The Assault on Liberal Arts and Why You Should Care
Education is a hot topic in the news these days, due in no small part to the blitzkrieg of gender ideology into classrooms, locker rooms, and students’ bathrooms. But an oft-forgotten yet still-relevant topic for discussion and concern is the gradual disappearance of the liberal arts.
Over the past 10 years in particular, many major colleges and universities have begun slashing their liberal arts programs, laying greater emphasis on excruciatingly narrow, jargon-laden technical fields like Kinesiological Physical Therapy in Sports, Applied Feminist Theory, and more mundane (but nearly as narrow and certainly as technical) standbys like Accounting, Business Administration, Computer Science, and a whole host of variations on Engineering. The liberal arts have fallen by the wayside — and in some cases have been shoved down by the wayside. This is no accident, and it should be a cause for concern amongst all who consider themselves civilized.
First of all, what are the liberal arts? The somewhat nebulous term is sometimes used derisively today, especially by those who place a high premium on technical training but fail to see the merit in theory, the study of culture, and critical thinking. The liberal arts takes its name from the Latin liberalis, meaning “free,” and ars, meaning “art” or “principled practice.”
The liberal arts can actually be traced back to Ancient Greece, and was pioneered by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. From that time until the end of the Middle Ages, the liberal arts consisted of seven fields of study: logic, rhetoric, and grammar (called the trivium), as well as mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy (called the quadrivium). The term “liberal” has nothing to do with politics in this case, but is instead rooted in the old Athenian understanding of education, which held that an understanding of each of these seven disciplines was necessary for any free man (liberalis, remember?) to participate in culture, society, and politics.
The great mathematician Pythagoras argued that the universe is bound together by an internal and consistent harmony, which makes itself evident in all of the sciences, from music to geometry to the stars in the sky. Though Pythagoras was a pre-Christian pagan, his theory flies in the face of the chaotic, atheistic science often advanced today, which sees no meaning or purpose in anything.
By the Middle Ages, the liberal arts had become the foundation of education in the West, and logic had become the preeminent field of study. Men like Boethius, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas were champions of logic, and laid much of the groundwork of what today we know as philosophy and theology. During the Rennaisance, the old trivium was renamed studia humanitatis (which today we simply call “the humanities”) and was expanded to include history, languages (mostly Latin and Greek), ethics, and poetry (which would later blossom into the study of literature). So crucial were the liberal arts seen to be that for centuries, a degree in liberal arts was required for further study in any of the most influential fields, such as law, medicine, or the clergy.
The purpose of the liberal arts has long been understood to be the cultivation of what English novelist Evelyn Waugh called “the well-rounded man,” that is, someone schooled in multiple disciplines — both theoretical and empirical — who is equipped to function in a myriad of circumstances and fields. In fact, Waugh once wrote a novella, entitled “Scott-King’s Modern Europe,” centered on the necessity of the already-disappearing liberal arts.
The story focuses on a classics teacher named Scott-King, a modest scholar who is invited to a seminar in a fictional country called Neutralia, which represents the zenith of modern life and politics. Ruled over by a military despot but still technically a republic, Neutralia blends both communism and fascism, with a healthy dose of nonsensical bureaucracy, all anchored around agnostic-cum-atheistic progressivism. Through a series of misadventures, Scott-King is unwittingly embroiled in a military coup and forced to flee for his life. Upon arriving safely back in England, the schoolteacher is informed by his headmaster that the classics are going to be dumped:
“Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ anymore. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?”
“Oh yes,” said Scott-King. “I can and do… I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”
“It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King.”
“There… I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.”
In his novella, Waugh recognizes a crucial — even a fundamental — truth pertaining to the liberal arts: namely, the liberal arts are necessary to preserve the Western world. Without the liberal arts, students receive mere training, a sort of instruction-manual approach to increasingly technical fields of study, supplemented by precious little (if anything) from outside that narrow technical field. With the liberal arts, students are immersed in a broad range of studies, with a deeper understanding of how each interacts with the other. Christians will, of course, recognize that Pythagoras was correct: mathematics and biology and music and literature are all linked, and they find their common ground in their Progenitor, God Himself.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with technical or vocational training. The purpose of any job or career should be to provide for one’s family and, as my father often pointed out, everyone needs a plumber. But while the purpose of a job or a career may be providing for one’s family, is that the purpose of education? Certainly, education should equip an individual to succeed in a career, but how do the liberal arts fail in this regard? Quite simply, they don’t. In the classic 1989 film “Dead Poets Society,” the charismatic literature teacher John Keating tells his students:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
In short, the liberal arts edify not just the mind but the heart and soul, too. Borrowing an illustration from the great medieval Christian philosopher and writer Thomas Aquinas, imagine education as a pair of lungs; a technical education only pumps breath into one of those lungs, leaving the other to die; whereas an education in the liberal arts stimulates both, filling the individual with life through truly edifying the mind and the soul, instead of merely training the former as Pavlov trained his dogs, and leaving the latter to wither away and die.
This raises another alarming aspect regarding the disappearance of the liberal arts: it is obscenely easy to indoctrinate someone who hasn’t the capacity for critical thinking. It is perhaps no great secret (certainly among conservative Christians) that higher education has become a sort of breeding ground for leftist indoctrination. It should then, with an understanding of what the liberal arts are, be little or no surprise that that venerable mode of study is being excised (with ruthlessly surgical precision) from colleges and universities across the nation. Technical instruction is on the rise, a blend between step-by-step textbook learning and Pavlovian hands-on training, and the fields of study are becoming increasingly narrow, leaving no room to cultivate the “well-rounded man.”
Simply put, the liberal arts educate both the mind and the soul. The vehemently secular world in which we live acknowledges the existence of only one of these essential components, while conveniently forgetting or outright denying the existence of the soul. A specialized degree in sports medicine or in business management — no matter how helpful in purely practical terms — does not necessitate study of that which moves the soul. In another of Waugh’s novels, “Brideshead Revisited,” the narrator compares his more antiquated education to a young soldier named Hooper’s more pragmatic and less sentimental education:
“Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry — that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast-flowing tears of the child and the man — Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St Crispin’s day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon — these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.”
Why have these great works of literature, these monumental historical events stood the tests of time? Why is Leonidas’s final stand at Thermopylae still recounted with a sense of awe? Why does Roland’s trumpet blast at Roncevaux Pass bring a tear to the eye? Why do men still revere the likes of William Wallace and George Washington? Why do women still swoon over the likes of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy or Emily Brontë’s Heathcliffe?
Because these events and these figures speak to the human soul. They are not mere technical instruction, they are embodiments of the virtue — the honor, the duty, the charity, the sense of self-sacrifice — that God has breathed into the soul of man. They awaken in the hearts of men and women alike noble sentiments, reminders of our God-given purpose, and inspiration to divine virtue. Merely or purely technical training ignores and even (in today’s world) derides such spiritual aspirations.
So the next time you read of a major university slashing its liberal arts programs or a sustained push for purely-technical STEM studies, recognize it for what it is. Such agendas are an assault on the soul, the spirit of the West — they are an attempt to mitigate and deny the reality of the human soul and to replace that once-indomitable human spirit with blind obedience to textbook instructions and ideological indoctrination. The dollar is what reigns supreme, the thought of what programs will yield the greatest short-sighted return. Take, instead, the long-sighted view.
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.