The Irreplaceable Liberal Arts

A recent report in the New York Times made me incredibly sad. Here are the introductory paragraphs:

In proposing last week to eliminate 169 faculty positions and cut more than 30 degree programs from its flagship university, West Virginia, the state with the fourth-highest poverty rate in the country, is engaging in a kind of educational gerrymandering. If you’re a West Virginian with plans to attend West Virginia University, be prepared to find yourself cut out of much of the best education that the school has traditionally offered, and many of the most basic parts of the education offered by comparable universities.

The planned cuts include the school’s program of world languages and literatures, along with graduate programs in mathematics and other degrees across the arts and pre-professional programs. The university is deciding, in effect, that certain citizens don’t get access to a liberal arts education.

The article makes it clear that West Virginia is not alone.  Politicians and state officials–primarily in poorer Red states– are taking an ax to liberal arts education. As the article correctly notes, “this trend, typically led by Republican-controlled legislatures and often masquerading as budgetary necessity, threatens to have dire long-term effects on our already polarized and divided nation.”

Once again, it becomes critical to support study of the liberal arts. As I have previously argued, “paradigm” may be the most appropriate word to use in connection with the importance of the liberal arts, because the liberal arts allow us to form the paradigm–the world-view– we need in order to function in an era of rapid change.

Americans today inhabit a world that is increasingly global and–despised as the term has come to be on the political Right–multicultural. Navigating it requires a broad familiarity with our human history, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology, studies that  prepare us to encounter, appreciate and survive in that world.

The liberal arts teach us how to be rational and analytic in an increasingly irrational age. They teach us to be respectful not just of results but of process–to understand that “how” and “why” are as important as “what.”

Most important, from my admittedly academic and civil libertarian perspective, the study of the liberal arts requires–indeed, is based upon– a profound respect for the importance of human liberty. The life of the mind depends upon freedom to consider any and all ideas, information, points of view. It cannot flower in a totalitarian environment.

Technocrats can live with Big Brother, but poets and philosophers cannot.

It may be trite, but it is nevertheless true that learning how to communicate and learning how to learn are the essential survival skills. If all one learns is a trade–no matter how highly compensated the particular trade might be–he or she is lost when that trade is no longer in demand. But even if that never happens, lack of familiarity with the liberal arts makes it less likely that a person’s non-work life will be full and rich. There is nothing wrong with learning a trade; it’s important and worthwhile. But there is a profound difference between “trade school” and the process of acquiring an education. That difference is the liberal arts.

As the Times essay concludes:

The humanities are under threat more broadly across the nation because of the perceived left-wing ideology of the liberal arts. Book bans, attempts to undermine diversity efforts and remodeled school curriculums that teach that slavery was about “skill” development are part of a larger coordinated assault on the supposed “cultural Marxism” of the humanities. (That absurd idea rests in part on an antisemitic fantasy in which left-leaning philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse somehow took control of American culture after the Second World War.) To resist this assault, we must provide broad access to a true liberal arts education.

The campaign to overturn the liberal arts is politically motivated, through and through. The Democratic Party has lost the working class, while the Republican Party has made electoral gains among the least educated. With the help of consultants, Republicans seek to gut the (nonprofit or public) university in the name of a “profit” it doesn’t even intend to deliver. The point instead is to divide the electorate, and higher education is the tool.

We are seeing overtly political efforts to turn the nation’s classrooms and libraries into Rightwing echo chambers. School libraries should be managed by the librarians who are committed to intellectual freedom. History lessons should accurately portray both the admirable and the disgraceful. A liberal arts education should be accessible to all students–not just those with the financial wherewithal to attend “elite” universities.

What West Virginia University is doing is appalling–and very, very dangerous.


  1. Professor-your words ring true. I am so proud of my Liberal Arts education and I work in a highly technical field. Today’s column remind of your column a couple of weeks ago about David Brooks. Thanks for your words, today.

  2. Some time ago, it seemed a parents dream was for their children to have, to achieve, beyond what they, the parents, had. That was success. Now the right wing mantra seems to be, “It was good enough for me, it’s good enough for (everyone).” Apparently, even the West By-G-d coal mines.

  3. Sheila writes, “The life of the mind depends upon freedom to consider any and all ideas, information, points of view.”

    It is a common misconception among Republicans that liberal arts education is inherently tied to liberal politics. However, it is important to note that one’s political beliefs are often shaped by personal experiences and realizations, rather than solely through education.

    Furthermore, it is crucial to acknowledge that the current political system is heavily influenced and controlled by the oligarchy. It is only through the collective efforts of the working class that we can hope to combat and overcome this oppression. Those who clamor about differences in tribes miss the point entirely.

    This attack against all things “woke” or “liberal” is nonsensical.

  4. The republicans—I refuse to capitalize that word anymore—are fearful, and that makes them dangerous. And they know that their only hope for success and survival is to instill fear in others. The last thing they want is people to learn how to think and be able to see beyond the smoke and mirrors, and see that they have no actual policies, nothing that can make people’s lives better.
    A cornered animal is a dangerous animal.

  5. Everyone, so far, as presented truth. I like Todd’s reference to the word “liberal” in liberal arts. Republicans are truly that shallow that any use of the word terrifies their already weak minds. So, naturally, Republican-operated states REQUIRE more weak minds like theirs in order to win elections.

    That’s it for these creatures. Win elections. Control government. Rake in the profits for their donors. End of story. Who needs a liberal arts education to do that?

  6. Here’s the latest update from sunny Fla. The state board of (mis)education has required all state schools and universities have in place a requirement for each faculty or student to use the restroom of their assigned-at-birth sex. Faculty face firing for violating the order. Welcome to the free state of Florida (unless you’re different)!

  7. Required reading for the concerned: “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” from the the good old 60’s…

    Now – teach “facts”/cleansed multiple choice answers and STEM – graduate – make money and have fun….

  8. sounds like a fla, like get that faculty out and go somewhere else,along with like the above subject of slashing liberal arts from red state education. streamline the process of indoctrination to so-called todays conservitive(eugenic style) populism under the so-called republican party. reading todays article in tandem with todays blog,The Guardians ,hes an insider,ramaswamy’s deep ties to
    rightwing kingpins reveled. seems to show how the lose of liberal arts and a path to the mentioned think tanks ,orgs etc,in the Guardians article, is carving out how the education for students is now a open warfare for closed minds. looking back at reading about some of those orgs mentioned in the article shows the ties,er money,and more influence being used to direct minds,into a perverse thought of ending liberals. its taken 40+ years for the reagan elites to march this far, how long before even the demos fall in lockstep? seems my theory is right, they wont stop until the rich and law maker take America for themselves and make it a buisness for themselves. watch putin,hes been on this for decades..

  9. It would seem that the simple name “LIBERAL Arts” terrifies the dunderheads who shudder at the thought of people being able to engage in critical thinking.
    “When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.” Stephen Jay Gould

  10. Mitch – nice Gould quote…perhaps modifiable to “When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their FEARS, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.”

  11. Here we go back to 1963 and beyond when Tom Paxton wrote “What Did You Lean in Scool Today?”

    “What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    I learned that Washington never told a lie.
    I learned that soldiers never die.
    I learned that everybody’s free,
    And that’s what the teacher said to me.
    That’s what I learned in school today,
    That’s what I learned in school.
    What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    I learned that policemen are my friends.
    I learned that justice never ends.
    I learned that murderers die for their crimes
    Even if we make a mistake sometimes.
    That’s what I learned in school today,
    That’s what I learned in school.
    What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    I learned that Government must be strong;
    It’s always right and never wrong;
    Our leaders are the finest men
    And we elect them again and again.
    That’s what I learned in school today,
    That’s what I learned in school.

    What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    What did you learn in school today,
    Dear little boy of mine?
    I learned that war is not so bad;
    I learned about the great ones we have had;
    We fought in Germany and in France
    And someday I might get my chance.

    That’s what I learned in school today,
    That’s what I learned in school.

  12. It’s interesting that those running the effort to change wide ranging broad education to simple job training are a all highly educated, ivy league graduates with a broad based education.

    Gosh, it’s almost like removing critical thinking skills and criticism from schools is good for the top 10% who want quiet, dedicated, opinionless workers. Whoda thunk it?

  13. Sheila. Everything you said about the value of liberal arts also applies to the scientific process. Many people confuse science with technology but it is far more than that. It is the systematic pursuit of knowledge which requires critical thinking, emphasis on process, excellent communication and learning how to learn. It requires the freedom to pursue ideas and evidence wherever they may lead and builds a coherent world view or paradigm.
    True science and liberal arts are not in conflict. When pursued with integrity, they compliment and reinforce each other.

  14. John Quincy Adams — ‘I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.’

    We don’t need no stinking poets!

  15. Excellent, Sheila. You are so correct–and we have talked about these things before. STEM classes are important–of course they are. We need science. Technology has certainly made my life easier. Math? I can do math. Everyone needs to do Math. But when I seek JOY in my life, I don’t find it in reminiscing about my algebra classes. I find joy in the HUMANITIES. I love the music I studied as a child. I love the art classes I’ve taken–and the studio in my home where I can continue to paint. And books and writing–pure joy for me.
    A well-rounded education should contain the sciences AND the humanities. Both areas teach us skills–but the humanities teach us where and how to find joy in our lives.

  16. The liberal arts are meant to be liberating—liberation from prejudice, sloppy thinking, ethnocentrism, unexamined assumptions and group think, blind loyalties, etc. They are foundational to democratic citizenship. Given all that, the MAGA resistance to liberal education makes total sense. But it is frightening and a terrible tragedy for America.

  17. Sharon and others: I totally agree about the study of science! There’s a reason most universities have schools of liberal arts and sciences!

  18. Pat. The joy you find in the humanities I find in the sciences. May we each find our joy and appreciate what brings joy to others.

  19. It is NOT the “study of science” that is the issue. It is presenting science as “just the facts, m’am” without consideration of objective scientific methods, ethics in research, “literacy-related” issues such as data literacy, visual literacy, etc..

  20. Scientific inquiry eventually leads to where the mystics already dwell — in mystery.
    Love both liberal arts and science!

  21. On the road to a medical degree, I majored in chemistry and minored in English lit, and served as co-editor of the campus literary magazine. A long career in medical science and administration was enriched by writing about a passion for aviation, playing guitar, reading widely, attending cultural events, etc. In both my scientific and cultural education, I was taught critical thinking and passion for new ideas, among many other intellectual skills. Science and the liberal arts are not incompatible, not in opposition; they are essential to an informed, humane, and satisfying life in a complex and ever-changing world.

  22. As some other commenters have said, I think a big part of this is that Republicans and their supporters have been trained to regard LIBERAL as a boogity-boogity-boo scareword. Consequently anything associated with the word is an “enemy” to be eliminated.

    More subtly, I think it’s tied to the Know-Nothing impulse to isolate the bulk of the population from any information or ideas that might leak in from non-USA sources that don’t support the blinkered view of reality that too often prevails here (and that Republican lawmakers would like to make mandatory). If no one can read French/German/Spanish/Arabic/etc., then you don’t have to worry about what they might find out by reading sources from those countries. If no one reads the philosophical and political works of the past, then you don’t have to worry about them applying the lessons of history to present-day orthodoxy. If no one receives training or encouragement in critical thinking, you don’t have to worry about them applying such thinking to your policies and propaganda. (Read your Orwell; he’s more relevant now than ever.)

    “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm / After they’ve seen Paree?”

    Simple, you don’t let them see “Paree” in the first place.

    It’s working, for some part of the population. I know people who continue to insist, despite multiple firsthand accounts to the contrary, that no one in Canada can get medical treatment, because “socialized medicine is a failure, they saw it on The (Fox) News.” And so on, and on.

  23. One of my favorite genres is Sci-fi. It combines the beauty and order of science with the creative application of science to the imagination of a much different future. Dark, ominous, exciting, mind expanding, futuristic, escapist, fanciful, you name it.

    Job skill requirements are ever changing, even faster than ever as technology pushes toward AI and all of the probable, possible, unimaginable resulting consequences of dependence on artificial intelligence. Specific skills of value today may be obsolete tomorrow. Education is an ongoing process for everyone, every hour of every day!
    Education provides tools for growth, progress and the pursuit of happiness. Almost any job is easy if you have the appropriate tools to complete it. The challenge continues with the need for new tools for new problems to solve. Education provides the tools for creating the new tools or adapting the old tools for new applications.

    Think about the artists, sculptors, architects, builders, carpenters, musicians, electricians, plumbers, any skilled tradespeople and professionals. I bet the geniuses in all of those areas know that history, math, communication, organization and experimentation were the foundations of ideas for the future. Where did they get those? From education, formal or otherwise. It matters.

    Student may pay for loans for job training that likely will be worthless in the future. They may have little choice but to incur more debt as they realize the demand for new skills requires further training funded by new loans. And guess who pays and who loses and who gains?

  24. Is there any species more diverse than people? Well, for instance, my dog is as unique as I am.

    Liberals love diversity and have always protected it with speech. Like, for instance, what we each choose to learn about formally and informally. Authoritarians have countered with making laws restricting people’s choices. The former is Constitutional the latter is not. Where is SCOTUS when we need them? Gone authoritarian as well as corrupt.

  25. Thank you for capturing how and why getting a liberal arts education gives students the desire and ability to lead productive and meaningful lives. In the 1960s my liberal arts college education began with a required summer reading of a book entitled “On Becoming an Educated Person”. This was followed by a required four day a week humanities core experience for all freshmen. My husband earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy before studying to become a piano tuner. Those two areas of concentration have been a good match that together have helped bring him a rewarding life.

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