Apparently it’s open season on the value of the liberal arts in contemporary higher education. From new studies that reveal the paucity of financial rewards for humanities majors to complaints about the ideological insurgency that some see underway in the traditional study of arts and sciences, a fusillade of complaints and proposals is raining down in the media. Clearly there are bared teeth aplenty surrounding the tribe of liberal arts proponents.
In a recent essay for salon.com, Kim Brooks asks, “Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?” She holds an MFA in creative writing and has had the typical post-graduation experience of many liberal arts graduates:
I floundered. I worked as a restaurant hostess and tutored English-as-a-second-language . . . . I mooched off friends and boyfriends and slept on couches. One dreary night in San Francisco, I went on an interview to tend bar at a strip club, but left demoralized when I realized I’d have to walk around in stilettos. I went back to school to complete the pre-medical requirements I’d shunned the first time through, then a week into physics, I applied to nursing school, then withdrew from that program after a month . . . . I landed a $12-an-hour job as a paralegal at an asbestos-related litigation firm. I got an MFA in fiction.
Depending on how you look at it, I either spent a long time finding myself, or wasted seven years.
Her story is hardly an exception to the rule. I could recount numerous tales of friends, loved ones, and even my own experiences in affirmation of the rootlessness that sometimes seems to be spawned by liberal arts studies.
Part of the problem, of course, is that contemporary liberal arts education steers students toward a self-centered worldview that is founded on a belief that the world is meaningless. The seeds of this worldview were fertilized significantly by the rise of both modernism and postmodernism in the twentieth century. When T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” becomes your guiding text, it’s hard to avoid such a perspective. And most folks who deal with surviving in the “real” world just don’t see this as a viable worldview. It’s too impractical, too detached from reality.
Contemporary liberal arts education tends to harvest the fruit of the classical liberal arts and ferment it into an intoxicating, and even deadly, elixir, even as it tries to dig out the roots of the tradition and burn them, making a future harvest impossible.
Or nearly so, for the roots have a habit of spreading out and popping up as fresh shoots in all sorts of locations.
Augustine’s famous declaration is instructive in this matter:
“Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Confessions, Book One).
Prior to the Enlightenment, liberal learning in the West affirmed that entire statement. The Enlightenment pared the first half and the final clause from the declaration, presenting a peppy, optimistic little bon mot that we can find rest in the work of our own discoveries and inventions. The Modern era, however, destroyed that hope, leaving us with only a tepid declaration that rings all to true to liberal arts graduates who have been taught only equivocation and questions that turn their backs toward the existence of God and the possibilities of vocation:
“Our hearts are resless.”
2 Timothy 3:7 describes this intellectual ennui with precision: “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The problem now is that what we now call the liberal arts is not at all what the ancients would have called the liberal arts. Seneca’s Moral Epistle 88 declares that the liberal arts do not teach virtue but rather “they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue.” As liberal arts education merged with Christian thought, the progress of the trivium and the quadrivium established not only a moral framework but prepared the student for the really meaningful work of understanding reality (which we now call philosophy) and the God of reality (through theology, the “queen of the sciences.” The goal of all of this was the preparation of the individual for service, to the state for Romans and to the Kingdom of God for Christians.
Too often the liberal arts now are loci of insidious forms of solecism, the belief that the self is the only pure source of knowledge and virtue. Brown University’s website includes this description of their goals for liberal learning:
At Brown, rather than specifying [a defined body of knowledge], we challenge you to develop your own core. Our open curriculum ensures you great freedom in directing the course of your education, but it also expects you to remain open to people, ideas, and experiences that may be entirely new. By cultivating such openness, you will learn to make the most of the freedom you have, and to chart the broadest possible intellectual journey.
But this view of liberal learning is a relentless march toward irrelevance. The reality is that no one is the center of the universe. We may love to delude ourselves into thinking that we are little gods, establishing ourselves as the ultimate arbiters of reality, right and wrong, or even relevance, but this is delusional indeed in that it is not consistent with reality. The universe drips with meaning. To say otherwise is to turn one’s back on reality and grasp a mirror for self-gazing; no wonder so many students end up fleeing the liberal arts. It’s hard to sit at the feet of professors and peers who never look one in the eye because they are too busy examining themselves for signs of divinity.
The liberal arts lost their resonance with reality when they detached themselves from the authority of tradition and the reality of God. Once “liberal” meant to be liberated from the burdensome slavery of selfishness; now “liberal” means that we are freed from the hegemony of institutions and all authorities and are free to serve or even worship ourselves.
For Christians this is much more pointed as an issue. The liberal arts prepare us for our vocation, our calling. To detach the liberal arts from the concept of vocation is to make them worthless. And irrelevant. Read the biographies of such persons as William Carey, Francis Bacon, and George Washington Carver to see how this sort of learning truly found expression.
Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree? I daresay no. But it is time to tend to its roots and to reconnect it with the pursuit of the Truth, which yields ultimate meaning and understanding, all for His glory.