On Swarthmore’s website, you can find a page with a rather grandiose title: “Why the Liberal Arts Matter.” If you’re like me — that is, if you’re someone who takes the idea and promise of the liberal arts at least somewhat seriously — you might have expected, or at least hoped, that this page would be a matter of some importance to the college. That it would perhaps include things like essays written by professors, students, and alums that would, with wit and precision, make the case for a liberal arts education on its own terms. Imagine with me the fantastical content of these hypothetical essays; one might discuss the historical pedigree of the liberal arts, another the role they can play in the development of an engaged and virtuous citizenry, and yet another the powerful, lifelong influence that they can have on the individual student. These essays, in the tradition of the liberal arts, would not be mere paeans, assuming the value of the education they defend; they would be circumspect and articulate, acknowledging the pitfalls and imperfection of the liberal arts model, particularly its awkward relationship to our modern economy, while still offering cogent arguments in its favor. A guy can dream, right?
Alas, college websites, having long ago been infected with the virus of corporatized PR Newspeak, are nothing if not vectors of disappointment. The page’s endorsement of the liberal arts consists of two short, cliché- and buzzword-riddled sentences: “A liberal arts education fuels lives of purpose and creativity. Its variety and vitality empower students to excel in a rapidly changing world, fostering civic and social engagement, personal growth, and happiness.” These sentences are perhaps technically adequate to the challenge set out by the page’s title, in that they do in fact say nice things about the liberal arts and how the liberal arts matter. But this brief passage offers precisely the sorts of undeveloped, vacuous answers that don’t appeal at all to the thoughtful and creative intellectual temperament of the prospective liberal arts student. This is unsurprising; Corporate PR Newspeak, by its nature, cannot help but produce vaguely pleasant sounding platitudes; it builds monuments to mediocrity.
To add insult to injury, the page does not have the good sense to accept its mediocrity with grace and be silent. Rather, it goes on to link to various news sites with laudatory articles about the liberal arts. Some of these articles are quite interesting: an Atlantic piece about humanities education at West Point and other, more vocational institutions, and a few decent interviews with Dean Bock. But many are far more noxious. Look at the headlines: “Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees with a Liberal Arts Degree” and “How Liberal Arts Colleges Reinvent Themselves as Startup Factories.” That’s right: if you graduate with a degree from Swarthmore, you too can move to sunny Silicon Valley and invent a quicker way for the masses to use their smart phones to find partners for casual sex. Oh joy.
The liberal arts are in crisis. Scratch that: American higher education in general is in crisis. Scratch that again: the whole school to workplace pipeline is structurally unsound and likely to collapse spectacularly within the next decade or so. Better-qualified thinkers than me have attempted to explain how this has come to pass; the best I can do here is abridge them. The bachelor’s degree has become the generic credential for an increasingly large number of jobs, resulting in a glut of young college students who in previous decades would have found employment pretty much right out of high school. These students are expected to take on historically unprecedented amounts of debt, made possible through easy credit extended from private lenders in cooperation/collusion with the federal government. Tuitions rise and yet the value of the bachelor’s degree declines. Students then get jobs — hopefully — that don’t pay enough to eliminate the debt in any reasonable amount of time. Everyone knows this system is already broken but no one quite knows what to do about it.
Colleges like Swarthmore are in a bind. Through no real fault of their own, they have become part of the largest credentialing machine in North America. They realize that, of course, the liberal arts were never intended to be a job-training program. One hundred years ago, no one would have argued with a straight face that studying English literature would lead naturally to wealth or a career outside academia. The humanities, and higher education in general, belonged mostly to an already moneyed elite, who pursued learning either as social ornamentation or, among those who took their intellectual development seriously, as a way to pursue the goal of eudaimonia, human flourishing. Now our colleges must accommodate the democratization of education. That democratization has much to recommend itself: slowly but surely, in the halls of our best universities, we are replacing an aristocratic elite with an intellectual one (I do not mean to suggest that this is a novel process; it has been ongoing for many decades). But because that democratization is coupled with a vast increase in tuition costs, colleges increasingly have to come up with justifications for the rather substantial financial investment they require. College education has been captured by the logic of investments and returns, and the liberal arts must accommodate this conquest: English literature will lead you to a rewarding career in any number of challenging, fast-paced fields, we promise. This ITT-Tech-nificiation of the liberal arts is as insidious as it is implausible.
I do not mean to suggest that Swarthmore students, or humanities majors in particular, do not do well in the professional world. We do. But this, I think, has less to do with our course of study than the type of people we are. Any college with an admissions process as rigorous as ours is already selecting for talented, intelligent, creative students. When these qualities are coupled with the social network and credentials afforded through graduation from a prestigious school, professional success becomes a much more realistic prospect. The economic benefits of a liberal arts education do not accrue from its content, but rather its institution.
The benefits of the liberal arts education are not really economic. They are spiritual and communal. The late novelist/“voice of a generation”/dudebro David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, famously argued that the “real, no bullshit value” of a liberal arts education is “how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” What he means is that the liberal arts ideally teach us how to live together, how to listen to, consider, and care about the life experience of others, how to be more than ravenously self-interested, concerned with only our own plots and machinations. To be an educated person is not a skillset; it is a way of being oriented towards the world and the other people in it.
There is a certain elitism that can creep into this mindset. We must think of the liberal arts neither as a panacea for the spiritual problems of life, nor as the royal road to a meaningful existence. There are plenty of people who graduate no more well adjusted than they were when they arrived. Likewise, one can find direction in one’s life without ever once stepping foot in a college classroom. What I am asking of the liberal arts is dignity through humility: We must accept — and accept with pride — our role in the world, which is not as a job-training program but as part of a person-building process. What this acceptance demands is the dismantlement of the education to employment pipeline.