The liberal arts and sciences have no economic value. Let me repeat that: none, nada. Taught in the right spirit, they are useless from an economic point of view. They are designed in fact to be downright wasteful. The liberal arts’ ancient roots, after all, are from a world in which a few free men had the time -- the leisure -- to engage in study. It was for the elite. The purpose of the liberal arts in ancient times was to offer to the elite the knowledge, morals, and skills (like oratory) that they needed to determine what was good for individuals and the public, and to help achieve that good in society through citizenship.
In a democracy, however, we cannot afford to leave the liberal arts to the elite. In a society in which we expect all people to be effective citizens, all people need to have access to the liberal arts in order to have the knowledge and moral foundation that they need to think about what is a good life and a good society, and the skills necessary to help them work to achieve it here in our democracy. Today’s students need to know a lot about how the human and natural worlds work and they need not just knowledge but the capacity to evaluate — that is to determine the moral value of — different goals, ideas, and policies. This evaluation requires moving well beyond the economic calculus to questions of what is worth it and to understanding our cultural traditions. As Martha Nussbaum has put it, such an education is by definition not for profit.
There is also a second tradition that we have inherited from the ancient world, one more closely tied to Greece -- and Socrates and Plato -- than to the ideal of the Roman free citizen. In this framework, a liberal education is designed to help people seek truth, and to use truth to serve society. While distinct, it too is designed to develop human beings and citizens, not workers. Applied to a democratic society, it means that all citizens must be given opportunities to question their assumptions, to engage in inquiry to gain new insights about the nature of the world. Applied more broadly, such an approach to liberal education recognizes that the pursuit of knowledge develops our human capabilities and fosters our ability to engage with the world -- in work and in play -- with more depth. It too is not for profit.
Of course, in reality, the liberal arts are economically beneficial. They teach the high end “transferable skills” -- critical thinking, analytical ability, creativity, imagination, and the ability to learn new things -- that our economy needs, and without which we would not graduate students capable of innovation. That’s why China and other countries are now embracing the liberal arts even as we abandon them. The liberal arts are also the best preparation for advanced professional training in the “liberal professions” of law and medicine, as well as other fields, including business. Finally, since Thorstein Veblen, we have known that the liberal arts embody a certain kind of prestige that matters in a pecuniary culture. The liberal arts, therefore, may be the best bet for students to achieve long-term economic success.
All of these claims about the economic value of the liberal arts are probably true, but who cares? Not employers. In fact, Anthony Carnevale has concluded that the economic value of a college education depends highly on one’s major now that employers want graduates with specific technical skills (although this may in part reflect the different career goals of graduates with different majors rather than the inherent economic potential of the liberal arts). Certainly, many employers value their own liberal education and will continue to hire the graduates of our nation’s top liberal arts colleges and universities. But while employers no doubt want knowledgeable, thoughtful, critical, and creative employees, they do not want nor need these qualities in all their workers. Instead, increasingly, they want technicians.
Yet we continue to argue that the liberal arts should be defended for their economic value. Such defenses of the liberal arts may turn out to be their true downfall, because they leave us with no language to make clear what the liberal arts are worth. In fact, it means that we must evaluate the liberal arts by a criterion — their profitability — that not only is irrelevant to them but corrupts them, orienting them toward goals that are instrumental in nature and preventing them from serving their true humanistic and civic purposes. In fact, one recent essay has suggested that the liberal arts should be designed to foster entrepreneurs rather than human beings and citizens. If that is the goal of education, we don’t need the liberal arts at all. Instead, we can have everyone engage in entrepreneurial studies programs and abandon the study of chemistry, history, political science, anthropology, biology, or geology.
If our only god is money, we live in a sad society. A long time ago John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out in his book The Affluent Society that our narrow focus on marginal economic gains makes no sense in a society that is no longer facing scarcity. While we may not live in the kind of economic wonderland that marked Galbraith’s 1950s, we still live in an affluent society. While a vibrant economy is a public good, and while people need good-paying jobs, that is not all that we are about, and certainly not the heart of what collegiate education is about.
But how, then, to save the liberal arts if emphasizing their economic value debases them and may even prove to be a losing argument empirically? The answer is simple: remember the ancient ideal that the liberal arts serve human and civic purposes and are therefore designed for people with the leisure to study them. But, in a society committed to equality, we cannot permit only the elite to have access to the liberal arts. Instead we must democratize leisure by offering undergraduate college students the time and opportunity to study the liberal arts.
The way forward, then, is simple. Instead of seeing college as a private investment, we must consider it a public good. If we remember the generation that was educated after World War II, generous public support meant that they could afford -- economically -- to spend four years studying the subject that most interested or spoke to them, and then they took their education and did millions of things with it that helped us develop a richer society, not just in terms of wealth but in terms of knowledge, art, and citizenship. That generation could do so because they did not have to take on thousands of dollars in debt and to worry all the time about how to pay for it. They could do so because public support for their education -- meaning low tuition for students thanks to tax support for America’s colleges -- gave them the freedom -- the leisure -- to study.
The liberal arts are declining because today’s students do not have the leisure to study, much less to study hard. They are worried about their student debt and how to pay it off. They are working long hours at a job that should be spent engaged in study or conversation. They are told that they have to make their college degrees pay for themselves, and we have in turn robbed them of the freedom -- in the ancient sense -- that was the precondition for studying the liberal arts. Saving the liberal arts, then, requires restoring to students the freedom to engage in them.
Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.