Last month, Brandon Busteed, the Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, published an op-ed titled “Higher Education: Drop the Term ‘Liberal Arts.’” Readers might be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a sensationalist title designed to generate web traffic, but no—it very succinctly captures Busteed’s argument. He reveals his thinking most clearly in his second paragraph, where he writes, “‘Liberal’ is politically charged, and ‘arts’ has a negative connotation regarding improving graduates’ job prospects, which is the main reason why Americans and currently enrolled college students value higher education.”
Let me see if I have this right: Because some Americans don’t understand that the term “liberal” has multiple meanings, and because they have grown accustomed to seeking career training and calling it “education,” we should cheapen an idea that has served us well for millennia? I’m not buying it. There is a lot of garbage on the internet these days, but it’s been a while since I read something so wrong-headed.
To be fair, Busteed is very clear that he is not criticizing the notion of liberal arts education per se. Rather, he focuses on a “branding” challenge. “Putting the words liberal and arts together is a branding disaster,” he writes, “and the most effective way to save or defend the liberal arts may be to change what we call them.”
The problem with Busteed’s claim, as I see it, is that he gives in so easily to the anti-intellectualism that currently pervades our culture. He is certainly correct in that some Americans—perhaps even many, though it’s hard to say since he only cites survey data from Republicans—see “liberal” as a loaded term. And my own conversations with my students confirm that many do view “education” as a means to a very specific end (that is, getting a job). Unfortunately, these are egregious misunderstandings of the terms themselves, and they completely miss the point of a liberal arts education. The deep irony here is that those who decry the “liberal arts” as nakedly ideological or useless are probably themselves the most ideological, and possibly the most in need of a liberal arts education.
Let’s examine etymology for a moment. (Early purveyors of the liberal arts, after all, would have read and spoken Latin, so we should have at least as a passing familiarity with it before we degrade their legacy.) The word “education” comes from the Latin educare, for “to teach” as well as educere, for “to lead or draw out.” This latter origin brings to mind for me Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which comes from Republic, itself a work of educational philosophy. Without wading too deep into Plato’s theory of Forms, one purpose of education is to draw students out of the cave of ignorance—to lead them from a world of shadows into the light of reality.
Building on this, the word “liberal” comes from the Latin liber, for “free.” It is the also the root of “liberty,” which was and is the real aim of a liberal arts education: to develop students’ ability to think critically and for themselves. Interestingly, the Latin liber is also translated as “book.” It is no accident that at the very core of the liberal arts are a set of skills—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—that we would today define as “literacy.” It is also no accident that these same skills form the foundation of a healthy republic. (And while we’re on the subject, should we also “re-brand” our republican form of government before the left-wingers work themselves into a tizzy?)
Without the skills and mindsets imparted by a liberal arts education, our democratic republic will fail. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday. As Jefferson famously wrote, “[I]f a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” As he (less famously) also wrote, “[L]aws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education [emphasis mine] worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” And before anyone tries to dismiss Jefferson by placing him on our present-day political spectrum, allow me to note that Jefferson was, in point of fact, a Democratic-Republican! (What does that even mean, you ask? Well, a liberal arts education might tell you.)
Contrast Busteed’s stance with the following quotation from the recently published The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance: “[A] liberal arts education—which should be a radical act against dependency and for self-sufficiency—was once conceived of, wrongly, as a luxury that only the rich needed.” The author is Ben Sasse, Republican senator from Nebraska. Clearly, this conservative recognizes the value of a liberal education, and moreover, he has no problem calling it that.
Perhaps I am being unfair to Mr. Busteed. After all, he does at least pay lip service to the notion that the liberal arts still have value in preparing students for civic life. (“The liberal arts curriculum is as important today as it was in ancient times,” he acknowledges.) But he also capitulates to the critics of the liberal arts without exposing the serious flaws in their thinking. We need not abandon the liberal arts themselves to lend credence to the notion that they are left-wing and/or useless, and to “re-brand” them in the face of ignorance would do just that.
Personally, I believe there are legitimate conversations to be had about the ideological skewing of the professoriate and the development of illiberal speech codes on college campuses. (I also think these issues are often blown out of proportion by ideologues, but that doesn’t mean the criticisms contain no validity whatsoever.) Likewise, I recognize that the prospect of finding remunerative work after graduation is a very real concern, especially for students from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, many of whom accrued significant debt for the privilege of becoming (like myself) the first in their families to earn a degree.
In fact, I think there are problems with our educational system at basically every level which demand solutions. What I do not think is that abandoning the term “liberal arts” will solve any of these problems. If anything, what we need are more people trained in the liberal arts: free citizens willing and able to read and to think, to question assumptions, to unpack and expose faulty logic, to marshal evidence in support of ideas, and to argue persuasively for a better way forward.
In order to equip more people with these skills, we must make a better case for the liberal arts—not simply “re-brand” them as something different. (And let’s not forget that the data Busteed cites comes amidst a widespread and coordinated emphasis on the so-called STEM fields—what amounts to a massive marketing campaign for one particular vision of education.) What we need today is a broader, more civic-minded vision.
Busteed’s conclusion misses the mark, but his piece does serve a valuable purpose: to alert us to an erosion of confidence in one of the cornerstones of our republic. If we don’t rise to meet this challenge head-on, our educational system will continue to narrow in its focus, and the liberal tradition in education will continue to slip away—with serious consequences for the liberty that we all cherish.