Justifying the Liberal Arts

The raison d’être for government funding and subsidy of education is that, beyond return of education to the educated person, educated individuals also generate positive externalities and public goods for society more generally. Because individuals cannot capture the value of these benefits created by their education, individuals underinvest in their education relative to the social optimum. Government subsidy is one traditional means to overcome this underinvestment problem.

Talking about education as developing human capital or generating a signal usually focuses on the value to the person being educated. And, to be sure, students, and parents today, focus on future professions and vocations. Obsessively so. But individuals do not capture the full value of their education. There are spillovers. Both economic and non-economic; both measureable and not so easily measurable.

To say that spillovers exist, however, is not to say that, however valued, the value of the spillovers exceeds the cost of schooling. Or, perhaps better, that the benefit exceeds the cost at the current margin. The question has been rattling around ever since the start of public funding for colleges and universities; indeed, for government funding of primary and secondary school. Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, provides a bracing challenge to those who would justify current levels of government funding of education and current forms of education.

The tone of defensiveness and denunciation greeting Caplan’s argument stems largely from fear. Fear about the implications of his argument for nature of education in American democracy. And fear for content of university education if his argument is true.

Caplan expresses high regard for the liberal arts in his book, but the logic of his argument forces us to consider uncomfortable thoughts about how we evaluate the worth of such learning. Value, however, whether to the individual or to society, is a particular problem for the liberal arts in today’s environment. Parents, faculty (even those teaching in the liberal arts) and administrators root its value in things like “critical thinking” and “communication.” And these are important, to be sure. But these are a thin reed to justify the significant scope of the liberal arts in the required curriculum of most universities.

I understand the pressures. Engineering faculty have complained to me (not that I was ever in a position to do anything) about liberal arts requirements. While some were just philistines (one faculty member opined to me that students should not need to study history in college because they took it in high school), others were more concerned with the opportunity cost. In an ever-more competitive world they feel the need to train their students to ever higher levels for the job market after graduation. Where to get the added time in a student’s degree plan? Substituting another engineering class that, arguably, increases the employability of the student relative to a required class in English, or history, or philosophy, is a tempting option.

And not just for faculty looking to increase their students’ employment prospects. Parents, too. Perhaps even parents, particularly. Years ago a parent came in with her son (and, yes, this was at a university, and way before anyone coined the phrase “helicopter parents”) to press me to raise her child’s grade one letter grade from a “C.” I answered all of her (standard) arguments about why a student’s need for a higher grade does not change the grade a student actually earns. Her last argument (perhaps more of a parting shot) was that I should raise his grade because “he won’t ever need the class in the future.” (This was a class in which we read all of The Federalist, all of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and an abridged version of Democracy in America.) I told her I was sympathetic, but the issue of whether there should be any required political science classes was an argument better directed to the university’s Board of Regents.

What is the utility of the liberal arts? Beyond process like critical thinking and communication, the value of studying the liberal arts are diffuse and not easily measured. (In today’s university measurement is king.) More significantly, though, the best argument for studying the liberal arts cannot be admitted.

Writing on the teaching of literary fiction, Flannery O’Connor observed, “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.”

The embarrassment rests even at the root of political science. In asking “which constitution is best,” Aristotle recognizes one must first answer the question, “what type of life is most choice worthy.” This question is on deep background in almost every political science class, no matter how quantitative. To be sure, quantitative skills and “critical thinking” and knowing how things work in government and politics are important also. But the central itch — how then shall we live together? — is hardly ever openly asked.

Yes, at serious institutions, liberal arts students learn critical thinking and communication skills. These justifications for education work, sort of. But they’re second-order justifications; and they’re not unique to the liberal arts. Most faculty in the liberal arts (let alone university administrators) cannot admit the embarrassment of such an essential question as the central rationale for the liberal arts. Without it, however, the liberal arts fight for survival in today’s academy with one arm tied beyond its back.

Reader Discussion

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on February 19, 2018 at 10:36:52 am

Interesting piece.

My primary and secondary education, and to be sure, even most of college education was prior to the PC or Macs. But, I always thought it strange, even counter-productive, that when the technology did become widely available in schools, that primary and secondary schools seems to concentrate on predominantly Mac operating system oriented, whereas, most industry applications were overwhelmingly MS PC operating systems, this at a time when the two we not so nearly interchangeably similar as today; the question in my mind was, "if these students are going to most likely be using MS PC's in the workplace, why are they being trained on Mac?"

What does this all have to do with Liberal Arts education in University? Perhaps nothing, and perhaps my observation was only antidotal and not at all reflecting the actual situation as I perceived it at the time. But, it does seem, while there is plenty to blame to be had by universities, much more must be bore by the primary and secondary levels, where this early education has parted far too much away from basics and too much into political indoctrinal studies. The result has had an adverse rippling effect on post-secondary education and into the workplace, where at both the university and workplace, prerequisite skills are lacking and way too much time (which should rightfully be dedicated to liberal arts, and industrial productivity) much be dedicated to teaching and training what should have been learned at each prior level.

Its a very expensive and extremely inefficient use of twelve-years of education, in my view.

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Paul Binotto
on February 19, 2018 at 14:18:57 pm

Certainly if we look to other countries, public education was able to stop the rise of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, and ISIS. It has made separation of church and state universal across the Muslim world. It has prevented hate-speech laws from developing in western europe. It stopped socialism from rising in Venezuela. It stopped FDR from confiscating the gold and taught Justice Roberts about the taxing power.

Yes, public education can definitely be depended on to keep people free and open-minded. The 19th-century was much bloodier than the 20th-century because of a lack of public education around the world.

It definitely wasn't western liberal values that has made America what it is, nope, it's public education that has made the world the beacon of freedom from Saudi Arabia to North Korea.

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Earl Warring
on February 19, 2018 at 16:01:42 pm

You can place me staunchly in the camp of Chistine Hoff Summers, Camille Paglia, Ben Shapiro, Fiamenco, Hanson, Peterson, etc. People who believe that the Liberal Arts and Humanities are GARBAGE DEGREEs with worthless teachers, value-less degrees and courses, idiot indoctrinated students who know platitudes rather than critical thinking.
At one time a Humanities and Liberal Arts degree was a ticket to law or other profession but today anything that would teach real western history has been erased and discredited. Gone are the Greeks and the Romans and the Renaissance and the enlightenment. Gone is the Judeao-Christian foundation. Its all been replaced with leftist marxist postmodernism of victimization and identitarian ideologies.
There is no justification for the Humanities or Liberal Arts anymore. Lawn Mower repair is more relevant and I can only hope that the Federal Govt and State Govt cut off all student loans and cut off all Grants/Aid for the Humanities and Liberal Arts

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Image of LouisM
on February 19, 2018 at 18:46:49 pm

"“what type of life is most choice worthy."


" how then shall we live together? — is hardly ever openly asked."


"Most faculty in the liberal arts (let alone university administrators) [WILL NOT] admit the embarrassment of such an essential question as the central rationale for the liberal arts."

And the reason they WILL NOT is because, in their minds, they already KNOW HOW we SHOULD live together. why open it to discussion when THEIR WAY is best!!!

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Image of gabe
on February 20, 2018 at 08:57:20 am

Certainly a professor of political science could have offered a better response to the parent than he "was sympathetic, but the issue of whether there should be any required political science classes was an argument better directed to the university’s Board of Regents.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.