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The Vanishing Liberal Arts Degree

Walter Russell Mead

In an article in The Wall Street Journal outlining how liberal arts colleges, in the face of skyrocketing tuitions, are retooling themselves to offer more pragmatic degrees, a statistic stands out:

The number of humanities degrees declined by almost 9% between 2012 and 2014, according to a 2016 analysis from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. That led to a drop in humanities’ share of all bachelor’s degrees to 6.1% in 2014, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1948.

Undergraduate students are opting instead for programs leading to jobs in homeland security, parks and recreation and health care. As a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, those three disciplines jumped to 17% in 2015 from 9% in 2005, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The reality is that only about one to two percent of Americans got a true liberal arts education in 1900; given how bogus many “liberal arts” degrees actually are, it’s likely that we are back to the same percentage, or, depending on whether you think a basic reading knowledge of Latin is part of a liberal arts education, even lower.

What is killing liberal education in America? First and foremost, it’s a culture that has never really appreciated liberal education. In part that’s a good thing; sending your kids to fancy schools where they learn to write verses in dead languages is a form of conspicuous consumption. America, never having had the kind of elite culture that centuries of aristocratic domination can impress on a nation, has always looked more to pragmatic subjects. Probably American liberal culture reached its peak in the first half of the twentieth century when the plutocrats of the Industrial Age were sending their kids to the St. Grottlesex schools, where curricula were modeled on 19th century British standards. Dean Acheson could still sneer at another prep school grad in the 1950s because, when he read his Latin authors, he used a “trot”—a literal English translation that allowed lazy schoolboys to prepare their homework without actually learning all that Latin.

In reality, learning the ancient languages is actually a very good way to train young minds: they learn how complex edifices rise from small foundations and, as they read classical authors like Caesar, Cicero, Virgil and Livy they take in a substantial share of the cultural background that enables them both to interact with similarly educated people around the Atlantic (and South American) world—and that equips them to deal with civilizations and cultures very different from their own.

Beyond that, the general knowledge of history, literature and the arts that the tiny fraction of American students lucky enough to enroll in colleges that really teach them—and smart enough to identify what is usually a handful of professors who teach them well—are an extraordinary method of training people who will be called on to fill responsible posts in their country and communities.

But few employers or parents really understand this, and in any case these days, too many colleges have given up on liberal education—too many dead white males involved in creating the liberal tradition, too much God and not nearly enough fondness for abortion, far too much patriotism and some deeply offensive reflections on the need for the classical virtues to prevent a democratic society from following the natural path of degeneracy into mob rule and, in the end, despotism. Since most of the people who wrote the classic texts that the liberal humanities have traditionally taught hold views that would prevent them from speaking on the enlightened campuses of our noble times, it is only natural that a growing number of campuses convert their humanities curricula into workshops for social justice warriors.

Given this mess, students naturally respond by turning away from disciplines that, to many, seem to have no economic value and no serious intellectual content beyond the commonplace cliches of chic hackademic discourse.

From this perspective, the decision to turn toward “practical subjects” makes a lot of sense. If you aren’t going to get a real education no matter what you do in college, you might as well learn something that will get you paid later.

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