Liberal Arts: Republicans and Democrats Alike Don't Get Them


Republicans appear to have their sights on the liberal arts.

First Rick Scott said that the state of Florida “didn’t need any anthropology majors,” and more recently, new Republican Gov. Patrick McCrory said he didn’t want the state to finance philosophy Ph.Ds. We might have seen this coming earlier, when Rush Limbaugh said that a degree in classical studies was useless.

No American really wants a world in which the liberal arts no longer have a place in society. Totalitarian societies — not free ones— devote their universities to the exclusive pursuit of engineering and the sciences. The Soviet Union did and so does China, more or less. But none of them have had much to show for it. I am sure that there is a Soviet or Chinese engineering entrepreneur whose achievements have changed my life for the better. I just don’t know who it is. I can name some of their literary figures — even though this profession has been discouraged. (See Josef Brodsky and Liu Xiaobo.)

That being said, while I don’t expect the next Steve Jobs to be an engineering student ignorant of everything except technical know-how, I become uncomfortable when I read statements like the one that Professor Paul Stoller, who teaches anthrology, offers to a student whose father is discouraging her from studying that subject, "'Then follow your heart and your passion,' I told her. 'I don’t know if you’ll succeed, but at least you will have tried. I’ll help you in any way I can.'"

I don’t think that Professor Stoller’s advice is particularly good. It is based on a view of the world that is as narrow as the pragmatic provincialism which he condemns. It assumes that achieving one particular vocation is the something worth devoting your entire life to.

Think ten years down the road: Suppose his student does well in anthropology and is admitted to a doctoral program in the subject, but funding for her research project in Madagascar dries up and she is unable to complete her dissertation. Given the anemic economic growth of the past half-decade, it is possible that she will be thrown into a nasty and brutish job market which is not vigorously seeking students with master’s degrees in anthropology.

Will Professor Stoller be willing to help her then? Will he still be able to tell her with a straight face that what she did was worth it? Quite honestly, if I were the student’s father at such a time, I would be tempted to sue Professor Stoller for professorial malpractice.

Professor Stoller might still believe it was worth the cost, but, had I been in his shoes, I would have counseled her to consider the non-career goals that she might be sacrificing. (Spoiler alert: In case anyone thinks what follows is chauvinistic, I would say the same thing to a male student).

I would probably say something like: “It’s great that you want to be an anthropologist. Understanding other cultures is a valuable field and one which will help you think critically about real world problems. But have you considered that there might be ways of channeling your interest in the discipline into other areas? You might also consider a double major in anthropology and political economy, for instance, or majoring in one and minoring in the other. Basically, you can still study a subject without devoting your career to it. We live in an era where people will judge you for what you study: I think that people in the liberal arts are as valuable an asset to society as anyone else, but most people don’t think that. I don’t think that this is good or that it is beautiful. But it is true. You should consider other factors as well: Marrying the right person or having kids are much more conducive to happiness than what you do for a living, but I have seen people have to negotiate these issues with their financial circumstances and it is not always pretty.”

One of the biggest lies that students buy into is that they should only study that which moves them closer to one career or another. For this reason, students study history to get a Ph.D. in history, or they study philosophy (as undergraduates even) while planning to get a Ph.D. philosophy.

This is completely wrong. I can’t say this based on my own life, but rather that of my father. Confucius once said that if you find a job that you enjoy, you will never have to work a single day of your life. My father drove a truck for the United Parcel Service for thirty-five years, and I think that he had to work for every single day behind the wheel. He probably had to work double in the wintertime.

That being said, I doubt that he had as many regrets as many of the people I know who did get the careers that they wanted. The 35 years behind the wheel sustained a marriage which has never been less than ideal; it provided for the education, health care, and upbringing of his three children; it enabled him to be an active member of his community and assist in a ministry to the disabled, expatriates, migrant workers and parolees—a vocation to which he became more devoted after retiring.

If there is one piece of advice that young people need to hear, it is that true devotion to the liberal arts is about understanding one’s life in the context of one’s community, country or even in the universe itself.

The liberal arts are an interest to be cultivated over a lifetime, not to be hammered into four or 12 years so that you can check all the boxes and get the degrees. They will help you if you choose to be an engineer as much as if you choose to study anthropology. There are plenty of reasons to study the liberal arts (and for governments to keep subsidizing them), but if you are subjugating all other aspects of your life to this single  pursuit, you should take stock of your life: Something that's meant to be liberating is not meant to make you servile.