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The Liberal Arts as a Democratic Ideal

Published onJun 06, 2023
The Liberal Arts as a Democratic Ideal

For the last half century, universities in the United States have struggled with an existential crisis about their place in a democratic society. Once admired as upholders of facts, seekers of truth, and creators of opportunity, universities have found their indispensability to modern democracy challenged by budgetary exigencies that are exasperated by dwindling public and private funding sources, growing requirements of accountability imposed by external accreditors, ideologically driven politicians and voters, and ranking systems (e.g., Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, or U.S. News Education Rankings). Budgetary pressures have led state and private universities to depend increasingly on tuition fees, fundraising, and external grants in order to support faculty and staff salaries, educational resources (especially technological innovation), physical resources (buildings and landscaping), and non-academic services (including rapidly expanding mental health services, new career centers, expensive athletic programs, food courts to appeal to diverse student/faculty/staff tastes, and fitness centers with the exercise facilities). As the main source of financial support for their children, parents fear the rising cost of higher education and the burden of student loans that often take a lifetime to repay, thus delaying the acquisition of traditional markers of economic success at the center of which is homeownership. Traditional age students become of legal age at the very time they are to begin their university studies and lack adequate experience or knowledge to make sense of the higher educational enterprise. Local and national government and business communities lament the dearth of well-prepared employees who possess a broad knowledge base and skill set that will prepare them for the unknowable future needs of a rapidly changing and competitive workspace that will inevitably require individuals who are creative, curious, and confident. Add to these long lists the legitimate concerns of faculty who excoriate the “corporatization” of higher education at the expense of the creation of knowledge and search for truth. What these different groups have in common is their belief that higher education has value (Daniels, 2021; Hrabowski, 2019).

What can unite these various groups is their apparent agreement on at least one fundamental question: What is the purpose of higher education in contemporary society? As someone who has spent a lifetime in higher education as a student, faculty member, and high-level administrator, at the center of my response stand the liberal arts and their fundamental importance in supporting the acquisition of knowledge and personal development with a moral compass that contributes to a more equitable and just society. The pursuit of “pure knowledge” in the form of intellectual inquiry engages concepts, theory, and analysis that should result in the acquisition of skills, habits of mind, and moral dispositions essential to a life well lived (however defined) and that are needed in most professions. In this way, the liberal arts treat the esoteric and practical as inseparable. The result should not be individuals who are “not just experts in their field” but “true academics who, from the positions they will be taking at the heart of society, will also be an influential force in determining the nature of that society.” They should become “thinkers of character” whose curiosity and creativity leads to innovation in whatever they pursue (De Regt and Van Lenning, 2017, pp. 25-28). This is why the humanities and social science disciplines that make up the liberal arts are valued and widely affirmed by leaders in all sectors: they foster skill development and mental dispositions that help individuals navigate a world in which rapid change requires creativity, curiosity, and confidence.

For the last half century, higher education in the United States has faced growing criticism of its function, cost, effectiveness, and ideological orientation. Throughout this time, universities have continued to recognize the liberal arts as the “heart” of undergraduate education as expressed in required “core” subjects – often called “general education” – that raise fundamental questions about humanity. Liberal speaks to a type of intellectual freedom to examine any topic with an open mind while the word arts encompasses a range of skills whose practical uses are tools that can be transferred to any aspect of human existence. The centrality of the liberal arts in higher education dates to the early colonial period when the primary aim of advanced education was to prepare secular and religious leaders for the novel political experiment that became the United States. Universities predated the actual establishment of the country and the educational principles they promoted served as inspiration to the “founding fathers” (Roth, 2014).

The university that we have come to know as a secular institution of higher learning emerged more recently in the late nineteenth century with the adaptation of aspects of the German research model and the development of academic disciplines that gave preference to specialized and compartmentalized knowledge while de-emphasizing skills or practical applications students needed for the work world. As hierarchies of universities emerged - religious vs. secular, public vs. private, elite vs. the rest - the appearance of technical and vocational schools prior to World War II seemed to confirm the mutually exclusive relationship between those with a university education who would engage in non-manual labor, and those who worked in the trades, commerce, or other areas that did not require a university education. In the postwar decades, the GI Bill provided generous financial incentives to returning soldiers and advanced the “democratization” of American higher education. (The bill also provided universities much needed financial stability that allowed them to thrive and expand.) What could have been a driver of greater and inclusive socio-economic prosperity instead reinforced racial segregation by mostly initially excluding African Americans from the GI Bill’s benefits (Onkst, 1998). The discriminatory orientation of this federally funded driver of a more accessible higher education also sharpened the economic differentiation setting apart those who completed the basic bachelor’s degree which also carried with it an implicit aspirational middle-class life (Roth, 2014). Political and racial protests of the 1960s created new pressures on higher education as administrators and faculty found themselves on the defensive against harsh questions about biased and impractical curricula (Geiger, 1971). As universities responded to calls for change, they came to represent a means to social and educational advancement that would be based on merit, a development common as well in other developed countries. “The way this worked out in practice was that hard-working and talented people should be rewarded: untalented, lazy people should not. No one should be discriminated against due to gender, religious affiliation, social background, or ethnicity” (Van Lenning, p. 13).

By the 1980s, politicians, business leaders, and educators expressed increasing concerns about higher education’s failure to prepare an increasingly diverse workforce that could sustain democratic institutions. Technological revolutions of the 1990s led public officials in the United States and around the world to ask what a 21st century citizen would need to be successful in their careers while finding personal satisfaction. The answers that emerged were focused on geopolitical positioning as much as economic competition. In the first years of the new millennium, a bi-partisan group of U.S. senators and congressmen asked the National Academies (a non-profit consortium of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine) to investigate the state of higher education and posed a set of guiding questions: “What are the top 10 actions, in priority order, that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st century? What strategy, with several concrete steps, could be used to implement each of those actions?” The orientation of this charge was patriotic and understood education to be instrumental in establishing the global dominance of the United States as the leader of democracy and capitalism in the post-Cold War era (that is, to provide good jobs to U.S. citizens that in turn would result in a good quality of life). Science and technology were held up as essential tools of higher education while the humanities and social sciences were largely ignored in the study. The findings prioritized corporate and strategic needs of the country that would result in the further integration of global markets and communities to the benefit of the United States. Much space was given to comparisons of labor costs, legal systems, and taxation models in developed and developing countries. Specific recommendations focused on increasing “the number and proportion of US citizens who earn bachelor’s degrees in the physical sciences, the life sciences, engineering, and mathematics by providing 25,000 new 4-year competitive undergraduate scholarships each year to US citizens attending US institutions” at the undergraduate level. In the realm of graduate studies, the focus should be the same (National Academies, 2007).

A follow-up study conducted a few years later began with the assumption that the situation of the United States had worsened and concluded that “the only promising avenue for achieving [global competitiveness] is through innovation.” The path to innovation was through increased investment in science and engineering and not the liberal arts. In the words of the report: “This is not to diminish the importance of many other fields - particularly reading at the elementary school level and the liberal arts in all grades….It merely recognizes that it is difficult to dismiss evidence such as the survey that found that almost 30 percent of American adults do not know the earth revolves around the sun; 16 percent do not know that the center of the earth is very hot; almost half do not know that electrons are smaller than atoms; and only about half the population is aware that dinosaurs and humans never coexisted” (National Academies, 2010). What the report implicitly assumes, however, is that fundamental skills needed to strengthen science and engineering - reading, writing, critical analysis, comparison and contrast, contextual analysis - are skills that are developed through the study of the liberal arts.

Critiques of reports like this have rightly noted the shortcomings of this instrumental approach to education that diminish the importance of reflection, personal development (other than economic enrichment), and broader philosophical ideas about justice, equity, fairness, or freedom. The spiritual side of life was nearly completely ignored and the purpose of university education appeared to be the production of workers whose flexibility would best serve ever changing and fluid global systems. Hoping to depict a more complete picture of humanity, in 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. The diverse group of individuals involved in this study included leaders of the corporate and academic world, the arts, journalism, and the non-profit sector. Their concluding report acknowledged higher education’s role in maintaining national security and economic prosperity but only if “the humanities and social sciences [the core of the liberal arts] are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic - a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.” The study continued:

“The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities - including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts - foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences - including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology - examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.”

While no less nationalist or patriotic in its intent, this study identified three main goals of education that provided a liberal arts undergirding and an undisputable focus on democratic principles that would “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong [for] an interconnected world” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013).

As these studies were conducted, the lived experience of universities became defined by increasing competition and fiscal pressures that challenged the purpose of the liberal arts. Parents shouldering the bulk of rising tuitions spoke of cost recovery (to justify high tuition charges); students looking for pathways to graduate school or careers questioned general education courses that often encourage self-exploration; state and national governments ignored their own disinvestment in higher education and instead created patriotic narratives that tied populistic arguments about so-called subversive ideological elements in curricula with the rising cost of university education (including skyrocketing student debt). Faculty found themselves spending more time defending academic and intellectual integrity while university administrations raced to balance rapidly rising costs and diminishing resources, speaking regularly to politicians, grant agencies, donors, and parents about “return on investment” and “creation of innovators”. Together, these different and varied stakeholders were looking for answers to what students need to know and how to do what was needed to achieve economic success.

The liberal arts can serve as healing and unifying fibers to lessen contentiousness between constituencies grappling with the purpose of higher education in contemporary society because they offer the skills, habits of mind, and intellectual orientation that support creative and critical thinking, as well as inclusive and interdisciplinary curiosity that lead to high levels of confidence in the evolving nature of knowledge and self. These three fundamental ingredients of a liberal arts education - creativity, curiosity, and confidence - are also at the core of what makes a society democratic - boundary-challenging questioning, intellectual flexibility, and belief in the dignity of all human beings starting with oneself. The humanities and social science disciplines that make up the liberal arts ask big questions about the world we live in and offer answers and solutions that will change over time that underscore the relevance of higher education. In the current historical moment, the liberal arts provide the necessary tools to maintain and develop democratic societies because they sustain the creative processes needed to construct innovative visions of the future that will include many unknown challenges to local, national, and global communities, as well as the very meaning of human existence.

What makes a 21st century society democratic? How can democracies around the world be sustained? What role and responsibility does higher education have in sustaining democratic societies? The answers begin with cross-disciplinarity nurtured by the liberal arts that support the creation of educated citizens who are knowledgeable, engage in critical thinking, and appreciate scientific processes upheld by moral dispositions that will guide them as contributing members of communities.


American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (2013). The heart of the matter: The humanities and social sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation. American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Daniels, R. J., with G. Shreve and P. Spector. (2021). What universities owe democracy? Johns Hopkins University Press.

De Regt, H., & Van Lenning, A. (2017). Exploring an educational vision for Tilburg University. Tilburg Series in Academic Education.

Geiger, L. G. (1971). “The Impending Crisis of the Liberal Arts Colleges.” AAUP Bulletin (57)4, 500-504.

Hrabowski III, F. A., with P. J. Rous and P. H. Henderson. (2021). The empowered university: Shared leadership, culture change, and academic success. Johns Hopkins University Press.

National Academies. (2007). Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. National Academies Press.

National Academies. (2010) Rising above the gathering storm revisited: Rapidly approaching category 5. National Academies Press.

Onkst, D. H. (1998). “First a Negro... Incidentally a Veteran”: Black World War Two Veterans and the G. I. Bill of Rights in the Deep South, 1944-1948. Journal of Social History31(3), 517–543.

Roth, M. S. (2014). Beyond the university: Why liberal education matters. Yale University Press.

Van Lenning, A. (2019). Out of the Labyrinth. Inaugural address, Tilburg University.

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