Let's Put an End to the Left's Myths about the Liberal Arts

The study of the liberal arts is increasingly becoming passé. Schools are encouraged by government grants to infiltrate the classrooms with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and computer science instruction, creating a generation of programmable techies who are proficient at clicking but not at thinking.

As a frequent cellphone and computer user, I certainly do appreciate technological advances. What bothers me, however, is that government is involved in persuading schools what to teach and telling students what to study. I’m also disturbed by the consistent naysayers who dismiss studying the humanities as some frivolous, artistic venture that contains about as much value as Kim Kardashian’s views on the Gulf War. As someone who majored in the liberal arts, I can say that’s absolutely not true.

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal just published a very interesting piece titled, “Liberal Arts Education Is Not (Necessarily) a Waste of Time.” In the article, George Leef points out, “The liberal arts can be a practical education, but at too many schools there isn’t much education going on in their programs.”

Leef retells a story of a student who was considering studying history at Harvard, but when the student’s parents found out, was told the liberal arts are “a house of pain.” Leef explains there is a prevailing perception that those students who study “history, literature, philosophy or anything else that doesn’t have a clear occupational path is just throwing away years of school time and a great deal of money. Focus instead,” people say, “on practical subjects that might at least lead to a job after college.”

My theory is that the “liberal arts is a waste of time” rumor was started by a bunch of progressive elites afraid of what might happen when people, especially young ones, started to develop their own conclusions instead of drinking the Kool-Aid served to them at government schools controlled by liberal, big-government types.

You may think such a claim is right-wing nonsense, or even silly, but before completely dismissing the idea, consider the following: First, liberals control the overwhelming majority of higher-education institutions in America, and yet many of them are the ones dismissing liberal arts and suggesting it’s useless. Second, liberals’ philosophy hinges on everyone working together like little cogs in a giant machine, an idea that fits well with advancing STEM, but doesn’t make much sense with the liberal arts. Third, liberal arts hinges on studying the classic thinkers of Western Civilization, most of whom the left has dismissed as racist, misogynistic, greedy, or homophobic.

In short, the liberal arts is a giant roadblock on the path to socialism, so why wouldn’t the left want to undermine it?

What about the claim there isn’t “much education going on” in most liberal arts programs anymore? What’s happened? I attended (shameless plug alert) the University of Dallas (UD), a small liberal arts Catholic college known for its core curriculum. At UD, for about two years students don’t choose any of their own classes. They’re required to complete pretty much all the same courses in literature, theology, philosophy, art, science, history, and language before they can begin to focus on higher-level classes specific to their majors.

“Our curriculum,” UD’s website says, “is based on a core that emphasizes the pursuit of truth and virtue in the classical Western tradition and the importance of academic rigor.”

How can the “pursuit of truth and virtue” have been diluted to such a point that those who make it their focus in college are, upon graduation, considered virtually unemployable? Philosophy is the “love of wisdom,” theology the study of God, yet these studies -- once considered the purpose of human existence -- are now looked at as mere frippery that’s not worth anyone’s time (unless you went to Stanford).

How can someone who has mastered the theories of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, as well as the history of Gaul, the nuances of Shakespeare, and other similar topics once considered to be essential, be worthless? Surely such a mind is capable of more than a narrow focus, yet such is the predominant and well-crafted misconception about liberal arts majors.

The truth is, liberal arts majors are not ill-equipped as employees and doomed to a life on food stamps. Wilson Peden wrote in Fortune magazine in 2015 (and backed his excellent article up with lots of data), “For the last time: No, earning a degree in English, philosophy, art history, name-your-humanities-discipline will not condemn you to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty… Persistent or not, the myth of the unemployed humanities major is just that: a myth, and an easily disproven one at that.”

A 2014 report from InsideHigherEd similarly reported, “Over the arc of a career, humanities and social science graduates earn as much or more than those in professional fields, new study shows, and are equally employed.”

The Wall Street Journal agreed. As did Time. And CNN. Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post in 2015, “America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous,” proclaiming, “This dismissal of broad-based learning… comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts -- and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.”

“Broad-based learning” is being dismissed because of an ever-deepening infiltration of left-wing radicals, who, like the public K–12 teachers unions folks, see academia as the perfect place to sink their teeth and finagle the future to their evil wills. Liberal professors outnumber conservative ones 12 to one. Even the straightforward, fact-based realm of engineering is not safe from these rabid manipulators.

The bottom line is this: The liberal arts are valuable. They’re beautiful and necessary. They have, however, at many colleges and universities, been perverted by people looking to advance their own ideological agenda -- one that is nihilist at best and fascist at worst. But students drawn to the examination of truth, beauty, and goodness ought not to fear. You’ll enjoy college. You’ll find a job. You’ll make good money. You won’t be liberal. And you’ll be just fine.

Teresa Mull (tmull@heartland.org) is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute. 

The study of the liberal arts is increasingly becoming passé. Schools are encouraged by government grants to infiltrate the classrooms with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and computer science instruction, creating a generation of programmable techies who are proficient at clicking but not at thinking.

As a frequent cellphone and computer user, I certainly do appreciate technological advances. What bothers me, however, is that government is involved in persuading schools what to teach and telling students what to study. I’m also disturbed by the consistent naysayers who dismiss studying the humanities as some frivolous, artistic venture that contains about as much value as Kim Kardashian’s views on the Gulf War. As someone who majored in the liberal arts, I can say that’s absolutely not true.

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal just published a very interesting piece titled, “Liberal Arts Education Is Not (Necessarily) a Waste of Time.” In the article, George Leef points out, “The liberal arts can be a practical education, but at too many schools there isn’t much education going on in their programs.”

Leef retells a story of a student who was considering studying history at Harvard, but when the student’s parents found out, was told the liberal arts are “a house of pain.” Leef explains there is a prevailing perception that those students who study “history, literature, philosophy or anything else that doesn’t have a clear occupational path is just throwing away years of school time and a great deal of money. Focus instead,” people say, “on practical subjects that might at least lead to a job after college.”

My theory is that the “liberal arts is a waste of time” rumor was started by a bunch of progressive elites afraid of what might happen when people, especially young ones, started to develop their own conclusions instead of drinking the Kool-Aid served to them at government schools controlled by liberal, big-government types.

You may think such a claim is right-wing nonsense, or even silly, but before completely dismissing the idea, consider the following: First, liberals control the overwhelming majority of higher-education institutions in America, and yet many of them are the ones dismissing liberal arts and suggesting it’s useless. Second, liberals’ philosophy hinges on everyone working together like little cogs in a giant machine, an idea that fits well with advancing STEM, but doesn’t make much sense with the liberal arts. Third, liberal arts hinges on studying the classic thinkers of Western Civilization, most of whom the left has dismissed as racist, misogynistic, greedy, or homophobic.

In short, the liberal arts is a giant roadblock on the path to socialism, so why wouldn’t the left want to undermine it?

What about the claim there isn’t “much education going on” in most liberal arts programs anymore? What’s happened? I attended (shameless plug alert) the University of Dallas (UD), a small liberal arts Catholic college known for its core curriculum. At UD, for about two years students don’t choose any of their own classes. They’re required to complete pretty much all the same courses in literature, theology, philosophy, art, science, history, and language before they can begin to focus on higher-level classes specific to their majors.

“Our curriculum,” UD’s website says, “is based on a core that emphasizes the pursuit of truth and virtue in the classical Western tradition and the importance of academic rigor.”

How can the “pursuit of truth and virtue” have been diluted to such a point that those who make it their focus in college are, upon graduation, considered virtually unemployable? Philosophy is the “love of wisdom,” theology the study of God, yet these studies -- once considered the purpose of human existence -- are now looked at as mere frippery that’s not worth anyone’s time (unless you went to Stanford).

How can someone who has mastered the theories of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, as well as the history of Gaul, the nuances of Shakespeare, and other similar topics once considered to be essential, be worthless? Surely such a mind is capable of more than a narrow focus, yet such is the predominant and well-crafted misconception about liberal arts majors.

The truth is, liberal arts majors are not ill-equipped as employees and doomed to a life on food stamps. Wilson Peden wrote in Fortune magazine in 2015 (and backed his excellent article up with lots of data), “For the last time: No, earning a degree in English, philosophy, art history, name-your-humanities-discipline will not condemn you to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty… Persistent or not, the myth of the unemployed humanities major is just that: a myth, and an easily disproven one at that.”

A 2014 report from InsideHigherEd similarly reported, “Over the arc of a career, humanities and social science graduates earn as much or more than those in professional fields, new study shows, and are equally employed.”

The Wall Street Journal agreed. As did Time. And CNN. Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post in 2015, “America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous,” proclaiming, “This dismissal of broad-based learning… comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts -- and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.”

“Broad-based learning” is being dismissed because of an ever-deepening infiltration of left-wing radicals, who, like the public K–12 teachers unions folks, see academia as the perfect place to sink their teeth and finagle the future to their evil wills. Liberal professors outnumber conservative ones 12 to one. Even the straightforward, fact-based realm of engineering is not safe from these rabid manipulators.

The bottom line is this: The liberal arts are valuable. They’re beautiful and necessary. They have, however, at many colleges and universities, been perverted by people looking to advance their own ideological agenda -- one that is nihilist at best and fascist at worst. But students drawn to the examination of truth, beauty, and goodness ought not to fear. You’ll enjoy college. You’ll find a job. You’ll make good money. You won’t be liberal. And you’ll be just fine.

Teresa Mull (tmull@heartland.org) is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute. 

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