Liberal Education

The Continuous Death and Resurrection of the Liberal Arts

The death of the “liberal arts,” however defined, is a motif of lament in American higher education. It became a popular leitmotif in the late nineteenth century. But like a Monty Python character, it keeps lifting its head and proclaiming, “I’m not dead yet.” Over the past century, there have been heated debates about the future of the liberal arts curriculum, mostly based in a narrative of decline from a golden age just beyond the time horizon. But the ideal of a broad general education in the liberal arts has been resilient. One cause of that resilience is the organized defense of the liberal arts conducted by the Association of American Colleges (AAC), later the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The founders of the AAC in 1915 were worried about the future of the liberal arts college. The invention of the major and the proliferation of institutions, such as land-grant universities, that had “careerist” agendas threatened the validity of the old liberal arts curricula, with their foci on the humanities and languages. The debate within liberal arts colleges in the years before World War I was about how to, and whether to, unite the curricula of the liberal arts and the new career majors.

Essentially, there were two conflicting visions of education warring for control of the American academy. The older tradition, sometimes called the “generalist” position, saw higher education as a time of broadening and deepening the character of the men (mostly) who went through it. The other saw higher education as a way to deliver valuable career skills, a position referred to as “careerist.” Under pressure from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to accept its pension plans by adopting its model of curricular organization, most colleges had begun to package the curriculum in the same way, and most were seeking to resolve the tension between the generalists and the careerists. In some, of course, the careerists were winning. This was true especially in the land grants, with their explicitly secular applied curricula (even though the law charged them to ensure an education in the liberal arts, too). Most institutions had multiple masters, and their curricula were pulled and pushed by them. Some institutions almost belonged to their benefactors, many of whom wished to create German-style research universities. The interventions of wealthy founders like Jane Stanford had great influence, and so did the religious denominations that owned many American colleges.

Many college presidents—and these predominated among the founders of the AAC, whose inception came from the Council of Church Boards of Education—represented the tradition of Christian liberal arts education. Education was for the good of the soul. In what they saw as a fight for the soul of America and the survival of their colleges, they sided with the generalists and were suspicious of the careerists. The first issue of the AAC Bulletin was devoted to the Christian education of young men. Of course, it was a small, mostly elite, group of young men, whether black or white, taught in very small institutions. But even there, the pressures to provide career tracks were forcing change, because of the competition from huge state institutions.1

The crisis that threatened their higher education industry was forcing alterations in the curriculum. For instance, by 1910, Wake Forest University had abandoned a traditional liberal arts curriculum and replaced it with the sort of general education/major program that is familiar today. This new model was intended to provide a broad liberal education, while reducing dropout rates and smoothing entry into the professional curriculum in the junior year.2

But this sort of 2+2 curriculum prompted another question. If the liberal arts occurred in the first two years of the curriculum, how were they to be judged? If they were to do what they promised, how could they do it within that constricted space of sixty Carnegie units? And should all faculty teach the general subjects? Should faculty members be allowed to do research when they were hired to teach? Was learning more effective if undergraduate research was required? The subjects within the liberal arts curriculum began to swell, becoming plumper and plumper as “nouveau” disciplines like communications crowded in with claims to teach the things the liberal arts taught. And something had to be sacrificed to make room. Some of the core of the old curriculum was pushed out. Colleges began dropping the requirement of classical languages for admission, and high schools followed suit. In their place came modern languages (sometimes) and social sciences, on the German model, almost always.

The First World War

World War I changed the apologia for the liberal arts, as their defenders claimed them as preparation for leadership in war and peace. They asserted that a liberal arts education was necessary for the defense of Euro-American values. The year 1917 saw the beginnings of the “western civilization” curriculum at Chicago as a “why we fight” class for men about to be sent into World War I. The presidents who attended AAC meetings made it clear that their colleges would do what it took to support the war effort, but the tension between the careerists and the generalists remained, even if they agreed civilization had to be saved. One type of institution made civilization and civilizing the primary business of higher education. Other types argued that salvation lay in an education that escaped the musty restraints of ancient learning and taught scientific management and “useful” sciences. Some of the generalists rejected the utility argument in favor of great books and ideas; others tried to compromise between them.

The “Civilization” curriculum at the University of Chicago developed into the Common Core movement associated with Maynard Hutchins and Norman Adler. Hutchins, seeing an education in the great ideas as essential to civil society and world peace, attempted to redesign higher education. While he was president of the University of Chicago, he presided over a new curriculum exposing students to four years of the “Great Books.” Hutchins later influenced the establishment of the St. John’s Annapolis curriculum, with its “perennialist” four-year core of classical texts. Anti-historical, this sort of general education core assumes that great ideas speak clearly across the historical gulf.3

Hutchins and his colleagues had rejected specialization in favor of the eternal truths, but in most American colleges there was a more pragmatic approach, seeking to unite the personal formation of the individual with good citizenship, ethics, and responsibility.

That civic improvement argument intensified as the social and political crises of the 1930s became more frightening. By 1939 a new rhetoric of liberal arts had emerged, less interested in the great ideas and more focused on bettering society. Lotus Delta Coffman, president of the University of Minnesota, put it this way in an issue of the AAC Bulletin:

A liberal education is not a matter of studying certain subjects; it may flow from any subject. It implies something more than knowledge of the social sciences, of art, of literature, and of mathematics. Indeed, one may graduate from a liberal arts college without having been liberalized at all. The most important by-product of every subject of study should be a liberal mind. And what do we mean by a liberal mind? We mean a mind that has broad interests, wide knowledge, cultivated tastes, appreciation and sound perspective. We mean a mind that is open and tolerant, ready and willing to face new situations and to interpret them in terms of knowledge as it relates to social welfare. We mean a mind that includes a standard of ethics and a keen sense of responsibility.4

That liberally educated mind was inoculated against the nasty dogmas loose in the world. William F. Russell explained, in “How To Tell a Communist and How to Beat Him,” that “the only way to fight an idea is by meeting it with another idea; and the only way you can meet it with another idea is by proper education.” He called for teaching students about the ideas of fascism and communism “right down to the bottom.” This would protect America from the evils stalking Europe.5 “Our institutions of learning,” wrote Louis C. Wright, president of Baldwin-Wallace College, “are to train men and women not for war, but for the world beyond and after war . . . helping build minds that can see and persons who can lead . . . in the world day after tomorrow!”6

The Second World War

This argument for the broader curriculum became prominent in World War II when some politicians and educational leaders favored shortened degrees that contained no liberal education, restricting the curriculum to utilitarian STEM subjects needed for war work. Winning the war required chemists, not humanists.

The generalists pushed back hard against this narrowing conception of higher education. At Harvard, President Conant launched a review of American education in 1943 that produced the 1945 report, General Education in a Free Society. In its preface, Conant recognized that the shape of American education was changing:

The war has precipitated a veritable downpour of books and articles dealing with education. In particular the future of the liberal arts colleges has been a subject of widespread discussion both within and without the academic walls. There is hardly a university or college in the country which has not had a committee at work in these war years considering basic educational questions and making plans for drastic revamping of one or more curricula. . . . The Association of American Colleges has not only sponsored the publication of a book on the liberal arts but it has also arranged important conferences dealing with various phases of college education.

The report of the Harvard committee went beyond Harvard, and beyond the narrow remit of the liberal arts taught in elite institutions. It sought to define an adequate education for “all American youth.”7

Conant’s committee deliberately chose to talk about “general education” rather than “liberal education” because they wanted it to be clear that the report was responding to the tremendous problems caused by the democratization of American high schools and the need for generally educated citizens. Besides causing the “elephantine” growth of athletics and the “strange flourishing” of fraternities, the influx of new students brought with them a “Babel of gifts and backgrounds.”8 Analyzing the issues in what we would now call a “K–16” perspective, they suggested ways to provide the general education everyone needed. Musing on the change they were seeing around them, they wrote, “We are at a turning point indeed in human affairs though we can do no more than guess what vectors may be needed to describe our spin. General education is the sole means by which communities can protect themselves from the ill effects of overrapid [sic.] change.”9

The Truman Commission report of 1947 confirmed Harvard’s argument for a general education component in all degrees—though that component was broadening to include more and more subjects. As it says, “Education is by far the biggest and the most hopeful of the Nation’s enterprises. Long ago our people recognized that education for all is not only democracy’s obligation but its necessity. Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.”10 The report therefore concerned itself with national unity, liberty, and equality, preparing Americans for international leadership in the age of the atomic bomb. Education was for a “better nation and a better world.”11

The Cold War

The demobilization of America’s armies combined with the GI Bill to direct a torrent of people into higher education who would never have been there otherwise, while the continued militarization of the Cold War directed a torrent of research money toward campuses. The enrollment of returning service men and the explosion of funded research challenged the liberal arts tradition in new ways. The veterans were less interested in the “impractical” side of the curriculum and were more anxious to have employable degrees, beginning a change in emphasis on campuses that often pushed the general education offerings into a corner and made them ever more general in order to allow students to find “relevant” courses. Even liberal arts colleges succumbed and got into the business of business schools.

By the end of the baby-boom expansion in the mid-1960s, the debate between the generalists and the careerists had bowdlerized the curriculum. General education, though nearly ubiquitous, had lost its meaning and focus in the rush for expansion. By the early 1970s the demand for “relevance” in the curriculum broadened a river that was already a mile wide and an inch deep. Moreover, popular support for liberal education was declining. By the mid-1980s, the Carnegie Foundation, revising its classifications of higher education institutions in America, discovered that the number of liberal arts colleges had been cut in half since the classification’s beginning in 1970.12

At the same time, expanding government funding and changing student bodies put pressure on the AAC. It had been an inclusive tent, but it became harder to be all-inclusive when government money was involved. The AAC was lobbying for independent colleges and universities with federal funding agencies, to the annoyance of its members that were public institutions competing for the same dollars. The split between liberal arts schools and the large public institutions became increasingly apparent, and the AAC found itself caught in the middle of a difficult battle over institutional roles and responsibilities. Ironically, the problem was compounded by federal student aid. Students had more choice, even as the demand for college grew. But how those dollars were directed caused trouble within the AAC. As the AAC’s leaders feared, federal money was influencing the way higher education understood its roles.

The new paymasters were asking for more and more information about their investments: data on admissions, data on completions, data on “value added.” At the same time, the glut of faculty in the 1970s permitted institutions to drastically reduce their unit cost of credit hour production by turning to contingent faculty, who, although perhaps exceptional, were not responsible for the formation of students, just the delivery of credit hours. The expansion had neglected general education, and by 1977 there were voices of concern from all sides. That year, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching declared general education to be a disaster area, the US Department of Education’s report Educating for Survival called for a new core curriculum to strengthen social bonds, and Harvard issued a call for the reform of general education. Just the year before, the AAC, taking note of internal strife, split off the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and changed its own focus to address the urgent need for curricular reform.13

That change opened the AAC to a broader audience and, as it became seen as a national voice in the debates about liberal education, it attracted as members institutions that had once shunned it as an elite organization. The shift of its interests was embodied in Integrity in the College Curriculum, a 1985 report that would guide the association’s responses to curricular issues and transform it into the leading forum for discussions of undergraduate curricula.14 Eventually, the association recognized the expanding nature of its role by changing its name to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in 1995.

Meanwhile, leaders of American higher education were seeking solutions to the decay of general education. As educators agonized about what was to be done, proposals for reform began to emerge. On the one hand, there were seminal calls for reinvigoration, like those coming from Ernest Boyer. On the other hand, there were growing calls for higher education to be more accountable to its stakeholders, along with a growing public repudiation of the taxpayers’ responsibility to make higher education affordable. The latter movement was embodied by Ronald Reagan, who, as governor of California and later president, defined liberal education as an intellectual luxury the nation could do without. He dismantled the lavish public support for higher education in California. As president, he wanted to remove federal support for “intellectual curiosity,” proposing to abolish the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.15 He failed to kill the endowments, learning that it is dangerous to stir up America’s most articulate groups, but in defense, and offense, higher education redoubled its struggle for accountability in the curriculum.16

In this atmosphere of distrust and concern, Ernest Boyer’s ideas about how to repair the undergraduate curriculum were seminal. His College: The Undergraduate Experience in America was published in 1987, capturing the frustration over the decaying undergraduate curriculum. Leading a team of seventy-five researchers, Boyer made recommendations on how to improve teaching and learning on campuses. Among other things, he called for integration of general education with the major, undergraduate research, better faculty rewards for teaching, and smaller classes. What he did not do, however, was explain how to implement these changes.

It was at this time that AAC/AAC&U began to think about the practicalities involved with improving undergraduate education. The change in the association reflected changes in practice and perception going on in the member institutions. The very growth of the association points to how institutional attention to undergraduate education and the values of the liberal arts had brought schools to the table that were notably absent in earlier years. The association became the “big tent” in which over 1,300 colleges and universities wrestle with their common concerns.

The new century

But all the learning innovation sponsored by AAC&U in the late twentieth century was not changing the narrative of decline about the liberal arts that had begun in the late nineteenth century. The claims of their demise mixed, ironically, with attacks on liberal education as too elitist, too expensive, and too impractical—claims heard in 1915 and still being parroted in 2015. But when Carol Geary Schneider became president of AAC&U, the association went on the offensive against this folkloric dismissal of the liberal arts. Trained as a historian of the seventeenth century British civil wars, she understood the need to actively change the narrative in the heads of faculty, policymakers, and the public. As she wrote in 2001, “Liberal education at the dawn of the twenty-first century rates an A for creativity and D- (or worse) for communication.”17

Consulting with educators, looking for good examples, and engaging with the press and policymakers, AAC&U publicized the importance of liberal education and helped change the curricula, engaging in the debates about assessment, value added, faculty status, diversity, civic engagement, and other matters about which faculty, institutions, and the public care. Importantly, it began commissioning surveys of employers, demonstrating with data that a liberal arts education was valued in the marketplace.

All of this came together in the 2002 report Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. The report articulated the purpose of a liberal arts education and provided models for innovation in curriculum and structure. Liberal Education and America’s Promise, a public advocacy and campus action initiative aimed at creating common aspirations and understanding around undergraduate education, followed in 2005. Taking the next step, AAC&U partnered with Lumina Foundation on the first version of the Degree Qualifications Profile which was released in 2011,18 providing a way for institutions to display, assess, and explain the relationship between the liberal arts and the majors.

In the process, listening to its members, AAC&U voiced a new understanding of what the liberal arts are. Bringing together the warring perspectives of the careerist and the generalists, it articulated the liberal arts as being about the student, rather than the institution.19 Remarkably, this new way of defining the liberal arts/general education managed to put the round peg of traditional liberal arts, with their focus on individual formation, into the square hole of careerism. By centering on the student, rather than the institutional type, the delivery method, or the content area, it reaffirms what has been obvious to most thoughtful observers: a broad liberal education is possible and necessary for all and should prepare graduates simultaneously for work, civic participation, and life. Moreover, we know what kinds of teaching make it possible, and there many places where good practices are available for copying.

These developments were timely. As America entered the Great Recession of 2008, higher education, like the rest of the country, felt the pain. Using these new tools to chart a course, the AAC&U membership was armed against some of the austerity forced on higher education. If anything, the recession made the need for an understanding of outcomes that matter more important than ever, just like during the Great Depression. As the president of the AAC said in 1932, “There may be revolutions and panics—social, political, military, and financial. The colleges refuse to be moved thereby from their steady purpose to achieve.”20 In both instances, AAC&U met the recessionary calls for a narrower, skills- and jobs-related curriculum with strong data and clearly articulated values.

Have the careerists or the generalists won? Neither—and it is unlikely that either ever will. American higher education holds the values of both in creative tension. The liberal arts college has not died, and neither has the research university. In 1915, it seemed the liberal arts curriculum was going the way of the buggy whip, but it did not. It changed as social needs changed, but it has always been recognized as an important part of students’ preparation. No matter how dark things may seem, no matter how presentist the pundits, liberal education seems set to continue—as will AAC&U, without whose leadership the past hundred years in American higher education might have looked very different.


1. Mark H. Curtis, “Crisis and Opportunity: The Founding of AAC,” Liberal Education 100, no. 4 (2014): 23.

2. See Robert L. Kelly, “The Colleges as Educational Laboratories,” Association of American Colleges Bulletin 13, no. 4 (1927): 333.

3. See Anne H. Stevens, “The Philosophy of General Education and Its Contradictions: The Influence of Hutchins,” Journal of General Education 50, no. 3 (2001): 165–91.

4. Lotus Delta Coffman, “Freedom and the Liberal Mind,” Association of American Colleges Bulletin 25, no. 2 (1939): 241–2.

5. William F. Russell, “How To Tell a Communist and How to Beat Him” Association of American Colleges Bulletin 25, no. 2 (1939): 326–34.

6. Louis C. Wright, “Victorious Education,” Association of American Colleges Bulletin 25, no. 2 (1939): 492.

7. General Education in a Free Society: Report of the Harvard Committee (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), v.

8. Ibid., 33–34.

9. Ibid., 266.

10. President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for American Democracy, vol. 1, Establishing the Goals (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947), 25.

11. Ibid., 5.

12. See “Change: Trendlines—The Liberal Arts Perspective,” Change 17, no. 4 (1985): 31–33.

13. This process is described in Mark H. Curtis, “Crisis and Opportunity: The Founding of AAC,” Liberal Education 100, no. 4 (2014): 25.

14. See Carol Geary Schneider, “Challenge and Response: Integrity and AAC&U’s Reform Initiatives, 1985–1994,” Liberal Education 100, no. 4 (2014): 28–37.

15. Dan Berrett, “The Day the Purpose of College Changed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 2015,

16. I testified at the Senate hearings on the NEH and the NEA, along with Leontyne Price and Buckminster Fuller. Price sang her testimony, and drew huge press coverage.

17. Carol Geary Schneider, “Liberal Education: A for Creativity; D- for Communication . . . ,” Liberal Education 87, no. 3 (2001): 2.

18. See

19. See Association of American Colleges and Universities, College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council on Liberal Education and America’s Promise (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007).

20. “Who Said Depression,” Association of American Colleges Bulletin 18, no. 3 (1932): 258.

Norman Jones is professor of history and former director of general education and curricular integration at Utah State University, and senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Previous Issues