Linker – How to Save Liberal Arts Education

Writing for The Week, senior correspondent and consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press Damon Linker discusses the challenges facing the liberal arts in higher education and suggests a plan of action.

In his article, “How to Save Liberal Arts Education,” Linker addresses the trends working against the study of liberal arts within America’s higher educational system.  However, he suggests that the liberal arts may not actually be doomed as long as students, faculty and administrators can frame and understand a great books curriculum as providing an education in “how to live.” Linker writes:

Will the liberal arts survive the economic and technological disruptions of the present moment? Probably — though probably not with anything like the prestige and power that they acquired in the postwar university. The structural trends working against the humanities are just too strong.

There is, for one thing, the way that the old-fashioned American concern with the utility of education has been accentuated by an anemic economy. Employers now want clear evidence that would-be employees possess skills and knowledge directly applicable to a 21st-century economy, and students want to acquire those skills and knowledge in order to be competitive. The ability to analyze a poem or identify a logical fallacy in an argument is impressive in its way, but it’s less obviously marketable than what a student can learn from a major in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics).

Add in the astonishingly high cost of a college education today, and the pressure to choose a major that will lead to a job with a salary high enough to cover stratospheric monthly loan payments becomes still more intense. And even when parents can bear all or a large portion of the cost, there just seems to be something a little self-indulgent about paying nearly a quarter-million dollars for four years of reading novels and treatises that have no obvious link to life after graduation.

That link has been rendered more tenuous than ever by the cultural radicalism that characterizes so many of the fields in the humanities at the country’s leading universities. Whatever its value in scholarly research, such politicization makes the study of classic texts seem like a dreary and tedious waste of time and (once again) money. (Yet another class devoted to exploring the myriad ways that sexism, racism, and homophobia suffuse the literature of Western civilization? Zzzzz.)

Finding a way for the liberal arts to break out of their downward spiral will be difficult. But surely the most promising approach will be one that emphasizes that studying the great books of world civilization is immensely useful after all — not necessarily for landing a high-paying job right after graduation, but for something even more important: learning how to live.

For the full article, see here.