Swarthmore College

More often than not “liberal arts” has been tethered to a single presumed genealogy of higher education in the United States. This genealogy is a major part of the infrastructure that holds up elite, selective private universities like Harvard and Stanford or flagship public universities, such as University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan, as synonymous with “higher education” instead of the highly atypical institutions that they in fact are. It is this specific conceptualization of the liberal arts, mostly used in American higher education, that centers the phrase in the history of Western Europe and in white and male institutions, in an imaginary heredity that spans from Socrates subverting the youth of Athens through Oxford to the University of Berlin and eventually into the Ivy League. All other institutions along the way that might just as easily been part of this imagined history—women’s colleges, community colleges, HBCUs, and tribal colleges in the United States, medieval Islamic institutions of learning, grunkul education in Hindu history, Taixue and Shuyuan education in China, correspondence course education and trade schools, experimental colleges and art colonies, and so on—are shunted aside into their own histories or as side branches and afterthoughts.

This story leaves contemporary students, faculty, and publics in the position of having to perpetually imagine a pluralistic, diverse academy as a struggle in the present in order to create a better and more inclusive future. When we accept this pruned and scant narrative as the past which produces this present conjuncture, we sabotage our own imagination of our possible futures.

We are not the first to identify this phenomenon, nor are we the only ones to be thinking about this now. Indeed, scholars in Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, and Indigenous Studies, among others, have targeted the assumed form and function of higher education guided by the single presumed genealogy we describe above. These inquiries call into question the disciplining operation of a laundry list of academic genres and institutional practices, including these identified by Katherine McKittrick: “the canon, the lists, the dictionaries, the key thinkers, the keywords, the core course, the required courses, the anthologies, the qualifying exams, the comprehensive exams, the core textbooks, the tests, the grading schemes and rubrics, the institutes, the journals, the readers. Core. Learning outcomes.” In addition to McKittrick, we see work by Sylvia Wynter, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Roderick Ferguson, Christina Sharpe, K. Wayne Yang, among many others as identifying and critiquing these disciplining practices and others in myriad forms. It isn’t scholars alone either. Ongoing protest on college campuses and across the United States under the banner of Black Lives Matter highlights that the existing history of higher education in the United States requires an overhaul as part of a larger reimagining of the access to and practice of education.

To enter into this discussion, we are launching a project we are calling “Race, Racism, and the Liberal Arts.” This project explores and assembles work on underrepresented histories of how Black people, institutions, and ideas have existed outside of, pushed against, or reshaped from within the ideas and institutions of the liberal arts. It investigates and recounts curricular, epistemological, and institutional genealogies that challenge how or whether the term liberal arts has silenced histories and ways of knowing developed by Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. It is a project at once historiographical, institutional, discursive, pedagogical, theoretical, and genealogical. 

We do not merely wish to identify “alternative histories” to place under the banner of liberal arts education, as many have come to know it. We instead point to extant and emerging research that reconfigures the formation of liberal arts education as it has been received into something different altogether. The goal is not resolution or incorporation; it is the pursuit of new terms that emerge from often obscured, but vital genealogies.

W.E.B. Du Bois speaking at the 1948 Du Bois Banquet at the California Labor School. Courtesy of Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University.

This means, for example, that the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington at the dawn of the twentieth century did not merely invoke the liberal arts; it redefined the character of liberal arts. Despite this—and perhaps evidence that “liberal arts” as a term doesn’t always explicitly register conversations about what constitutes that term—Du Bois uses the phrase “liberal arts” only once in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). He writes: 

How foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools.

Du Bois’s point is that the privileging of one mode of education over another is a short-sighted enterprise, for “we are training not isolated men but a living group of men.” Nevertheless, throughout his challenge to Washington a hierarchy and distinction between a liberal and vocational education is implied and enforced. That division hardens even further in Du Bois’s infamous notion of the Talented Tenth. Even so, the wider resolution of the famous debate about vocational and liberal education is frustratingly enigmatic: “neither and both.”

Yet—and this is essential—the thinking about Du Bois and his commitment to an abstracted and isolated version of the liberal arts often ends here. What if, instead, we were to follow the sense that education is the training of a “living group,” meaning the pursuit of a complex historical understanding of higher education’s operation and the people who work, study, in and beyond it? When we trace this, we discover that the firm dichotomy between vocational and liberal education that has canonized this debate withers away.

Take, for instance, Du Bois’s lesser-known 1933 essay, “The Field and Function of the Negro College,” in which Du Bois offers advice to ensure the future success of Fisk University. Du Bois claims that an institution committed to “culture, exquisite and fragile, as a thing in itself disembodied from flesh and action” was doomed to be a “university of the air,” fully irrelevant to its age and to the people it serves. The ideal university instead sounds like an amalgam of liberal and vocational concerns: “it must train the children of a nation for a life and for making a living.” And, rather than, or, yet somehow, neither and both

We could end here and suggest that Du Bois’s lesson is about a dialectical synthesis, admitting that no education is purely liberal or vocational, that such entities blend, merge, and even blur to make them something more than the sum of their individuated parts. That lesson might lead to the troubling of how at midcentury nonvocational liberal arts came to be deployed to concretize the place of elite institutions in an expanding higher education landscape in the U.S.1 It might highlight that other types of institutions took Du Bois’s prescription to train “for a life and for making a living” seriously. As Eddie Cole suggests, the President of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Martin D. Jenkins, argued in his 1948 inaugural address that “a liberal education” at his historically Black institution is “not enough.” There is a practical history of institutions, curricula, faculty, and, as the case of Jenkins suggests, college and university presidents finding a means for blurring the distinctions between training for a life and making a living. That is, scholarship that leaves Du Bois behind at the turn of the twentieth century or that focuses exclusively on elite, flagship, and predominantly white institutions, obscures a key thread in the history of the liberal arts.

Du Bois’s engagement with the liberal arts and higher education, however, has another chapter and prompts further inquiry. In 1956 an FBI informant reported that in a speech Du Bois suggested there were “only two schools who tried to teach the people about the Negro position in their relation to the nation and the world.” Those institutions were not Fisk and Atlanta University, nor were they Harvard and Yale. Instead, they were the California Labor School in San Francisco, where Du Bois was delivering the address, and the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York City. These were institutions partially funded by the Communist Party that came into existence because of the purge of left-affiliated faculty in the university system.

From the FBI File on W.E.B. Du Bois

Schools like the Jefferson School and the California Labor School embraced their role in serving women, working people, and people of color. But these institutions didn’t last long. They were soon shuttered because of the Cold War-era stigma of being marked as subversive institutions by the federal government. Du Bois’s endorsement of them is both evidence of his own late turn to Communism and that in his estimation the mainstream university system had seemingly become what he two decades earlier called a “university of the air.” This meant that what looked to some as indoctrination or political education had become Du Bois’s ideal of how an education could seek to connect students to the imperial world and history of which they were a part. 

What do we take from Du Bois’s trajectory? We learn that to follow the liberal arts and to track its tangled histories of inclusion and exclusion requires looking beyond the term’s overdetermined limits. It requires finding different ways of evaluating the impact and trajectory of different types of institutions, casting aside the imprimatur of academic brands so carefully crafted. It demands attention to theoretical applications and practical implementations of curricula and, ultimately, inquiry into the full range of higher education’s activities in and beyond the classroom. Such pathways are lost when freezing Du Bois, or Washington for that matter, in amber during one moment of a long and storied career of thinking about these concerns, or, in deeming their contributions irrelevant to the history of the liberal arts in higher education. 

This project will amplify these types of histories, ones that operate in but not of, tangent to, through, and beyond academic institutions. Such histories may bring forth contradictions within institutions, within the idea of the liberal arts, and with the broader social and political fabric for which a synthesis or a resolution is not apparent, the types of grammar that render a phrase like “neither and both” immanently sensible. But that’s the point, we think. Only in reaching for the history that leads us to now and questioning its terms can there be a glimpse of a different horizon that has already been with us, operating in the folds and borders of colleges and universities, as well as in the pages of underread books. 

In higher education, we need new names. We need new futures. We need new bonds of cross-institutional affinity and alliance and a different understanding of what is root and trunk, branch and twig, in our shared professional worlds. Our renamings can happen backwards as well as forwards. In fact, in the most empirical and evidence-bound way imaginable, we need to see that this process is precisely what people working in, attending, and moving through higher education institutions have been doing all along.


Featured image, courtesy of Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University.

1. Julie Reuben and Linda Perkins argue that by the 1920s: 
This broadening of access was offset by the beginnings of institutional stratification within higher education. The industrial wealth that helped finance the expansion of higher education was unevenly distributed among colleges and universities, and institutions sought to increase their advantage by strengthening their ties to economic elites. A few colleges and universities decided for the first time to limit the size of their student bodies, adopting admissions practices that favored graduates of private preparatory schools and discriminated among applicants based on religion and/or race. These same institutions distinguished themselves from less wealthy peers by emphasizing the “collegiate ideal”-the virtues of residential education and nonvocational liberal arts curriculum. These changes sought to solidify the prestige of certain colleges and universities by maintaining the social exclusivity of their students. This developing hierarchy most negatively impacted the groups of students who had recently gained access to higher education. 
See “Introduction: Commemorating the Sixtieth Anniversary of the President’s Commission Report, ‘Higher Education for Democracy.’” History of Education Quarterly 47, no. 3 (2007): 267.


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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Rachel Buurma is the Director of the Aydelotte Foundation and an Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College.

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Andy Hines is the Senior Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He is the author of Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University .

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February 18, 2021