The Liberal Arts and the Fate of American Democracy
By Scott Samuelson, Rhodes Magazine, Fall 2014
The “liberal arts,” in their classical origins, represented a course of study for the few— the free men of Ancient Greece had plenty of time to cultivate their minds and participate in civic life while women, slaves, and servants took care of the necessary day-to-day work. Today, in the United States, we aspire to the idea of freedom for all, and so the education of the free—a liberal education—should also be available to everyone, says Scott Samuelson. Elementary and secondary education should be grounded in the liberal arts, and “citizens should have the opportunity to study the liberal arts in college without incurring onerous debt.”
Part of freedom for all involves work all as well as civic participation. As a result, there is an important place for career preparation in higher education, Samuelson says. “A just democracy requires that we all pitch in when it comes to the economy,” he continues, and “part of the genius of the American educational system is that it mixes liberal and technical education.” But the current emphasis on employability and standardized testing above all else threatens to undercut the tradition of free inquiry that has defined American higher education at its best. And it’s particularly troubling that this emphasis on career and technical training is often more pronounced at community colleges and other less selective institutions. “It should not be liberal education for some and narrow or illiberal education for others,” as AAC&U’s Board of Directors wrote in The Quality Imperative in 2010. “Access to educational excellence is the equity challenge of our time."
Twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that the end of the Cold War was “the end of history”—that liberal democracy had triumphed for good. We know better now, and “it’s not simply the authoritarian capitalism of China and the violent theocratic movements of the Middle East that challenge his thesis,” Samuelson says—“It’s that we ourselves run the danger of becoming illiberal.” This doesn’t have to be the case though. “With the help of the liberal arts, citizens widely participate in the government, workers have a voice in an innovative economy, and the widest number of people enjoy the best of the human inheritance.”
Read the full essay in Rhodes Magazine.