberal arts education actually means.

A liberal arts education is not just a collection of different courses and majors from which an undergraduate may choose, often with little guidance or informed discrimination. It is a curriculum that is comprehensive and coherent, teaching tradition while being critical of it; it is, to borrow from Augustine, learning to love the right things. Cicero called these the “good arts” (bonae artes), but, in Rome, liberal education was almost exclusively available to the senatorial class. We run the risk in America of only the wealthiest, attending the wealthiest colleges, having access to liberal education while our own senatorial class—most graduates of elite institutions—tell the rest of us to choose a more practical major.

It is time for faculty throughout the nation in these arts and sciences fields—and our allies—to show the courage of those students and faculty at WVU and Marymount who have protested, launched petitions and led letter-writing campaigns in an attempt—against hope—to stop the destruction of the heart of the university. As WVU has begun sending layoff notices to professors, few arts and sciences faculty elsewhere should feel secure that their jobs will remain or that their disciplines will remain unaffected.

And so we start the 2023–24 academic year adding the names of WVU and Marymount to a growing obituary section in the academy, one familiar to many Inside Higher Ed readers over the last five years:

  • At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, an administrative plan was announced in 2018 that would cut 13 programs—including English, history, political science and sociology majors—while redirecting resources to arguably more expensive programs such as chemical engineering, fire science and environmental law enforcement. (The university ultimately backed away from the planned program cuts following protests and negative publicity.)
  • In February 2019, the president of McDaniel College, a small liberal arts college in Western Maryland featured in Colleges that Change Lives, announced that art history, religious studies, French, German and music would no longer be offered as majors. Additionally, minors in German, music and Latin would be eliminated.
  • One month later, Wheeling Jesuit University, in West Virginia, announced its plan to eliminate nearly all of its liberal arts majors (including history and philosophy), and nearly all of the faculty positions in the traditional arts and sciences (including tenured faculty positions), while nursing, respiratory therapy, exercise science, business and a doctoral program in physical therapy survived the purge. The institution changed its name to Wheeling University after the Maryland Province for the Society of Jesus announced in April 2019 that it was ending its affiliation with the university because it no longer offered a Jesuit education.
  • The College of Saint Rose, in Albany, N.Y., announced in December 2020 that it would be laying off more than 30 tenured faculty members as part of a cost-cutting plan that included eliminating 25 undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs—undergraduate programs in art, music and math were especially hard hit—with the cuts affecting 10 percent of the college’s undergraduate majors.
  • In December 2022, New Jersey City University announced an effort to cut more than $12 million in expenses by eliminating 37 percent of its 171 academic programs and laying off 30 tenured professors. The public university of approximately 6,500 students planned to eliminate 48 undergraduate programs, 24 minors, 28 graduate programs, 10 certificate programs and one doctoral program; affected undergraduate areas included art history, chemistry, dance, economics, education, environmental science, geography, physics, sociology and theater.
  • Earlier this year, a review by the president and trustees of Utica University in New York, which enrolls a large number of first-generation students from an economically depressed part of the state, resulted in the cutting of 13 majors, including liberal arts majors in such fields as anthropology, geoscience, philosophy, sociology and Spanish.
  • Lasell University, near Boston, experienced a 15 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment over the last ten years. It announced this summer that it would be eliminating five majors, including liberal arts majors in English, history, global studies and sociology, resulting in the elimination of four faculty positions (with other open faculty positions to be left vacant) and 12 staff positions.
  • Meanwhile, small liberal arts colleges (SLACS) that have closed or announced closures since 2018 include three Massachusetts institutions, Atlantic Union College, Mount Ida College and Newbury College; Green Mountain College, Southern Vermont College and the College of St. Joseph, all in Vermont; Hiwassee College in Tennessee; Concordia University in Portland, Ore.; Lincoln College, in Illinois; Ohio Valley University, in West Virginia; Cazenovia College, outside Syracuse, N.Y.; Holy Names University, in Oakland, Calif.; Presentation College, in South Dakota; Finlandia University, the only private college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; and Cabrini University, outside Philadelphia. The King’s College, in New York City, has suspended classes this fall as its board and administrators “continue to contend for the College’s future.”

Supporters of these cuts and closures usually point to the declining numbers of majors throughout the humanities and in many social sciences. A recent study conducted by the Modern Language Association found 651 instances in which a foreign language that had been offered in fall 2013 at a college or university was not offered in fall 2016. This represents a 5.3 percent decline in language offerings in the period studied, the most common disappearances being in French, Spanish, German and Italian. An earlier study released by the MLA found that between fall 2013 and fall 2016, enrollments in languages other than English fell 9.2 percent, the biggest drop recorded since the 1972 survey (12.6 percent). In all, MLA reported a 15.3 percent total decline between 2009 and 2016.

According to The Hechinger Report and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, undergraduate enrollments in the humanities in general have shown a dramatic decline in recent years. The number of college students majoring in the humanities dropped for the eighth consecutive year in 2020, when fewer than 1 in 10 college graduates obtained humanities degrees (down 25 percent since 2012). If you remove communications majors, the percentage of students majoring in humanities fields decreases to only 4 percent. English majors are down nationally 33 percent since 2009, and history majors are down 35 percent. Many of the nation’s top research institutions and liberal arts colleges—including Columbia, Ohio State and Tufts Universities; the University of Notre Dame; and Bates and Vassar Colleges—saw significant enrollment declines in the humanities over the last decade: Harvard University, which has 56 English faculty, enrolled fewer than 60 English majors in 2020.

While the trends are indisputable, they do not tell the whole story. For decades, political leaders, cultural figures and pragmatic-minded parents have been encouraging students to pursue STEM majors—especially medicine and applied sciences—rather than the arts, humanities and social sciences. Politicians have increased the heat in recent years, denouncing the humanities as “woke” and DEI-obsessed, deriding art history and gender studies and philosophy majors as wastes of taxpayers’ dollars, and using gubernatorial and legislative power in more than a dozen states to ban content and threaten tenure. One can hardly blame the students for their choice of major in such a hostile climate.

As dire as the situation appears, especially for the humanities, these may be relatively short-term trends; the pendulum could swing back the other way as many tech degrees become outdated or redundant There are signs at a handful of universities—including Trinity University in San Antonio, both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington—of increasing enrollments or program building in the humanities. But even if this reversal does not occur, we can use the time we have left to remind ourselves what an education in the liberal arts is or should be, and put pressure on institutions that claim they are offering such an education, all while decimating their departments and disciplines, to return to their founding charters and mission statements or else to stop using the term liberal education in their promises to current and prospective students.

The liberal arts (artes liberales) has meant, for most of the last 2,500 years, the arts and sciences appropriate for a free person to learn. It is an invention of classical antiquity, formalized in the medieval universities, infused with Renaissance humanism and broadened by scientific method, increasing literacy and democratic impulses. It was also, arguably, weakened by most American colleges and universities when they dropped classical language and religion requirements beginning in the late nineteenth century. Still, when the Morrill Act of 1862 created the U.S. “land-grant” institutions like WVU, “scientific and classical studies” were to be continued alongside new applied science fields in agriculture and engineering. The trend in elective general education courses, most famously instituted at Harvard under President Charles William Eliot (1834–1926), and the swift adoption of majors and disciplines defined by the German research universities, led to fewer common or “core” texts and courses being offered and very little shared vision among the faculty in America as to what a liberal arts education should be. Even before the data-driven, managerial “multiversity” appeared in the 1950s, most trained specialists in our nation’s greatest humanities and social science departments lost interest in a Common Good for undergraduate education, half-heartedly replacing centuries of educational philosophy with talk of “skills” and “learning outcomes.”

I urge all those invested in the long-term survival of the liberal arts, those who use the term “liberal education” in a non-derisory way, to join both campus and national conversations about what exactly we mean by the liberal arts. The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and Phi Beta Kappa are just two of the many organizations that are invested in the survival of the liberal arts as the best education for career preparation, for thoughtful and engaged citizenship in a democracy, and for young Americans searching for meaning and personal fulfillment. To aid such discussion, I humbly suggest consideration of the following “Principles of a Liberal Arts Education,” to be argued, debated, edited, denounced or celebrated by those of us in the academy who have spent years earning advanced degrees in these areas and, in many cases, decades teaching in these disciplines that have become the targets of demagogues and corporate managers at our colleges and universities.

Principles of a Liberal Arts Education

  1. That a university (universitas) exists for the pursuit of truth, the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, and the instruction of students as future teachers, scholars, career professionals, and citizens of this republic.
  2. That a university should maintain at least one college (collegium) that is dedicated to the liberal arts (artes liberales), of which the essential components are full and robust programs in philosophy and religion/theology, history, English language and literatures, classical and modern languages, mathematics, the natural and physical sciences, the social sciences, and the creative arts (including art, drama, and music).
  3. That neither a university nor a college should claim to be founded in the liberal arts, nor have liberal arts in its mission statement, unless it upholds these principles.
  4. That a liberal arts college and curriculum should strive to be diverse and inclusive, including by enrolling students and employing faculty from underrepresented groups, and also to foster intellectual diversity, to not be governed by ideology but to be an open, respectful arena for exchanging ideas.
  5. That a liberal arts college is primarily an intellectual community of scholars—faculty and students—and that the curriculum belongs solely to the faculty, who have training and expertise in these disciplines and who will seek advice from students, staff, and administrators if and when they make any curricular changes.
  6. That if a liberal arts college is to be truly free, it must be free from outside political, ideological, and managerial pressures.
  7. That it is expected that such a college will develop individual and distinctive characteristics, and therefore should not be formed or evaluated by government or accreditation bodies.

This is not a call for government regulation or accreditation of the liberal arts. Rather, it is an invitation to all universities, colleges and disciplinary bodies in the arts and sciences to discuss these principles as the communities of learning, the collegia, that we still profess, in our mission statements and in our admissions materials, ourselves to be. Let professional and vocational schools craft their own language; to be called a liberal arts college, or a College of Liberal Arts (or Arts & Sciences) at a university, ought to mean something more than just a buffet of courses and majors, more than mere lip service to an ancient tradition whose death we have passively accepted.

John Henry Newman, seeing the rise of the research university in the mid-nineteenth century, gave a series of lectures in Dublin that, published together as The Idea of a University (1852), still offer the best definition—and defense—of a liberal education. In a truly liberal education, Newman writes, “A habit of mind is formed which lasts throughout life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what … I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.” This liberal education is designed “to open the mind” of the student, “to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties.” Such attributes and intellectual skills are surely worth as much as training for a specific job, perhaps a job that will not even exist by the time the student graduates. About fifty years later, W.E.B. Dubois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), would write yearning for the time when all Americans would have access to such an education that “can find the rights of all in the whirl of work.” This liberal education “will best use the labor of all men without enslaving or brutalizing … will give us poise to encourage the prejudices that bulwark society, and to stamp out those that in sheer barbarity deafen us to the wail of prisoned souls … and the mounting fury of shackled men.”

Designing curricula solely by following market trends in higher education is not “liberal” in the original sense of the word—appropriate for free persons—but rather relegates all responsibility to teenagers to make wise and informed decisions about what they will be doing professionally for much of the rest of their lives. Developing the soul and the intellect of students to seek both knowledge and wisdom, to be critical of what is fed to them by their own culture and by those in positions of power—that is the best antidote to the cacophony and the barbarity of our times, the surest way to avoid slavery of all kinds.

Christopher A. Snyder is a professor of history at Mississippi State University and a visiting research fellow (2023) at Oriel College at the University of Oxford.

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