It need hardly be said that the ideal of a liberal arts education, for so long regarded as the gold standard of American undergraduate education, now finds itself embattled and widely disdained. And not for the first time. Such an education has always been regarded by many Americans as impractical, disorienting, and self-indulgent, even wasteful. Its current struggles have a great deal to do with the insistent pressures of economics, particularly excessive costs and uncertain returns on students’ investment, and the effects of those pressures upon the institutions that provide it. Those problems will need to be addressed if liberal arts education is to enjoy a less precarious institutional future. Serving on the board of a small, venerable, liberal arts college, I know firsthand what immense challenges such institutions are facing, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession.
But we need to remember that saving institutions is not the same thing as saving the educational activities the institutions were created to house. We do not want to achieve the one at the expense of the other. And if we are to make any kind of case for the liberal arts, we must first have before us a reasonably coherent notion of what the liberal arts are, and what they are for, and why they are worth preserving. That means clearing away some persistent misconceptions.