As director of the new Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College, I recently hosted an inaugural symposium that brought in five important public intellectuals to talk about "Remapping the Liberal Arts for the 21st Century." My premise was that on my campus, at least, with a new humanities building in the works and a significant commitment to a new institute, we could proceed for one day as if the liberal arts were not in crisis, and turn the conversation instead to what we might say about liberal arts education, and how we might question and redefine it, if we didn’t have to spend all of our time hunkered down in foxholes of defense.
The talks were splendid and discussions were fruitful, but no one was able entirely to resist the impulse to assume a defensive posture. Liberal arts professors today seem incapable of talking about what they do without metaphorically assuming a "duck and cover" position.
Why is this? And is it in the best interests of the liberal arts that we are perpetually defending them?
Of course, the perpetual posture of defense is grounded in reality: Louis Menand, one of our speakers, has provided the data to prove it: "From 1955 to 1970, the proportion of liberal arts degrees among all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually had risen for the first time in this century; after 1970, it began going down again. Today, only one-third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States are in the liberal arts, and less than one-third of these are in humanities. The most common major by far, according to the American Council of Learned Societies, is business, with 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees are awarded in this field."
Although many private universities and colleges are, like Boston College, making new investments in the humanities and liberal arts, access to this kind of education is being eroded at public institutions, as evidenced by the recent decision of the State University of New York to end many language programs. And in these harsh economic times, many students feel that liberal arts education is a luxury they can’t afford.
I think, as well, that humanities professors, who are most often the advocates for the liberal arts, feel generally underappreciated, since our culture (and even university culture) sometimes seems not to value what we do. Speakers such as the Rev. John O’Malley of Georgetown and Alan Ryan of Princeton University both offered nuanced, cautious, and effective defenses of the power of liberal arts education to confer upon students a critical awareness of the world, and a kind of intellectual freedom through immersion in a discipline. But a nagging sense of marginalization can also sometimes lead liberal arts faculty to become defensive.
It can be dangerous for our cause when defense turns into defensiveness. Defensiveness is not necessarily a healthy attitude to inhabit for a long period of time. Defensive people are often not very persuasive, because they’re afraid to entertain any critique of what they’re defending. When defense becomes automatic, it may close off inquiry and innovation.
Professors who teach liberal arts subjects may not be their most convincing defenders, anyway. Although most of us had a liberal education, it was for us also a vocational education. I knew as a college sophomore that I wanted to be an English professor if I could manage it, and the courses I took in English, history, and Latin were, for me, a pre-professional education with a specific career goal in mind. Even people who came late to the decision to pursue a career in the academy ended up using their liberal arts education for professional purposes. So many liberal arts faculty don’t have direct experience of the kind of education that they are recommending that students pursue. I’ve spent my whole adult life in a university setting. I believe that liberal arts education confers skills in reading, writing, and critical thinking that will be useful for many non-academic careers, but I have not experienced this myself.
We are also not especially credible as the first line of defense, since our jobs depend on the perpetuation of liberal arts education. When Stanley Fish suggested in his New York Times column that “I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists,” many readers were horrified, but he was putting on the table what must undermine the most ardent professorial defense in many non-academic eyes.
I would make two suggestions. Of course, we do need to be able to defend ourselves, and to explain what we do in accessible terms. But I think that instead of always trying to defend liberal arts education by ourselves, we might work to marshal others who may bring kinds of credibility that we lack to contribute to the defense. Former students could attest to their experiences; managers could speak to the skills they want. It would be interesting to see if brain imaging could shed light on the effects of different kinds of higher education on the brain. Instead of always defending, we can show what the liberal arts can do. Catharine Stimpson, one of our speakers, gave a moving talk on liberal arts education and the problem of war at our symposium demonstrated how a range of liberal arts disciplines might illuminate some difficult aspect of the human condition. Liberal arts faculty at Boston College and elsewhere increasingly write for general as well as specialized audiences and these efforts let people outside the academy experience the benefits of our habits of thought. (Note: This article was updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
Second, I think we should try to leave off defending for long enough to see what we could say about liberal arts education if we let ourselves think about it more speculatively and less defensively. I believe that liberal arts education needs to rethink its scope and definition for the 21st century. Many people treat "humanities" as a synonym for "liberal arts" or assume that the humanities are necessarily central to it, but are they now central in the same way that they used to be? As fields like cultural studies and area studies blur the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences, the center of gravity may have shifted in productive ways that we need to acknowledge.
Liberal arts can sometimes be conflated with a Western intellectual tradition, but in our era of globalization, its boundaries need to be broadened and reconfigured and the importance of language learning rearticulated in this context. Faculties of arts and sciences include the hard sciences, and they are part of a liberal arts education, but are usually not central to discussions of its importance. How would liberal arts education look if science played a more prominent role? Attention to the relationship between liberal arts education and professional education and building of bridges between the two might give students the confidence to pursue a liberal arts degree. Service learning initiatives like the PULSE program at Boston College,a service-learning program that combines mandatory weekly community service with an examination of classical and contemporary works of philosophy and theology, There are efforts around the country to do all of these things, and yet I’m afraid they are sometimes drowned out by the loud clamor of lament and defense.
I propose that all professors who are concerned about the future of the liberal arts try this thought experiment: pretend, for a moment, that we inhabit a utopian world where the value of liberal arts education is universally accepted. If you are freed from the burden of defense, what can you imagine? What can you create? The future of liberal arts education may well depend on our collective response.