The president of a small rural liberal arts college tells me he no longer uses the term “liberal arts,” after one of his neighbors challenged him with “What’s wrong with ‘conservative arts’?”
His neighbor may have a point. To first generation college-goers, sons and daughters of rural and diverse working-class families, a “liberal arts college” may seem like an elite club, or it may evoke fears of ideological entrapment.
We face a serious challenge to our democratic way of life in the adverse political reaction toward education stemming from a perceived loss of status among a significant sector of our population. Thomas Edsall, writing recently in the New York Times, cites the work a Danish political scientist Michael Bang Peterson that “Education has emerged as a clear cleavage in addition to more traditional indicators of social class.” Petersen asks: “What happens to those without the skills and abilities needed to move up the education ladder to a position of prestige in an increasingly competitive world?” For Edsall, Peterson’s answer is, “They have become populism’s frontline troops.”
This political phenomenon compounds a declining appreciation of the liberal arts among America’s youth. A 2017 Art & Science Group, LLC, poll among prospective college students reported that only 38 percent of students believe that a liberal arts education “is the best education for them,” and about a quarter of those surveyed “did not feel they know enough to have an opinion,” a view prevalent among students from non-college families.
It may be time to rethink the terms “liberal arts” and “liberal education,” as we have had to recalibrate “man” or “mankind” when we mean “humanity.” The decline in enrollment among many private liberal arts colleges that have not achieved “ivy league” status is a warning that something needs to change if those colleges are to survive and continue to offer a liberal education to twenty-first-century students.
In response to evidence of a growing hostility toward liberal education by those on the right, our liberal arts colleges can do more than try to protect their legacy: they can help rescue our democracy from increasingly polarization by recruiting and welcoming a broader spectrum of young people into the conversations about ideas, issues, enduring questions they might find only at a liberal arts college. We cannot hope to produce active, civic-minded citizens able to embrace ideas like equality and sustainability unless our colleges reach out to them and the communities they come from. We cannot allow a revered academic trademark—i.e., “liberal arts”—to deter potential students for whom its aura makes them feel they don’t belong.
Any attempt to replace the nomenclature of “liberal education” and “liberal arts” will be met with outrage from faculty, alumni, and all for whom those terms connote enclaves of free inquiry, scientific reasoning, intellectual freedom, classical wisdom, and a commitment to truth in a world rife with demagoguery and misinformation. They, too, have a point. If the response to charges of intellectual bias, elitism, or subservience to left-leaning values were to lead to a dismantling of liberal arts curricula in favor of bland, idea-neutral, consumerist, and/or populist-leaning programming, it would likely propel American higher education into twenty-first-century barbarism.
Somehow, we have to find the language—and, more critically, the academic structures—to bridge this chasm, to demystify what it is that the liberal arts can offer to a broader spectrum of American youth, as we design ways to make a liberal education more welcoming and less foreboding to underserved communities throughout our nation.
What, then, is to be done with “liberal arts” and “liberal education”? Let’s start by rejecting unprincipled attacks on, or an unexamined defense of, those terms. Both violate the spirit of free inquiry that liberal education espouses. And since higher education, including the liberal arts, is fundamental to both our economy and our democracy, to close our eyes to criticism and to avoid self-reflection is futile.
There is no facile remedy, no quick fix in the lexicon, just as there is no simple epistemic cure to racism or sexism or homophobia. We might be tempted with “empowering arts and sciences,” or “essential learning and understanding,” but our solution must evolve out of deep reflection, not a verbal slight of hand. Nomenclature is but the tip of the ideological iceberg that threatens higher education.
Our approach should reflect the best traditions of a liberal education, beginning with an open and frank exploration of our meritocratic educational system, from “tracking” of K-12 students according to supposed “ability,” to SAT and ACT tests that reflect parental education and affluence, to “honors” programs that offer to the few an intensity of learning that would benefit all. We should also expand “diversity” at the intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class, to include the children of rural and working-class families. This will not be an easy conversation on our campuses, but it must be an inclusive one that brings a college’s neighbors to the table. College folk should bear in mind that they are there to listen to their neighbors, not to enlighten them.
It means helping our colleges and universities reclaim an identity most were born with—a commitment to serving needs, solving problems, and expanding opportunity in the communities that brought them into existence. Too many liberal arts colleges, seeking “ivy” status, have evolved over the decades to define their “community” more nationally, and in the process have lost sight of the principle that, in the end, the local is global and the global is local. Many—though not all—have ignored this “village commons” aspect of their heritage. The result is an inability to communicate effectively with a large pool of area folk who need to see the college as a welcoming resource.
Once a college regains its status as a “village commons,” partnering with area towns and cities to seek solutions to local problems, and national problems with local impact, the obstacles inherent in the terms “liberal arts” and “liberal education” will resolve themselves. People will find the right words to describe just how essential the mission of their local college or university is to their future wellbeing, and those institutions will have come to realize just how valuable their local communities can be both to the fulfillment of their mission and to their continued survival. We can turn our attention to making liberal education desirable, achievable, and affordable to students from underserved communities whose goals include high quality employment in their field and the option to remain within their communities to build lives as fully engaged citizens.