Briefly Noted: The State of the Liberal Arts

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on July 8, 2013.]

One wishes Roger Kimball would tell us how he really feels. “The gassy, mephitic, overinflated travesty that is the higher education establishment cannot go on forever,” writes Mr. Kimball, “Therefore it won’t.”[1]  This, from a recent edition of New Criterion, in which Mr. Kimball surmises that elite liberal arts colleges no longer make a constructive contribution to our American heritage, instead offering students a four-year exercise in politically correct hysteria and intellectual conformity. “What Harold Rosenberg called ‘the herd of independent minds,’” writes Kimball, “has huddled together in bovine complacency, mooing ankle-deep in its own effluvia, safe within its gated enclosure.”

Kimball is not the first critic to have noted the effluvial nature of American higher education (though he is perhaps the wittiest). Entire rainforests in South America find themselves in danger because of the enormous spate of books and articles being published on the woes of higher education. Another of the most perceptive critics is Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, whose “Ave atque vale” is the article immediately following Kimball’s in this edition of New Criterion.[2] The article, which is a revised version of Kagan’s farewell address delivered at Yale’s Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, traces the history of liberal arts education from the Romans up until the present day. I found it instructive enough that I’m publishing a summary of the article, along with a few thoughts in response to Kimball and Kagan.

A Brief History of the Liberal Arts

From the beginning, Kagan notes, liberal arts proponents aspired to four goals. The first was the pursuit of a contemplative life, the kind that “Aristotle thought was the greatest happiness.” The second was the shaping of the character, style, and taste of a person. The third was preparation for a useful career in the world. The fourth was “to contribute to the individual citizen’s freedom in ancient society.” Because society was divided into the free and servant classes, free men and women had the responsibility to know the world in general rather than merely knowing their own particular slice of it (p. 4). Thus from their inception the liberal arts offered an exercise in the shaping of the whole person for the sake of society. Although emphases varied, the liberal arts existed mostly for these purposes until fairly recently in history.

The Romans and the Middle Ages

For the Romans, a liberal education included a rigorous course of study in literature, history, philosophy, and rhetoric” (p. 4). Combining the Roman inheritance with a Judeo-Christian worldview, the medieval universities likewise offered studies in these subjects and in fact bequeathed to us the seven liberal arts which were divided into the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Aristotle was en vogue and, therefore, the medievals focused on logic and dialectic over the arts. Significantly, they were metaphysical and epistemological realists and as such held forth hope that the diligent scholar could attain “some semblance of knowledge.” (p. 5) Finally, the liberal arts education was expected to train students for specific professional careers.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance witnessed a return to those same ideas and values. Christians placed emphasis on returning to the sources (ad fontes) themselves–study of the original languages of the Bible–not just reliance upon the church fathers. In this case, a liberal education included study of grammar and rhetoric, as well as study of the classical authors (e.g. Cicero), writing poetry, history, politics, and moral philosophy. As Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier made clear, a Renaissance man was one well versed in language, literature, history, and skilled in athletics, military affairs, music, and grounded in a good moral character. The liberal arts were the soil in which free and virtuous men flourished for the benefit of the society. The curriculum itself was suited to this goal.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century England

In eighteenth century England, however, liberal arts education existed more for proper social status than for useful social service. “It was not an education meant to prepare its recipients for a career or some specific function but an education for gentlemen,” Kagan writes. “The goal was to produce a well-rounded man who would feel comfortable and be accepted in the best circles of society and so get on in the world” (p. 6). A trail of correspondence exists in which fathers wrote their sons encouraging them not to study too hard lest they become socially awkward.

Nineteenth century England saw yet another shift in the liberal arts. England had endured long years of war with France, and had experienced a revival in religion that eschewed the easy-going way of the eighteenth century. Liberal arts educators took steps to fill positions “on the basis of competence instead of connections. The response of the university faculties was to revive a medieval device that had fallen into disuse–competitive examinations” (p. 6). Hard teaching and learning ensued. A defined curriculum arose. Some commissions investigating Oxford and Cambridge in the 1850s declared, “It is the sole business of the University to train the powers of the mind” (p. 7). And yet others protested that the liberal arts must also shape the whole person, not just train their intellect or prepare them for useful careers. Hence a tension remained in which some argued for the (civic) utility of the liberal arts and others for the pursuit of the liberal arts as an end in itself.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Germany

Things changed again, however, because of the influence of German universities, which served as “a great tidal wave from across the channel.” For in Germany academics began to overthrow the unifying principle of liberal arts up to this point: that knowledge existed already, it was outside oneself, and there was “little thought of discovering anything true that had not previously been known” (p. 7). German universities took the opposite tack. “At its core was the German idea of academic freedom, a freedom to investigate new questions and old in new ways, with a bold willingness to challenge accepted opinion . . . Originality and discovery became the prime values” (pp. 7–8). The university was now thought of as a place of dynamic thought, generating new knowledge rather than repeating ancient truths.

Under the new paradigm, specialization reigned and generalists fell out of favor. In addition, Judeo-Christian morality fell out of favor. Instead of an agreed-upon base of knowledge that could be learned in order to shape one’s character, now research “would provide a new basis for morality” (p. 8).

Kagan’s Diagnosis of the Liberal Arts Today

Kagan provides this historical survey as his basis for making some evaluations of the state of twenty-first century American liberal arts education. Kagan argues that today’s American liberal arts education parallels eighteenth century England’s. “ I submit that in America today the most important social distinction, one almost as significant as the old one between gentle and simple, is whether one has a college education” (p. 9). Liberal arts diplomas offer one a certain social status. Kagan supports his point with the claim that successful applicants and then graduates of the “better” (and thus more expensive) liberal arts institutions are most likely to marry a person with the preferred social status, and to achieve the best positions and promotion in their careers. Liberal arts education, especially at the highest levels (i.e. Ivy League), is as much about who one knows as it is what or how one knows. This education is secular and, rather than inculcating virtue, lends to its students a sort of production-line nihilism. Theirs is a world bereft of God, truth, and meaning.

Liberal arts colleges, in Kagan’s view, rarely cultivate in their students an inquisitive desire to know truth except, in the occasional “hard science” course. But our colleges’ greatest failure, Kagan thinks “is their failure to enhance the students’ understanding of their role as free citizens of a free society and the responsibilities it entails” (p. 10). This country’s Judeo-Christian moral tradition initially shaped our country, but is in sharp decline, and is not being replaced by a different one but by no tradition. He writes, “I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness, as though not only the students but also the world was born yesterday . . .” (p. 10). These tradition-less graduates possess no compass by which to make informed moral judgments. “They [students] are inclined to see other people’s values as mere prejudices, one no better than another, while viewing their own as entirely valid, for they see themselves as autonomous entities entitled to be free from interference by society and from obligation to it” (pp. 10-11). For Kagan, as for me, this is a sad state of affairs.

Kagan’s prescription is one of retrieval, in which “liberation can only come from a return to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past” (p. 11). We must create a common core of studies for all students in a given institution and at the same time affirm that some questions are fundamentally important for all students to ask. He proposes a core of literature, history, and philosophy that would ground students in a world that is different from their own proclivities or biases, namely the world of the past. The goal for such a core would be to show students how others have sought to live well for the benefit of society. Moreover, students would learn that “freedom is essential to the good and happy life of human beings but that freedom cannot exist without good laws and respect for them” (p. 11). Renewal is possible via ressourcement.

Two Cheers for Kagan

Kagan is one of the more perceptive critics of American higher education, and he is right that we are in trouble. He joins a chorus of other scholars and critics. George Marsden has shown how the once-pervasive influence of Christian theology on college campuses has virtually disappeared.”[3] Allan Bloom famously argued that the American university has become a superficial self-esteem factory which specializes in self-affirmation rather than self-examination. James Piereson recently argued that education is now a “bottom-line” industry in which many colleges and universities, “have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives…”[4] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveal how our colleges are producing graduates who read, write, and learn poorly.[5] David Dockery warns that special interest groups threaten to hijack Christian education as they want us to conform on matters such as sexual identity and sexual freedom.[6] In short, America’s culminating educational institution, the university, is characterized by a rejection of the Christian worldview upon which it was once founded, a disappearance of serious dialogue about the perennially “big” questions in life, a diminishing of essential skills such as reading and writing, and a capitulation to special interest groups and bottom-line financial interests.

Kagan is correct also that a renewal of American higher education will include ressourcement of the Western tradition and a retrieval of metaphysical and epistemological realism. And yet we must go beyond Kagan’s prescriptions to also ask, “How can Christians help to redirect the field of education towards its true end in Christ?” Christians are aware that public education often is framed by an Enlightenment worldview which removes “God” from the process. It provides alternatives to the biblical narrative, narratives which teach that human salvation comes through science and technology, or that human security and happiness come through consumerism and the economy. In opposition to these narratives, Christians follow a model of “faith seeking understanding,” allowing a Christian view of the world to frame our teaching and learning, and to provide fruitful avenues for research. “The purpose of Christian education,” writes T. S. Eliot, “would not be merely to make men and women pious Christians….A Christian education must primarily teach people to be able to think in Christian categories.”[7] Therefore, Christian educators and learners must put in the hard work to discern exactly how their Christian beliefs should shape a particular field of learning. They should discern God’s creational design for that field, assess the current condition of that field, and then find ways to contribute to the field faithfully.

There was a day when Kimball’s and Kagan’s descriptions of elite American colleges did not apply. The founders of Harvard College published a pamphlet in 1643, containing their mission statement: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”[8] Like Harvard’s founders, we affirm that Jesus Christ is the foundation of all learning. As Lesslie Newbigin put it, Christ is the clue to understanding the universe, and our ability to grasp deeply the implications of this insight determines the extent to which we can renew the liberal arts project.

[1] Roger Kimball, “Notes and Comments” in New Criterion (June 2013), 1-3.

[2] Ibid., 4-12.

[3] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University, ???

[4] James Piereson, “What’s wrong with our universities?” in The New Criterion 30:1 (September 2011), 17-25.

[5] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press).

[6] Dockery, Renewing Minds, 2.

[7] T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1940), 22.

[8] “New England’s First Fruits,” quoted in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans (New York: American Book, 1938), 702.

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  1. Jay Bailey   •  

    Those who disregard or don’t know or learn from history are doomed to repeat it which is why the current educational system is in shambles. Also all of our morality and laws are based on Judeo- Christian principals which shaped the core of our constitution and bill of rights. We now have generations of people told what to think by the liberal arts nazis (professors) instead of encouraged to think for themselves and forget about service to society as it has spiraled to every person for themself. The first move to correct this is to find our moral compass once again which is the Bible and teach liberal arts out of that base. In my humble opinion.

  2. Micah Brake   •  

    Dr. Ashford

    This is an excellent article. I’m reading this while I’m sitting at my desk working for an engineering company, a year removed from being a student at SEBTS in the MA in Philosophy of Religion program who had dreams of being a liberal arts university professor.

    There are some harsh realities that I think Kimball and Kagan may not be taking into consideration that keep the state of academia stagnant, especially in the US. In my experience, there are many evangelical, academically minded people who would love to pursue a Ph.D. and contribute to reforming the culture of education that is rather “gassy” today. Unfortunately, for folks like me in their mid-20s who are newly married, conservative, and wanting to start a family, the overall state of academia is very unfriendly.

    Between 2006-2010, there were roughly 100,000 PhDs conferred in the liberal arts, but only 16,000 new tenure-track positions were made available over that same time. (Just google those numbers, and you’ll find many articles corroborating that ratio. A few even go so far as to estimate that the current rate is as low as around 8%.)

    Additionally, Marc Cortez, a professor at Western Seminary in Portland, writes, “In 2008 ATS schools hired 420 new faculty. In 2009 they hired 339. By 2010 the number was down to 226. That’s an almost 50% decrease in just two years.”

    Meanwhile, online classes (look at Liberty U) seem to be the new way to go. The best, already-tenured professors are paid five grand to record a few lectures, and the university doesn’t have to hire new, full-time blood. Faculty rosters shrink, but more students get reached. Students are happy because they get the best profs on their own time, rather than some green rookie with a dissertation as his only publication at 8 a.m. three days a week.

    I made straight As at SEBTS. I graduated as the top student in English from Auburn University when I got my BA in 2009. I taught English in China for a year at the university level. I was even Auburn’s Rhodes Scholarship nominee and made it to the final rounds of that competition in 2010. But when I started putting feelers out for PhD programs, having gotten halfway done with the MAPR at SEBTS, I was told in every single conversation that I’d need to complete an additional masters degree from a non-evangelical school before I would be considered for the higher-tiered, rigorous PhD programs I was interested in. By virtue of the fact that I was studying at an evangelical, conservative school, my degree was seen as being below the level of academic quality necessary for serious consideration at the nation’s best schools (because I believe silly things like God is real and the Bible is true and–gasp–inerrant). I could either press repeat for a year or two in hopes of getting picked up after that, or get a PhD from a lower-tiered school with fewer employment opportunities following graduation.

    With a post-doctorate employment rate of 16% overall (or maybe less), I decided that I couldn’t put my family through the financial uncertainty of going into debt at an elite school for a couple years or pursuing four more years of study at a lower-tiered school for a 1 in 6 chance at a job when I was done. Unfortunately, I have the skill set required to succeed at the highest levels of academia, but I’ve been shunned because of my conservative faith and choice of pursuing a conservative academic education. The system of higher academia is boxing out folks who think the Bible is true in favor of the Bart Ehrmans of the world. Unless I am willing to swallow a $100 grand bill and go to Europe, I have found that conservative theologians are in woefully short demand.

    I’m working in the engineering field now. My wife and I are eagerly researching overseas adoption. We teach Sunday School at our church, and I see my new career path as an excellent mission field. So all is not lost. But, unfortunately, it seems that many bright young students no longer can pursue theologically conservative academic dreams unless they are willing to roll the dice in a very big way.

  3. Jessica   •  

    Micah has a great point. While looking back and critiquing the current state of affairs has some merit, I’d love to see our efforts going towards, as you say

    “put in the hard work to discern exactly how their Christian beliefs should shape a particular field of learning. They should discern God’s creational design for that field, assess the current condition of that field, and then find ways to contribute to the field faithfully.”

    So, given the current problems (from both Kagan’s and Micah’s perspectives), and given the current opportunities (technological impacts on the educational process) what NEW path (incorporating the best of the ancient ways) is God laying down for us to walk in? I can’t imagine that it really looks primarily just like getting back to some “good ‘ol days” which must have had their own pitfalls that got us to this place to start with. Our God is infinitely creative and surprising. Even the woes which Micah delineated may be fulfilling His design of moving us in a direction we can’t clearly see yet. That’s what I’m curious about – what is God doing next with the process of human education – redemptively? We think we can see what the enemy is trying to do, but what will our great-grandchildren look back and see in this time as the surprising Hand of God working a glory yet to be revealed? What is He building in this strange time and place? And how can we help?

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jay, you’re spot on. thanks for checking in.

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    You’ve pointed out some harsh realities. We are putting out an avalanche of PhDs without enough openings to hire but a small portion of them. And yes, there is no small hesitancy to hire conservative Christians, especially if their grad work was at a conservative Christian institution. The bright side of this (for one who has a terminal degree but can’t find a teaching position at the undergrad or grad level) is that there are more than a few other opportunities available (editing work, teaching at the high school level, research, writing, etc.). The PhD, if it accomplishes its purpose is intended to equip the student to research, write, and make arguments, skills which are transferrable…. Which is why more than 50% of our PhD students intend to go into the pastorate rather than into higher ed… thanks for taking the time to read and comment..

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    I really like your perspective. I think you’re right. Let’s take the situation we’ve been given and see what we can do with it for God’s glory.

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