One Case Against Removing The Liberal Arts From Universities

Feb. 20, 2013
Chas Gillespie is a writer and distance runner whose work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Thought ...

Late yesterday, a writer named Matt Saccaro posted an essay titled “The Case for Removing (Almost) All Liberal Arts from College.” His central claim is that a category he calls the “Liberal Arts” should be removed from college, preventing any more Liberal Arts majors because the Liberal Arts provide a safe haven for lazy students, one does not need a University to learn the Liberal Arts, and studying the Liberal Arts will not assure a decent job. His essay demanded a brief response.

Saccaro’s argument rests on a series of assumptions, none of which he provides evidence for, and all of which are wrong.

Claim 1

If there were no “liberal arts” areas in which to major, lazy students would drop out — benefiting both them and the university — because they wouldn’t be able to “hack it” in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors.

Assumption

STEM majors are more difficult than “liberal arts” majors.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but I’ve heard it from a number of people, none of whom provide evidence for it. I often hear it from students who take an intro lit class to satisfy a requirement, do half the reading, get B-’s on the essays, and somehow find a way to get a B+ in the class. Then they say, “Hey, lit classes are super easy.”

Yes, they are easy if 1) You do half the work. 2) You only take intro classes. 3) You grade grub to get a decent grade.

However, they are very difficult if 1) You do all the work and 2) Take advanced classes. A literature or philosophy or history or religion etc. seminar with five people, a professor who’s willing to embarrass you if you say something stupid or don’t do the reading, in which you have to read a book a week, write response essays, and write a final essay of 25 pages is not an easy class. In fact, it’s a very difficult class. And these types of classes are, quite often, the heart of many “liberal arts” majors. Further, science classes that have a significant lab component and require more class time are often weighted to reflect their additional time requirement, enabling a manageable semester of courses. I think the simplest explanation is most likely; there are STEM classes that are quite difficult, and there are “liberal arts” classes that are quite difficult. Majoring in one or the other can be quite hard work if you want good grades and want to learn and grow as much as you can.

Also: Saccaro uses the term “liberal arts” in opposition to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. This is very confusing to me because, in every academic circle I’m aware of today, Science and Math ARE liberal arts. Does he mean to say “humanities” instead of “liberal arts”?

Claim 2

College is a waste of money (I’ll correct his confused terminology for him) for “humanities” majors because they can learn the same things with a library card and an Internet connection that enables message board discussions.

Assumption

Libraries are sufficient replacements for classrooms. And the only things you learn in college are what professors teach you.

Based on this claim, I’m not sure if Saccaro has ever been to a public library. Libraries are a terrific resource, but try finding Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, Goethe’s Faust or even some Charlie Chaplin films at your local public library. Spoiler alert: they aren’t there. Public libraries tend to have children’s books, some modern American movies, maybe some music, and popular fiction. Where you can more easily find the types of things I mentioned is at a university library, thanks to their humanities departments.

Second, having an actual human discussion with a fellow student is much more rewarding and challenging than posting on a message board. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the Internet is aware of this.

Third, he says, “The axioms and principles in these majors are sufficiently difficult that they require expert explanation and carefully crafted prowess, the kind that can only be found at an accredited institution.” This claim could be used to justify the humanities, just as well as math and science. The book simply has to be sufficiently difficult, which most books taught in universities are. Foucault, Faulkner, Melville, Shakespeare, the Bible, etc. are not easy to read. In fact, they’re quite difficult to read, so long as you’re interested in a deep understanding of them. Professors can help you in this respect.

Fourth, and a bit more subtly, he assumes that the only point of a university education is to learn things in class. Quite simply, no, it is not. A lot of social and emotional growth occurs for students at universities due to the vibrancy of the communities, the separation from parents, becoming involved in different extra-curricular activities, and being surrounded by other people who are close in age to you. This type of environment is nearly impossible to replicate outside a university.

Claim 3

A university today is a “factory that produces debt-slaves and baristas that can recite Emmanuel [sic] Kant’s passages from memory,” rather than serving as “functional institutions that remove all unnecessary coursework, and focus only on what matters.”

Assumption

What matters are money and the ability to get a respected job.

This is a fairly run-of-the-mill argument against studying the humanities, made by uncles all across this great nation. However, humanities classes justify themselves by teaching things and asking questions that STEM classes do not teach or ask. What is a just society? How ought we act toward one another? What is the nature of knowledge, and what are its limits? What uses of technology are inappropriate? What values and hierarchies of power are encoded in everyday activities, and what should we do about it? What is good writing?

Saccaro’s values are all in the wrong place. Instead of agitating politically to demand more affordable education, students interested in the humanities should drop out to become skilled laborers? Instead of insisting on heavy workloads in all sorts of classes, we should give up and spend our weekends in the young adult section of the public library, reading chick lit until our requests for Adorno are satisfied? It’s your own fault for being poor after graduation, for you had the guile to write an essay about The Iliad. This is an ethos, above all, of obedience.

Is the best way forward to reduce expertise and access to education? Those who wish to study the humanities, those who wish to study business, engineering, theoretical physics, (dare I even say that dreaded major?) art: is there not a place for all of us in our struggling Empire? TC mark

Chas Gillespie

Chas Gillespie

Chas Gillespie is a writer and distance runner whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Thought …

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