When is a bad defense worse than no defense at all? When it shows up in The Atlantic sounding alarm bells. With a headline proclaiming “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century” and the opening argument that Wisconsin educational change may spell doom for national humanities education, the situation seems dire indeed.

Adam Harris’ piece tells a story which received plenty of press last year (see here, here, and here for three write-ups in March of 2018). He does not add anything new, except to paint the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point as a liberal-arts institution. Instead of defining this term and clarifying what it means in application, Harris uses declining enrollment numbers for humanities majors, lack of state funding, and increased demand for STEM to suggest that “The national conversation around higher education is shifting, raising doubts about whether the liberal arts—as we have come to know them—are built to survive a tech-hungry economy.”

The liberal arts and their role in a liberal education are subjects of a centuries-long discourse about the purposes of higher education. I’ve written elsewhere about the different visions of the university and the changes that the German research model of the university brought to American higher education. Harris, however, displays no awareness of this history. Instead, he fails to define the liberal arts, and demonstrates a consistent confusion between the liberal arts, the humanities, and the soft sciences. And since he misunderstands the artes liberales, Harris is unable to offer any substantive solutions to the problem of liberal education.

What Are the Liberal Arts?

Conversations about the liberal arts go back to the foundations of the university in 12th century France and the Italian states. While different thinkers visualized them in various ways and related them through different metaphors (houses, tables, the human body), they held a certain vision in common (Charles Haskins describes this historical movement in his Rise of the Universities): Man is naturally enslaved by ignorance, and there are certain kinds of study that, pursued in a sequential order, permit the conditions of freedom.

The liberal arts were once upon a time neither politically liberal nor synonymous with useless studies whose adherents were doomed to a life of burger flipping (this is itself a horrible stereotype, but that’s an essay for another day). In their typical medieval configuration, the artes were divided into the Trivium (three ways): grammar, logic, rhetoric, and the Quadrivium (four ways): mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy. Our academic degrees stem from a time when universities recognized distinction based on achievement in these artes: the bachelor of arts and the master of arts were both recognitions of demonstrated proficiency in the arts which grant men freedom.

The doctorae philosophae was the man whose study enabled him to bring together the various knowledges he had studied; the PhD began as an academic version of e pluribus unum: from many knowledges, the doctor of philosophy gained insight into the one knowledge which all sought. While most schools no longer divide courses in this way, a liberal education is distinguished by being oriented towards pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

By definition, the liberal arts were distinct from those subjects which were professionally useful: law, medicine, and divinity were three early specializations. Instead, they were, at their core, the subjects people studied because they had the time and resources to study things because they were important, not because studying them would make them somehow more employable. Until the 19th century, professionals completed a liberal-arts course of study before gaining their discipline-specific training.

The Reason For the Decline of the Liberal Arts Is Not Bad Career Prospects, But Bad Teaching

Harris claims the liberal arts are in danger because they cannot compete with a STEM-driven, technology-based economy. He is wrong. James Hankins argues in his essay “How not to Defend the Humanities” that the liberal arts have shrunk because those entrusted with the tradition of leisured study fall into one of two camps: they defend the liberal arts by selling job success, or they have answered the siren call of critical theory. After all, if you can read Shakespeare, you can sell widgets!

College courses which indoctrinate students with theoretical lenses fail to teach substantive content. Instead of learning actual history (deep content, analysis of significance, relation of part to whole, the realm of academic debate), too many history courses have become catechesis lessons in white guilt. Literature courses descend into the morass of deconstruction, gender theory, and neo-Marxist criticisms that erase the possibility of the text meaning what it says it means. Philosophy courses become deeply entrenched in disciplinary jargon, such that students can no longer articulate the questions Plato and Aristotle asked, much less answer them.

Why are humanities and liberal arts programs declining? It’s not because people no longer care about the perennial questions. We still want to know what happiness is and how to acquire it; we still long for the “good life.” We still need Shakespeare’s instruction on love, mercy, and human nature. We need to wrestle with questions of justice, ethics, and existence. But when those leaping to the defense of the liberal arts can do no more than promise better mental efficiency and word play, students go elsewhere.

I have an abiding love for the liberal arts; the vision of studying the things which people have considered throughout time entrances me. I’ve found career success as a writer, an educator, and continual learner through pursuing the vision of life I first heard sung by professors at Hillsdale. The liberal arts are not dying; Hillsdale College, St. John’s College, Grove City College, Union University, King’s College in NYC, Christendom College, New College Franklin, and dozens of other colleges keep alive the vision of students seeking true answers to true questions.

Teach the Liberal Arts As They Were Meant to Be Taught

A liberal education has always been a rare thing; at no point in history could the average person spare 3-4 years of life and resources to pursue this kind of knowledge. Today, the university is perhaps becoming a bit more honest. Rather than claiming profession oriented courses are liberal arts courses, moments like the story Harris analyzies reveal that the charade has worn thin. Jettisoning a weak vision of the liberal arts for more professionally oriented programs is simply recognizing a transition which has already occurred.

If Harris’ vision of ill-defined “liberal-arts” courses cannot justify themselves in a free market venue, then they will die. But that very vision offers a hope: students long to study real subjects and be challenged to learn. What if academia recovered a robust vision of liberal education? Such moments have happened before: John Senior’s Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas was such a moment, and the University of Oklahoma is experiencing another by following W.H. Auden’s vision of a literary education. The soon-to-be launched Thales College plans to embrace a liberal arts model of education as well.

The fate of truly liberal education resembles the collapse of Bible Belt Christianity. For decades, church attendance in the South was a matter of cultural agreement; in the 21st century, that agreement has, for the most part, disappeared. While plenty of churches have bemoaned the loss of people in the pews, the best analysis concludes that those members were not true converts anyway.

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point might have called their programs by the term “liberal arts,” but in the face of declining interest and rising requests for STEM, institutions lacking a robust articulation of the artes and their purposes will streamline their offerings for education effectiveness. And those schools who “sing the song again in our time”? Perhaps their enrollments will pick up—or not. But if they do, it will be because professors call students to consider the higher things of life.