Swarthmore College

Arguments about liberal arts accumulate slowly, almost imperceptibly, on the forest floor of higher education. The detritus of more than a century of episodes in the rhetorical life of liberal arts education, they are built up by cycles of the fierce argument, exuberant expansion, portents of doom, and beneficient forgetting that characterize modern higher education’s relation to the idea of the liberal arts. 

Three years into our work as directors of the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College, we’re newly conscious of the provenance of these claims about liberal arts that circulate within the contemporary American public sphere, across the global span of higher education, and backwards in time. Some of these claims are newer; others have long histories. 

Everyone seems to have a take on the liberal arts. College admissions officers, authors of , earnestly-written books that about the future of academia, former college presidents, higher ed policy-makers, interested journalists, college professors, high-school guidance counselors, Twitter randos, conservative pundits, ed tech executives , business leaders. All of them try to offer a definition of “liberal arts” as they speak to their audiences. The googleable history of the idea is recited dutifully: we are reminded of the trivium and quadrivium; the fateful meeting between the American college and German research university is rehearsed. But far more history is forgotten, ignored, or side-stepped. In place of history, we list the virtues of liberal arts in a vague and comforting way. They vacillate between a melancholic yearning for a lost form of liberal arts education and a blustery confidence in liberal arts as a weapon with which to meet an uncertain and slightly menacing future. But few offer a tangible definition of the concept of liberal arts, and therefore few offer much confidence. 

Part of the problem with defining liberal arts is that the concept seems so open that almost everyone can claim to be profoundly identified with it. The term is so plastic that “liberal arts” frequently serves in public discourse as an all-purpose scornful stand-in for any number of tenuously related things:  for higher education, for educated elites, for the opposite of useful or instrumental education, even for any political disposition even slightly to the left of the far right. 

And yet we can see some some persistent lineages emerge from out of the sea of formless talk that invokes “liberal arts”. Each of those strains has ties to a specific history of practice and ideology within higher education or public culture. Some align closely and intentionally with a particular agenda; others seem like accidental creations. Some trace a consistent line across more than a century; others have seen their fortunes rise dramatically and fall precipitously over time. But each of the twelve propositions we’ve identified intrigue us; they offer the seeds of research projects of various scales and types that we hope to undertake and support.

By uncovering the conditions in which they came into being, expanding the institutional landscape,  repopulating the narratives with a wider array of individual figures, and turning towards the intractable problems they often both mark and gloss over, we hope to uncover both some more concrete definitions, particular practices, and a wider world of what liberal arts education has been, is now, and might be in the future. 




A Deeper Look


Uncertainty. The view that liberal arts is the best possible response to uncertain futures of work and life is particularly common in 2018. But it has a long history, arguably reaching  all the way back into the medieval university or classical era and their assumptions about what a “free man” required from education in order to rule himself and the world around him. In the nineteenth century when Harvard President Charles Eliot introduced the elective course into higher education, he argued in part that individuals needed to make their own choices about what to learn in the process of their own unpredictable personal journey through life. Since then, the definition of liberal arts as unpredictability has been tied both to this romantic vision of individual flourishing and to the sense that white-collar or professional employment requires some measure of adaptability and flexibility to unforeseen circumstances. Unpredictability in this sense is both a justification of a liberal arts approach and an explanation of the variability of the courses and majors available within a liberal arts curriculum. Rarely, however, do liberal arts faculty and administrators think deeply about whether unpredictable conditions of study produce (or even resemble) the capacity to navigate uncertain future contingencies in work and life

Recombination. The idea that the liberal arts is about the freedom of individual learners to make their own choices about subjects and methods they wish to learn and then to combine what they know in original or distinctive ways is possibly the most comforting of all to students, parents, professors, college presidents and most of the public. The physicist who is also a virtuoso pianist, the philosopher who designs solar-powered cars, the Shakespeare expert who writes white papers on the epidemology of ebola, are guaranteed a place in their alumni magazines, in the hearts of the faculty that taught them, and in the MacArthur genius grants of tomorrow. As with unpredictability, Charles Eliot’s revisionary insistence on the elective as the heart of American higher education is an important part of this story. But it’s also difficult to really pinpoint the structures or approaches in contemporary liberal arts institutions that consciously engender these kinds of recombinant outcomes–and hard to shake the suspicion that other double majors, other students with uniquely conceived courses of study, never really reconcile or connect the divergent threads of their education; liberal arts institutions like the claim a share of the credit for the achievements of its graduates, yet rarely assume responsibility for their failures or disappointments. Nor is it easy to separate out the legacies of a four-year undergraduate education from later experiences that might more richly inform or shape a distinctive fusion of divergent forms of knowledge and skill in a given graduate.

Autodidactism. Almost as comforting is the proposition that liberal arts students “learn how to learn”, that they are acquiring meta-knowledge of disciplines, methods, and skills that sets them apart from people who have not had this kind of education. While many institutions design disciplinary and interdisciplinary structures to emphasize method and meta-knowledge, this claim appears as often in contexts where students encounter disciplines with fiercely specific and highly bounded methods; in this latter case, “learning how to learn” must arise from the proximity of different learning experiences or from the particular pedagogy of  Like many assertions about liberal education, it’s difficult to separate from the abilities and social capital that many students carry into higher education from the benefits they reap from it four years later. It also can be difficult to clearly trace how separate disciplines that may hold themselves to have specific and highly bounded methods and epistemologies nevertheless produce this metaknowledge in liberal learners. 

Critical Thinking. “Learning how to learn” is miles more specific and tangible than another very common claim, that liberal arts education is “critical thinking”. In a sense, “critical thinking” and “liberal arts” are a match made in heaven–that is, of two often-invoked ideas that can mean almost nothing and almost anything all at once, and that can in fact each mean something deeply important and brimming with potential. Thinking, slightly modified; the value-added imagined here is “critical,” which holds the bag for everything that education may be said to have done while also preserving an alibi. Critical thinking attempts to strip ideology and even any particular content away from the idea of liberal education; it invokes the autonomy of individuals, their ability to think independently of and about the conditions of their education. 

Humanities. Critical thinking is therefore very different for those uses of liberal arts to mean humanities disciplines pure and simple – as often seen in far-right trolling (snowflake liberal arts majors) as well as in a more subtle, background assumption within the culture of academia itself. The association of the two is not unfounded: as Laurence Veysey points out, the defenders of “liberal learning” who armed themselves against the rise of the practical or utility-driven research university expressly identified themselves as humanists opposed to new disciplinary forms of scientific inquiry. In the swirl of current anxieties about science majors, those older views are sometimes pulled up as sediments that color ongoing conversations and deliberations with an irritable turbidity. At the same time, almost no one in the contemporary environment seriously advocates framing a liberal arts curriculum as an exclusively humanistic one. 

Core Curriculum, Western Tradition. Though perhaps there is some element of that framing in various academic projects that define themselves as upholding “traditional” visions of the liberal arts: Columbia University’s Core Curriculum and St. John’s College’s “Great Books” approach, for example, as well as a number of religious colleges. With varying degrees of comfort, most of these institutional frameworks not only see themselves as defining liberal arts in terms of adherence to past approaches but even more specifically as connected to the “Western tradition”. Even for institutions that have no interest in defining liberal education in these terms, there is a seemingly unavoidable degree to which the concept references a specific history of teaching and institution-building in Western Europe. The rise of movements to decolonize or more thoroughly universalize university curricula are at least partially a result of this lingering connection. It’s hard to ignore the degree to which the defense of liberal arts is often undertaken by white male authors (both inside and outside of academia), but many of the virtues claimed for liberal learning as an approach have potential analogues in other historical traditions of formal education in East and South Asia and perhaps elsewhere. To us, at least, it feels as if the persistent, sometimes unspoken, connection between ideas about liberal learning and “the Western tradition” creates some unfortunate constraints on its future–but this is also a conversation so thoroughly implicated in long-standing culture wars that it is hard to engage it in a useful or interesting way. 

Anti-Vocational. Far more interesting to us is the intricate, contradictory domain of claims about the relationship between liberal learning and the work that its graduates undertake subsequently in life. To a great extent, we think this is the single most interesting thread that we would like to unravel and trace. The proposition that a liberally educated person must not be intentionally prepared for a single specific career reverberates all up and down the timeline of liberal arts as an idea, though in radically different contexts in classical and medieval institutions, and even in the 19th Century American academy. No other idea produces so many invocations–and misrepresentations–of the classical and medieval conceptualization of the educated person. The history of higher education in the United States is a series of confrontations between practicality and philosophy, utility and character-building, specificity of professional training and generality of liberal learning. The contemporary American debate about higher education, whether staged on Twitter, in family living rooms, in diners, in legislatures, or in faculty meetings, is drawn compulsively to the question of whether and how higher education should prepare students for future careers, and whether or not it already does so in some fashion. These conversations criss-cross a riotous range of informed descriptions of the actual curricula and pedagogy of higher education, mythological visions of college in the past and present, unexamined assumptions about the process of learning, and anxious marginally-informed pronouncements about the present and future of work and social transformation. We’ve decided that this theme is our greatest area of current engagement for the Aydelotte: there is so much to interpret and study within this domain, and the answers are so urgent for the present moment.

Status Quo. At least some working understandings of liberal arts, on the other hand, amount to a quiet and simple blank-check benediction for the status quo, either at particular colleges or universities or across academia. Meaning, when asked “what do you mean by ‘liberal arts’”, at least some institutions effectively answer by saying, “Whatever we’re doing this second? That’s liberal arts”. This is less shallow than it might seem: what this approach really means to say is that existing structures of faculty governance and administrative management are trustworthy custodians of the meanings and implementation of liberal arts, and that liberal education arises as an emergent form out of the interaction of their various decisions. Considering that contemporary anxieties about higher education are far less novel or unprecedented than they are frequently described as being, it makes a certain kind of sense to serenely assert a kind of custodial duty to liberal learning and to carry on with that duty without being overly distracted by any given moment of supposed controversy or threat.

Small Colleges. In a similar vein, there are more than a few definitions of liberal arts that simply assert that the term is defined not by concepts or histories but that it is a proxy for a specific kind of institution, namely small American colleges that are focused substantially or entirely on undergraduate education. The common acronym SLAC expresses this neatly: “small liberal-arts college”. This seems to us to be both true enough (that the term tends to invoke small colleges) and completely uninteresting. If liberal arts is simply a synonym for selective small colleges that collectively educate only a teeny fraction of the students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in the United States, it certainly cannot carry the weight of all the other expectations and anxieties that surround it. 

Citizenship. Finally, we’re interested in but also puzzled by a powerful, long-standing idea about liberal education that often haunts almost every other invocation of the concept. Namely, that liberal learning is peculiarly suited to the formation of character, the shaping of morality, or the creation of civic virtue. This is a proposition of long-standing, beloved by college presidents in 1875, 1925, and 2018, even if some of the descriptive vocabulary of virtues attributed to liberal learning shifts over time. “Ethical intelligence”, “global citizenship”, “social justice”, are in some sense the descendants of other virtuous attributes that colleges and universities claimed to hone or awaken in young people a century earlier. These claims puzzle us because in some sense they propose an empirical standard that perhaps unsurprisingly educational institutions have been in no hurry to test or examine further. Are graduates of liberal arts institutions better citizens by some measure? (And what would be “better”?) Are they ethically intelligent? (Are scholars who study ethics, for example, in any sense more likely to be ethical?) Any of these questions, if they could be answered in the affirmative through any kind of evidence of any kind, would pose a second set of questions: what is it about liberal education that is producing such an outcome? How do we know this isn’t better described as “class formation”? (Which, if it were, would not be self-evidently bad to everyone who expresses it–it’s just that that would be different than what educational institutions commonly imagine as their intentional practices.) We recognize that there are many interesting sentiments and histories bubbling under the surface of these kinds of claims, but for the moment, we are inclined to push them aside until we can think of a way to tackle them usefully. 

Character. This theme could also just as easily be titled “social or class reproduction”. Higher education outside the United States has been more explicit regarding this as a function of the university. The major public university systems of many European countries and their former colonies have long used qualifying examinations and other mechanisms to sort young adults into overtly class-linked hierarchies closely connected to particular kinds of employment. A small fragment of institutions that have conventionally described themselves as training for elite government and corporate leaders and a handful of esteemed professions, such as Oxford, Cambridge or the Sorbonne, have claimed to be involved in building “character”, a sort of mannerly public morality that once upon a time stretched from how to behave on the polo field or while eating ortolans to how to act in public when your spouse has an affair or when feeling in middle age that life has ceased to have joy and meaning. Some tie to older ideas of liberal education–the training of a ‘free’ citizen–has been visible within this commitment to cultivating character.

“Character” in the American academy has a more complicated and tortured history. As Veysey observes, the ascendant research university in the latter half of the 19th Century set itself against the “liberal education” of many private and religious institutions by promising that the research university was open to all citizens, and could offer to all students a kind of socioeconomic mobility untainted by “character”. A student could learn the arts and skills needed by a fast-paced industrial society, skills whose value could be stripped of the need for embedded or inherited cultural capital. With those skills, a graduate’s horizon was said to be unlimited. Veysey notes that for a good while, the response of the defenders of liberal education to this critique was not to deny the accusation but to embrace it, to agree that liberal education did in fact refine and extend the social virtues of the scions of elite or haut-bourgeois families. Nevertheless, in the early 20th Century, many small college and private universities adopted some of the features of the research university and with them began to scuff over or obscure the degree to which character and social standing were synonymous or connected, either by extending the benefits of character to anyone who might matriculate or preaching the importance of character to the proper use of professional or technical skills.

The link between liberal learning and the shaping of character–or many related ways to describe some combination of manners, ethics, behavior and affect–has remained strong up to the present in American higher education even as that connection also produces discomfort, embarrassment and anger. A prominent strain of criticism of the contemporary academy by writers like Mark Edmundson and William Deresiewicz complains of the extent to which higher education has abandoned the forging of character. Many make the opposite charge: that liberal learning is still tied too closely to the reproduction of the specific cultural identity of an older white, male establishment elite and hostile to everyone else. Faculty and administrators often look desperately for ways to renarrate or redescribe ‘character’ either as a technical-philosophical skill (“emotional intelligence”, “self-presentation”, “ethical intelligence”, “cultivating humanity”) or to re-situate it within larger and more open social formations (“global citizenship”, “cosmopolitanism”, “pluralism”).

At the same moment, the undeniably intensified role of higher education in producing social class in the United States has become a profoundly unsettling subject within academia and an explicit premise of public conversation about academia, not to mention an important underpinning of recent American politics. Here the theme of anti-vocationalism gets a particularly intense inflection from its relationship to both character-producing and class-producing visions of liberal education. So this is an area of both strength and weakness within the body politic of academia that we intend to persistently explore and prod at even as we are also aware of the jangled nerves and knotted musculature that flinch as a result of such prodding.  

This taxonomy of “liberal arts” and its meanings is both a product of research and a guide to research. We can see meanings of the term that are banally or historically shallow, and others that have a tendency to be anodyne or superficial. We see others that are zones of heavy, if often unreflective, contention both within academia and between academia and its myriad publics. It is enough to keep us occupied for a long time; we hope with some useful results. 

About the Author

Timothy Burke's main field of specialty is modern African history, specifically southern Africa, but he has also worked on U.S. popular culture and on computer games.

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