The Liberal Arts Weren’t Murdered — They Committed Suicide

Library on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
The University’s Scylla and Charybdis

The great culture wars on the campuses of the 1980s were largely lost by traditionalists. And the question then became not if but when the liberal arts would die off as a result. What is strange nearly 40 years later is that the apparent outrage over what was clearly foreordained is now becoming fact. What did academia expect, given its years of academic specialization and politicized indoctrination?

Recently the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point announced plans to drop liberal-arts majors in geography, geology, French, German, two- and three-dimensional art — and history. The Atlantic ran a well-meaning essay by Adam Harris on the controversial move, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century” — again, a topic much in the news recently. The article’s chief thrust is that insidious efforts to promote STEM vocationalism — the need to prepare young people for careers requiring extensive math and science skill sets — has driven out the need for more in-depth focus on the liberal arts, in a climate in which crass Republican state legislators, in allegedly vindictive and short-sighted fashion, demanded catastrophic cuts in state public higher-education budgets.

The Stevens Point campus highlighted a popular perception that emphases in literature, history, or languages lead nowhere for cash-strapped graduates but to more debt and fewer jobs. Yet what the article on official university policy misses is why students do not concentrate in the liberal arts in the fashion of the past.

After all, only that fact of declining enrollments allows the university to institutionalize the unspoken reality of eroding student interest. In other words, the university is simply burying liberal-arts majors that were already killed off not by bottom-line-minded state legislators but by the choices of either students or faculty or by university policies, or by combinations of all three.

If higher education’s increasing fixation on job training is the whirlpool that swallows history majors, the monster across the narrow straits of liberal-arts education is a many-headed politicized orthodoxy, a Scylla that consumes the flesh of the liberal arts and leave the bones as dreary reminders of boilerplate race, class, gender, and culture agendas. In the case of history, few increasingly wish to sit in a class where the past becomes tedious melodrama rather than complex tragedy, a sort of reeducation camp in which modern standards of suburban orthodoxy time-travel to the past in order to judge materially impoverished historical figures or pivotal events as either culpable or exonerated.

The tragedy, then, is not just that a campus of the University of Wisconsin would drop the history major but that the custodians of history in the 21st century lost the ability to teach and write about history in a way that sustains a hallowed 2,500-year tradition. In other words, what is being jettisoned is likely not just history as we once understood it but rather de facto poorly taught “-studies” courses — which sadly become snapshots of particular (and often small) eras of history — designed to offer enough historical proof of preconceived theories about contemporary modern society. The students then are assumed by the course’s end to be outraged, persuaded, galvanized, and shocked in politically acceptable ways. Usually they are just bored, as supposedly with-it professors endlessly regurgitate the esoterica picked up in graduate schools.

Of course, not all historians see the past as an orthodox way of fixing the present, but enough do to discourage students, especially when younger faculty members draw on their rather specialized doctoral theses or narrow journal-article expertise to drive home an agenda that seems preachy or proselytizing to naturally resistant young spirits. To the Millennial mind, calcified Sixties-era radicalism is about as edgy as once was the Stalinist 1930s Old Left sermonizing to the Woodstock crowd. Trendiness that once pleased faculty committees and careerist deans did not always please students, and therefore the result is now not so pleasing to faculty committees and careerist deans.

Once a student has signed up for a class on the Renaissance or the Great Depression and quickly learns that it can become a periodic harangue on the oppression and victimization of particular marginalized groups, she will likely not wish to repeat the experience on money borrowed at between 5 and 7 percent interest, or to be convinced that her future employer wishes to be woke by a heady 21-year-old. The irony about the Atlantic article is that when it quotes liberal-arts and history professors to document their outrage at the Wisconsin cuts, their defense of their fields become perceptions of how history is necessary to advance particular contemporary agendas. So, for example, we are told that “in mid-November, the university announced its plans to stop offering six liberal-arts majors, including geography, geology, French, German, two- and three-dimensional art, and history. The plan stunned observers, many of whom argued that at a time when Nazism is resurgent society needs for people to know history, even if the economy might not” (emphasis added).

So “stunned observers” offered a touché to both today’s Nazi apologists and right-wing money-grubbers!

In a utilitarian sense, students certainly can benefit from becoming aware of Nazi-like dangers by studying history. Unfortunately, few universities offer courses in World War II, which might most effectively offer a variety of explanations of why Nazi Germany was able to absorb most of Europe and trigger what would become a global conflict that cost 65 million lives.

But when one looks at the Wisconsin campus catalogue, one seems to find few if any classes in World War II. The closest might be “Women, War and Peace,” “Dilemmas of War and Peace: An Introduction to Peace Studies,” or “War and Propaganda in the 20th Century.” No doubt such offerings might be great courses, but I don’t think they would cover fully the Nazi aggrandizement of the late 1930s, particularly the role of Soviet collaboration, British and French appeasement, and American isolationism, or the tragic circumstance of the Munich Agreement — in other words, the likely best way for students “to know history” of any purported contemporary Nazi ascendance.

Nor I am sure that by agreement we live in a time “when Nazism is resurgent.” Certainly the world’s most frightening societies are North Korea and Venezuela, where wide-scale poverty and government oppression are normalized. Both are failed Communist states. The current likeliest threat to the global order for future generations of liberal societies will be statist and authoritarian China, whose government is still proudly Communist in a tradition that includes Mao Zedong’s 50 to 70 million dead. The point is that if students are interested in riveting history classes, they will probably not wish to be told that they should so enroll in one because “Nazism is resurgent” in today’s West.

Harris in the Atlantic article also notes that “the chairs of each department at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point were assessing their programs ahead of a biweekly meeting with the dean.” The chair of the history department “may not have been feeling great, but he was at least upbeat. ‘I felt like the department had really diversified its curriculum in a way to shore us up.’”

One wonders what exactly “diversified its curriculum” means — the greater inclusion of now rare military, diplomatic, or political history, or more-diverse intellectual approaches or a greater variety of liberal and conservative historians? Or does the reference to “shoring up” suggest ever narrower race, class, gender, and environmental courses, which deductively seek to use the past to lead students to preconceived contemporary agendas — and thereby so often erode students’ natural interests in history?

Yet if one walks through the local Barnes & Noble bookstore, reviews the non-fiction best-seller lists, scans Amazon’s most-read categories, or looks through book ads in popular magazines, one is struck how well biographies of Churchill and Grant sell, and how histories of war and peace, exploration, and political careers capture the public interest — reminding us that the fault of declining college interest in the liberal arts may be not in the stars of vocationalism or the wrong values of students but rather deep within the university faculty and administration themselves.

Twenty years ago, John Heath and I co-authored Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, a failed warning that formal university study of the classical past was dying off, caught between vocationalism, or narrow specialization, and politicization of both the classics curriculum and faculty research. In other words, at the very time it was becoming necessary to offer the university a counter-argument that liberal arts do enrich the education of business and tech grads and can make them both more-aware citizens and better managers and engineers, liberal-arts faculty in so many cases narrowed their fields, employed a new off-putting jargon, and recalibrated the past in monotonous fashion as a primer on victims and victimizers. And students as a result walked, as academics killed their own field and blamed their suicide on larger sinister forces in society.

Often, the choices of young professors and scholars are limited by career concerns and limited time. If a young, recently minted classics or history Ph.D., lucky enough to land a temporary lectureship, had to make an either/or choice between tutoring all his struggling students in Latin 1A, along with giving community lectures on Spartacus or Thermopylae at the local Rotary Club and junior high, or writing a journal article on the perspectives of ethnic, gender, and race relations and their empirical referents in Roman cults in Asia Minor, or even another scholarly note on abnormal uses of the optative mood in Diodorus, choosing politicization and specialization would be the far wiser career move — even as participating in broad community and undergraduate outreach, in this endangered climate, would be the wiser investment to save an entire discipline.

The provost in the Atlantic article is quoted as rightly asserting, “We’re facing some changing enrollment behaviors. . . . And students are far more cost-conscious than they used to be.” But the reason students are more “cost-conscious” than they used to be is perhaps because in aggregate they currently owe about $1.5 trillion in student loans. And that staggering and unsustainable debt is largely because colleges and universities on average have jacked up their costs per annum higher than the annual rate of inflation, perhaps in part owing to federally guaranteed student loans that encouraged undisciplined spending (whether for ever more diversity czars and assistant deans for inclusion or for Club Med student unions).

These price hikes were not accompanied by any guarantee that students on graduation would read, think, and compute far more effectively than when they were admitted, or at least at a level necessary to ensure employers that graduates of four-year colleges had more advantageous assets than those with far less liberal-arts education. The university was largely unable or unwilling to reconsider orthodoxies such as lifetime tenure, national exit exams for granting the B.A. degree, the inordinate number of units taught by exploited part-time faculty, or the allowance of an M.A. degree in math, science, and the liberal arts to substitute for the teaching credential.

Over the past few years, lots of employers have privately concluded that today’s graduating liberal-arts majors are quite confident and yet so often poorly educated. Or worse, those hiring were turned off by the strange combination of youthful ignorance and arrogance. Employers had clearly no desire to be enlightened by fresh graduates who were entirely unaware that their inductive skills were suspect or nonexistent.


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