Classics Essays Literature

Why the Liberal Arts Still Matter

The liberal arts have long been suffering in academia and education more generally. Chants for the ending of Western liberal arts for new inclusionary material, dwindling humanities faculties, oversaturated graduate programs, and the rise of STEM have been making the liberal arts slide into institutional irrelevance. Yet the liberal arts still have an important place in our society and personal maturation, even with more and more people studying STEM, social sciences, and trades. The liberal arts need to adapt to survive, and we should welcome the possibilities of a more informal and decentralized approach to the liberal arts in the twenty-first century.

An educated human, in the twentieth century, would have been familiar with the classics of a humanistic education. From the Bible to Plato, and Augustine to Shakespeare, a liberal arts education passed on what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience.” Today, “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience” is now ridiculed for all the usual crimes levied against it by the vandals of political correctness. Add on top of this assault the growing digitization and technologization of our world, it would seem as if the liberal arts are fading into eternal irrelevance.

Despite the obvious problems the liberal arts are suffering today, we have greater access to the great books than ever before. More information, more lectures, and more guidance on the liberal arts exist now than at any time in the past. Just because fewer people are enrolled in humanities degrees and just because humanities departments are shrinking doesn’t necessarily spell the death of the liberal arts as much as it affords the opportunity for the reimagining of the liberal arts in our technological world.

Later in life readers of the humanities shouldn’t be forgotten by the defenders of traditional liberal arts education. Reading Plato, Milton, or Dickens in the comfort of your home is as much an embrace of the humanistic ideal as slogging through many years of formal liberal arts education. (In fact, it may be better as such readers don’t develop a hatred of their subject.) Additionally, later in life readers of the humanities aren’t saddling themselves with burdensome debts and economically unvaluable degrees. An engineer reading Descartes in the evening or a computer programmer reading Shakespeare at night should not be scoffed at by the liberal arts elitists.

Our world still claims to pride itself on intellectual diversity, critical thinking, and cultural engagement. In this respect, the liberal arts ought to be nexus of championing our intellectual values. It is from the liberal arts tradition that intellectual diversity, critical thinking, and cultural criticism and engagement is fostered. The liberal arts expose us to a diversity of viewpoints, competing metaphysical presuppositions without the dismissive arrogance of scientism, and an array of beauty found in literature—ancient and modern.

The reading life that modernity affords to so many, however, still requires a firm foundation in the liberal arts. One cannot, for instance, read Shakespeare without a knowledge of the classics and expect to fully grasp the intricacies and genius of the Bard from Stratford-Upon-Avon. Likewise, reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost without a familiarity of the biblical and classical traditions which formed him may lead to one wandering in exile through its pages. Even luminaries of the American tradition, like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, run replete with Virgilian references through its pages.

Proponents of the liberal arts, then, must utilize new and traditional methods of engagement. Formal education’s monopoly on the liberal arts has been broken. And broken, I would hope, for the better. Popular writing in public discourse, online lectures freely available to all, and online educational resources, all must be marshaled in the service of the liberal arts. Furthermore, reaching into the fields of the social sciences and STEM with the wonder and joy of the liberal arts: the rest and relaxation of reading, cultural accruement and knowledge, literature as detoxication from work, can equally serve to expand the liberal arts beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower into the everyday life of many people.

The union of the liberal arts with the humanistic outlook is, perhaps, the biggest draw for the liberal arts in the twenty-first century. Our own age is one in which humanism is being dethroned by atomization, digitization, and growing animosity toward nature in all its forms. Here, the humanism of the liberal arts brings us back in touch with nature: the most significant reality of nature being ourselves.

Proponents of the liberal arts, in its nascent construction in ancient Rome, to its more formal crystallization in Renaissance and early Reformation Europe, to its supposed golden age in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Anglo-American education, have always aimed at shaping better humans. The educated and cultured life wasn’t the only aim of a liberal arts education. The human and humane life was just as much part of the mission. The inquisitive life that humanistic study brings, the flourishing of the contemplative mind, the consumption of world literature and thought—that is the cosmopolitan life as defined by Socrates and Isocrates long ago. And our globalized world of today makes that humanistic cosmopolitanism more possible, and important, than ever before.

The liberal arts need not fear globalization and digitization. It should welcome both. For globalization brings the possibility of an expansion of the liberal arts toward that truly humanistic and cosmopolitan intent. Deracination can be overturned by a return to the roots of our own culture and tradition; a vigorous reengagement with the “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience” can help overcome the malaise and self-loathing widespread throughout the Western World. Additionally, globalization and digitization offer an opening up of the world and the liberal arts tradition to new places, cultures, and works. Never before can a Sinophile, for example, dive into the depths of the Chinese classics from his home, dorm, or university in preparation for study overseas or a trip overseas. Retrenchment with our own roots and an outward expansion and curiosity to the rest of the world give the liberal arts tradition a truly cosmopolitan reach which can help foster the cross-cultural exchange and political engagement needed in the twenty-first century world.

If we only look at the decaying carcass of the old body of the humanistic liberal arts one can get understandably depressed. However, the new mediums in which the liberal arts tradition has taken root and blossomed, the new opportunities opened to it, and the vital need for cultivating better humans with cosmopolitan awareness in our current world, along with the reality that one can have a modest liberal arts education without the burdening debt while working or studying in a non-liberal arts field, are all things to recognize, celebrate, and even promote.

Far from preaching the demise of the liberal arts, the liberal arts are more important now than even in its supposed golden age. The decentralized proliferation of the humanistic liberal arts tradition thanks to technology gives the liberal arts—for its first time in history—a truly global and cosmopolitan reach and manifestation. Proponents of liberal arts education ought to preach the necessity of the liberal arts in our increasingly cosmopolitan and global world, ought to expound on the importance of recovering our own roots, and ought to champion the new model of a decentralized humanistic education. If so we might just find that the liberal arts can not only adapt but also thrive in this brave new world.

This essay was first published at VoegelinView, 9 July 2021.

Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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1 comment

  1. Excelent and highly relevant synopsis of the importance of stimulating the intellect by immersing oneself in the study of the Humanities. By reading and exploring the classical phisosofical, literary and historical works of the great masters of Civilization one gains better undertanding of the human condition, world cultures, history

    Like

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