Liberal Education after the Pandemic

A health emergency demands a new perspective on higher education.
By James Buckwalter-Arias

Before campuses closed and courses went online, forcing us to shelter in place with our families and our laptops, those of us devoted to liberal education or who teach at institutions that emphasize the liberal arts had spent years reading—and sometimes contributing to—a multitude of apologias for our shared ideals. These apologias assume a new urgency now as institutions of higher education contemplate radical restructuring and a range of survival strategies for a profoundly altered social and economic climate. Which apologias are most likely to survive the COVID-19 pandemic?

Although these apologias are complex and varied, we can recognize and describe a few basic categories of the genre. At one end there is the anti-instrumentalist apologia: liberal education is a good unto itself, independent of any utilitarian or economic value it may have. Drawing on the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman, for example, anthropologist Robert Bates Graber makes the case for “valuing useless knowledge.” “We find, to our surprise,” he writes, “a prevailing opinion among informed and otherwise reasonable people not merely that knowledge in general is valuable for its own sake, but that this relatively useless knowledge, far from being worthless, is somehow the most valuable of all!”

At the other end of the spectrum is a thoroughly instrumentalist apologia that holds that in a rapidly changing technological world, where specific skills and areas of knowledge are rendered obsolete in progressively shorter cycles, only the overarching abilities endure: the ability to think creatively, to solve problems, to argue persuasively, to assess available data, and to develop effective strategies. Only these cognitive faculties will enable graduates to stay afloat in a precarious gig economy where the rules are constantly changing.

In the traditional popular media and on social media—tedious jokes about English and art history majors notwithstanding—we routinely hear the claim that chief executive officers want to hire liberal arts majors and that many of the most successful entrepreneurs have liberal arts backgrounds. Some colleges have responded by identifying the “transferable skills” that their courses bring to the job market. In the most extreme version of this argument, the artes liberales are endlessly flexible and “instrumentalizable” insofar as they offer opportunities to practice teamwork; to build leadership, communication, and listening skills; and to develop research and analytical skills. Studying medieval French poetry, it is argued, may prove surprisingly useful for future bankers; studying the women’s movement can give aspiring architects a distinct edge; graduates who have studied astronomy may be especially prized by law firms specializing in medical malpractice or international law. As these examples suggest, a liberal arts education can serve as an excellent foundation for those who go on to pursue graduate and professional degrees.

There is also a well-established apologia, articulated compellingly by philosopher Martha Nussbaum and cultural critic Henry Giroux, that is rooted in classical notions of the republic. Nussbaum appeals to Socrates in Cultivating Humanity, for example, arguing that “democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves rather than simply deferring to authority; who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counter claims. Our democracy, like ancient Athens, is prone to hasty and floppy reasoning, and to the substitution of invective and sound bites in journalism for real deliberation. We need Socratic teaching to fulfill the promise of a democratic citizenship.”   

In “Liberal Arts Education and the Struggle for Public Life: Dreaming about Democracy,” Giroux writes that the debate about whether the liberal arts are a privilege or a right “raises anew important questions regarding the social and political implications of viewing curriculum as a historically specific narrative and pedagogy as a form of cultural politics that either enables or silences the differentiated human capacities which allow students to speak from their own experiences, locate themselves in history, and act so as to create social forms that expand the possibility of democratic public life.”

Each of the three categories of apologia that I have described has some merit. Sometimes knowledge is a good unto itself, independent of its application, a good that enriches both private life and social experience. Sometimes it is useful in the professional sphere and even monetizable. Sometimes knowledge helps us devise more humane social contracts and more robustly democratic polities. However, it does not follow that these apologias can coexist indefinitely and without tension, that none of their claims contradict the claims of any of the others. Often it is in periods of crisis that dormant inconsistencies and contradictions become impossible to ignore, forcing us to make choices when choices can no longer be postponed and to evaluate contested concepts, systemic incoherencies, and fault lines in existing educational models.

As liberal arts professors spend hours staring into their laptop screens, wondering how the current pandemic may permanently alter higher education, the present offers itself up as a space for reckoning, for collaborative and difficult conversations. The current massive and unanticipated experiment in online education could transform higher education as we know it. We should begin these difficult conversations about the future of the liberal arts now, in cyberspace, before the new normal takes shape—whenever that may be. Even if we feel trapped in our own homes and beset with anxiety and cabin fever, we also have an opportunity to reconsider the aims of higher education not in the abstract but in this concrete historical moment, with attention to specific institutional needs, public policy proposals, ideological pressures, and the overarching economic crisis.

A fourth category of apologia that we might reconsider, theorize, and develop is an argument that it does not behoove individual institutions to make under ordinary circumstances: that the kinds of human faculties that the liberal arts help to develop may be subversive, as Martha Nussbaum notes, and that the ethical commitments, historical awareness, scientific literacy, and capacity for rational, evidence-driven argumentation that higher education prizes might be the very last thing an employer would want in an employee, the very last thing that our democratically elected officials would want in a citizenry. A genuine commitment to ethical, historically aware, egalitarian, or democratic principles can land an individual in a world of trouble.

I am thinking, for example, of the basic scientific literacy, historical awareness, and ethical commitment that equip an individual citizen to recognize the expertise of infectious disease specialists and reject the common sense of neighbors or the priorities and demands of an employer—or to spot the bogus claims, fundamental incompetence, or ethical depravity of some elected leaders. Such scientific literacy and basic familiarity with statistical analysis allow nonexperts to understand the arguments of climatologists and reject the sophistry of coworkers or talk show hosts or governors who point out, for example, that “the climate has always been changing.”

I am thinking also of the grasp of American history that might make an employee at a fossil fuel company articulate solidarities contrary to the “team player” ethos with people who do not work for the firm—or the historical awareness that might make citizens uncooperative or hostile when they recognize xenophobic or nativist narratives being exploited by a demagogue. Similarly, a strong grounding in gender studies might create problems for an employee at an advertising agency or a writer for a sitcom. Analytical acumen might lead a citizenry to recognize a mendacious, manipulative case for invasion, war, occupation, and seizing of natural resources. Equally valuable is the highly developed empathetic imagination of a literature student who can listen attentively and insightfully to other people’s stories, recognize the pathos in such stories, imagine alternative priorities, and feel solidarity with people or groups of people with different lived experiences.

The reason that individual institutions cannot pitch such potential outcomes under ordinary circumstances is that these intellectual faculties serve the public good but do not necessarily advance the economic interests or career objectives of individual prospective or current students, especially those incurring significant debt. Being a whistleblower, for example, is generally a costly, painful career move—but the public needs to know nonetheless if the US military is shooting civilians in the streets of Baghdad; or the pharmaceutical industry is engineering a profitable opioid epidemic; or the health insurance industry is denying legitimate claims.

The contradiction, then, is fundamentally a material one: studying the liberal arts in the age of trillion-dollar outstanding student loan debt, the fetishization of return-on-investment metrics, and declining living standards for millennials would appear to be a hard sell and a losing proposition. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the prognosis for small liberal arts colleges and theater, music, and classics departments was already bleak. And beyond the ivy-covered walls, in the economies and ecosystems to which our graduates migrate after four years, we were already at a tipping point in terms of the exhaustion of natural resources, impending climate catastrophe, and the incursion of artificial intelligence into wide swaths of the workplace.

But just as the current crisis represents an opportunity for the people who have been working hard to privatize everything imaginable, dismantle public education, sink net neutrality, and align higher education with the demands of prospective employers and industry moguls (think here of the interventions of the Koch brothers in higher education, for example), it also represents an opportunity to push for the basic conditions under which a liberal education might properly serve its public functions. We should use these months to advocate for the kinds of public policies, such as tuition-free higher education, that recognize liberal education as a common good. We must articulate the reasons why a liberal education is in fact a common good and why a liberal education is disfigured if it is made to promote the demands of prospective employers.

We have an opportunity to speak openly, loudly, and effectively about the ways the liberal arts represent a check and a balance on the wholesale neoliberalization of the economy, the polis, and public discourse. We need a society capable of devising new and more humane social contracts, new political economies, new food and energy grids, and sustainable use of resources—whether or not these projects produce financial dividends for individual graduates or for their employers. An accessible, publicly funded liberal education decoupled from the demands of industry and prospective employers is the best way to prepare people to do these things.

The CARES Act was a small step in the right direction, a way to give students and institutions of higher education the assistance they needed to endure the crisis in the short term. But CARES was an emergency measure, not a long-term plan, and we should use these months of confinement to strategize about a long-term case for liberal education and for public investment in an educated citizenry. Now is the time to invest some of our intellectual capital in education advocacy that ultimately makes a difference not only in the lives of students but also for the collective well-being of our nation and the world.

James Buckwalter-Arias is professor of Spanish at Hanover College. His email address is [email protected].