Politics & Policy

Reinvigorating the Liberal Arts Matters More than Free Speech on Campus

Campus of Columbia University, 2009 (Mike Segar/Reuters)
A liberal-arts education prepares students for participation in public life.

During an era of “fake news,” post-truth politics, political intolerance, and polarization, various solutions to these woes have been proposed. Potential reforms range from changing political institutions to establishing new standards for social-media companies.

Much less-discussed — and almost forgotten in the fray — is the educational role of universities.

Liberal education, when done well, puts Americans into contact with ideas that are challenging and difficult. It teaches them how to talk with — rather than past — each other. Today, university administrators need to reckon with the ways in which the hollowing-out of the liberal arts has exacerbated rather than mollified the distemper in our public discourse.

More than calls for free speech and the need for ideological diversity on college campuses, we urgently need a renewal of the liberal arts. “The free search for truth and its free exposition in the liberal arts, are essential components of a functioning democracy,” noted the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the American Association of University Professors in May.

The debate over free speech on college campuses is symptomatic of a deeper problem: Many colleges have abandoned the core liberal-arts commitment to pursue truth about the human condition. Liberal arts –whether literature, history, or philosophy — have become attenuated. Certain disciplines are now heavily politicized, and core curricula have been dismantled in favor of an à la carte approach to class selection, as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has documented.

So, how would renewing the liberal arts help our democracy? For one thing, an honest pursuit of truth cultivates intellectual curiosity — and curiosity, it turns out, breaks through ideological polarization.

Research by Dan Kahan of Yale University demonstrates how people who possess curiosity about scientific and evidentiary matters are more likely to fairly consider viewpoints that differ with their own (something most of us don’t do). A liberal education should cultivate this type of curiosity within students instead of handing them narrow and politicized lenses through which to see the world. Studying history, literature, and philosophy should make students less certain they have all the answers to perennial questions and more eager to inquire, learn, and debate big ideas about a good and just society.

What should universities do in the short term? A number of them have created centers and programs that seek to renew an ideologically-diverse and distinctively liberal-arts approach to studying and debating the Founding principles and history of the United States. Such initiatives arguably fill the gap left by curricular failings, and hope to engage students in the enduring debates about the fundamentals of a successful democratic society that transcend politics and narrow ideologies.

One practical way to revive liberal education is to take a historical and theoretical approach to civic knowledge, something that is built into the mission of many universities. In planning the University of Virginia, for example, Thomas Jefferson said students should study “Government, Political Economy, Law of Nature and Nations, and History” and for this to be “interwoven with Politics and Law.”

Civic entrepreneurs would do well to develop innovative university curricula along the lines of these various centers and programs. By concentrating on enduring topics such as justice, and by developing abilities such as critical thinking and writing, a liberal education prepares students for participation in public life apart from any specific vocational training.

How would renewing the liberal arts help our democracy?

And, contrary to conventional beliefs, the liberal arts do pay vocational dividends even if they stand in contrast to “professional” or “vocational” education. Research on skills valued by employers shows that jobs requiring social skills such as critical thinking, creative problem solving, collegiality, and conscientiousness — resulting from a well-rounded liberal-arts education — have grown at a much higher rate than STEM jobs since 1980. People who can synthesize information, speak and write clearly, and communicate with those who have different views are in high demand in the marketplace. As artificial intelligence increasingly performs STEM-specific tasks, greater expectations should be placed on the liberal arts to cultivate the creativity and curiosity that robots cannot do, or will not be able to do for a long time.

It is not possible to fix our rancorous politics with more politics. We need to focus instead on the preconditions of political discourse and activity. It is time to push for an authentic liberal-arts education so that universities can safeguard the pursuit of truth that is essential for the health of our democracy.

Justin Dyer is professor of political science and executive director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, and Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.