The liberal arts are not disposable

A spinoff of a forthcoming book from Johns Hopkins Press about the value of the liberal arts.


Last month, many disappointed applicants to the University of California received rejection letters, thousands of them, with 250,000 competing for 46,000 spots. Mary McNamara, writing in the Los Angeles Times, voiced the dismay of parents whose qualified kids got turned down, pointing out that she and other Californians pay hefty state taxes. (4/14/21). But disgruntled taxpayers should know how little of California’s budget actually goes to higher education. According to a recent report by the Policy Analysis for California Education, “Over the past four decades…spending on politics and corrections has nearly tripled and spending on health and hospitals and public welfare has more than quadrupled. As a result, the percentage of overall state and local spending…on higher education has decreased from 11 to 9 percent.” (10/20)

Back in the day when I applied to U.C., public support put higher education within reach. The G.I. Bill of 1944 sent millions to school. The landmark 1947 Truman Report, “Higher Education for American Democracy,” defined education as the cornerstone of democracy and called for the founding of community colleges and increased student aid. In 1960, California put in place a Master Plan for Higher Education. It was a grand plan, the first of its kind in history, that laid out a system of two-year and four-year colleges—the university, the state universities and colleges, the community colleges—making it possible for anyone willing to work for it to get a first-rate education, tuition-free.

And it was an education based in the liberal arts.  The U.S. educational system has been unlike any other in having breadth requirements in the humanities, assuring that those who study sciences and engineering are exposed to a wide range of subjects. It’s been this commitment to the cultivation of the human that’s fed the stream of creativity and originality that gave this country its success, leading to more scientific breakthroughs, technological and industrial innovation, and Nobel prices than any other’s.  It was this educational system that produced a strong middle class and a period of broadly shared prosperity, with income equality at an all time high.

In 1965, the University of California opened two new campuses, at Santa Cruz and Irvine;  in more than half a century since, it’s opened only one, though the state’s population has nearly quadrupled.  “We do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without,” announced Governor Ronald Reagan, in 1967, as he cut state support and called for tuition:  taxpayers should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.”  So began the whittling away of public funding and public confidence in higher education that’s worsened ever since, along with the demotion of the liberal arts to “luxuries.” In 1970, U.C. Berkeley was still getting 70% of its funding from the state;  today it gets 12%.  At this rate, it will receive no public funding by mid century. In Reagan’s first administration, income inequality began to climb, reaching an all-time high today.  

Though a college degree has become practically a prerequisite for a middle class job, society’s response has been— as Paul Tough says, in The Inequality Machine:  How College Divides Us— “You’re on your own. You figure out how to get the skills you’re going to need. And by the way, here’s the bill.” With the burden of paying for education shifted to students who are wracking up debt, it’s no wonder that they flock to majors that seem to offer the most direct route to a job, business and STEM. Applicants have a better chance of getting into the University of California today if they express an interest in the humanities, since demand for these areas is so low. Enrollment patterns are this lopsided everywhere:  a U.S. News & World Report found that top 30 universities awarded “about as many degrees in computer science as in history, English, languages, philosophy, religion, area studies, and linguistics put together.” (Benjamin Schmidt in The Atlantic, 2018)

But students, beware! Programmers have seen no real increase in salaries in 15 years. A 2020 Bloomberg article notes that wages in computer and IT occupations may be higher than in other areas, but “layoffs have accelerated,” outpacing new hires by three to one. Much of the hype about plentiful STEM jobs is from industry-related sources that will benefit by a glut of workers who will work for less. If you have a genuine interest in a STEM subject, go for it, but if you’re avoiding the liberal arts for fear of unemployment, know that “U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are science and engineering job openings,” warns Michael Teitelbaum, author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent: graduates may be headed for “unstable careers, slow-growing wages, and high risk of jobs moving offshore of being filled by temporary workers from abroad.” “In the salary race, engineers sprint but English major endure,” writes David Deming, NYT, 9/20/19; “Even engineering…with the highest starting salaries, may plateau, because engineers’ skills become obsolete.”

Liberal arts graduates may be slower out of the gate, but by mid career, they’re likely to catch up. What they learn in liberal arts classes—to read complicated texts, assimilate and synthesize information, listen, interpret, evaluate, communicate, apply what they know to new situations, take into account the views of others—are “foundational skills” that are in high demand and short supply in the 21st century workplace. 500 executives and hiring managers from business, asked what they’re looking for in employees (according to a study published this spring by the Association of American Colleges and Universities), indicated that they’re seeking “critical thinking and analysis, problem solving, teamwork, and communication through writing and speaking.”  The words, creativityadaptabilityflexibilityversatility recur, all of which are developed in liberal arts courses.

“Graduates in all walks of life (from corporate leadership to crime prevention, from diplomacy to dentistry, from medicine to media) speak passionately of the value of having been introduced to art, anthropology, philosophy, history, world religions, literature, languages,” summarizes Georgia Nugent in a report for the Council of Independent Colleges. Entrepreneur Damon Horowitz got a Ph.D. in philosophy because “becoming a humanist” gave him a perspective that enabled him to overcome the limitations of a purely technical approach and take on larger questions. Steve Jobs described a calligraphy course he audited: “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of practical application in my life. But … I designed it all into the Mac.” Nobel laureates in science are 22 times likelier than those who’ve not won Nobels to have artistic pursuits outside their field, points out David Epstein in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

But when enrollments plummet as they have in the liberal arts, faculty get fired, courses, programs, departments get dropped, colleges go under. Between 2016 and 2019, at least 22 liberal arts colleges closed. We may be headed for time when it will no longer be possible to study the humanities except at the priciest private liberal arts colleges—the few that survive. What an irony, since it was the grounding of our educational system in the liberal arts that gave this country its power and prominence. 

A world without the liberal arts is not a happy prospect. The liberal arts are where young people learn what it is to be human, learn that world is full of people whose minds work differently from their own, that it’s possible to disagree yet get along. The challenges graduates face, that we all face, navigating the human minefield, are of a verbal, social, interactive sort, learning to express our views while registering the perspectives of others, to negotiate positions through give and take. There is never a time we don’t need to know how to do these things, unless we move to a desert island or the deep woods. In a country that’s losing the ability to live as a society, these are skills to nurture, not let go. 


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.