Are the Liberal Arts Dying?

Louis MenandThe number of liberal arts majors has been decreasing for the past hundred years, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Louis Menand told SLC students in September. Of the 15 million students currently engaged in higher education, under half will choose to receive a degree in a liberal arts field. 22% of majors today are in business, with education and medicine being the next greatest draws—all pre-professional, or “deliberalized,” fields.

So what makes the liberal arts worth pursuing?

The serious historical, theoretical, and philosophical study integral to the liberal arts allows students to explain the “reasons behind present arrangements,” Menand said, and enables them to understand that those arrangements “are not inevitable.”

Menand outlined the history of the liberal arts, tracing their development from the “Big Bang of higher education” in the late 1800s through to the present day. He cited Charles William Eliot, a 19th-century president of Harvard, in stressing that liberal education was designed for those who enjoyed learning for its own sake.

But beyond learning, Menand said, the intellectual autonomy developed by the liberal arts’ training in disinterested study—in seeing beyond “present arrangements”—inspires in students “a certain type of empowerment” that can’t be taught anywhere else. He cited German sociologist Max Weber in suggesting that only the liberal arts could prevent a graduating class of “specialists without spirit.”

The implication was clear: the liberal arts’ rigorous mental training in impartial thought, critical analysis, and outside-the-box thinking are not only important for their own sake, they are ultimately portable to any field.

Menand himself remains an active agent in the field of educational innovation. His new book, The Marketplace of Ideas, discusses the future of higher education. A professor at Harvard, he also recently directed the effort to redesign Harvard’s system of general education requirements.

—Jess Unger ’13