That the humanities and liberal arts in higher education are in trouble is well-established, with not a week passing in which some department or program isn’t eliminated or significant numbers of faculty given pink slips. My own subject, philosophy, is being hit particularly hard by this trend, with departments and faculty dropping like proverbial flies. Shortly after I retired in 2022, my department was merged with Political Science. Classics was already long gone.
People on the club-and-loincloth Right will say that this is because of “wokeness” – the fact that humanities and liberal arts are packed with leftists who, shockingly, have leftist ideas and priorities – but this strikes me as opportunistic. For one thing, the humanities have long been this way, through fluctuating fortunes, and for another, there is a more plausible, less politically convenient explanation: money.
Several forces strike me as being the most relevant here: the escalating cost of obtaining a bachelor’s degree; the increased cost of living, especially with respect to housing; and the transformation of the university from an institution devoted to the education and acculturation of society’s already well-off elites into a system of mass education. Add to this a hyper-consumerist ethos and penchant for expensive electronics and clothing brands among the young and a freshly-minted college graduate needs to make money and lots of it.
The point is not that you cannot make any kind of living with a philosophy or history degree, which statistics demonstrate is not the case, but that the reliably high-paying careers – in medicine, finance, engineering, etc. – require specific degree programs that leave little room for studying humanities outside of the General Education curriculum. Law, which was the one reliable profession for which humanities and liberal arts degrees were the primary entry point, became over-saturated, and at our university, the number of students taking philosophy as part of a pre-law education plummeted in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, never to recover. The greedy rush towards “comprehensive” degree programs – i.e. ones that carry heavy credit-hour requirements and preclude double majoring or sometimes, even minoring – have only exacerbated this. And the desperate effort on the part of dying majors to stay alive through graduation requirements has resulted in students revolting against the requirements and departments bobbing and weaving in order to survive, often at one another’s expense. Our university required two years of foreign language study for the Bachelor of Arts degree, for example, and when students migrated to programs offering Bachelors of Science degrees, which carried no such requirement, all of the formerly exclusive BA programs frantically added BS’s to their degree choices. The result was that everyone enrolled in programs like Philosophy, History, and Cultural Anthropology opted for the BS, and foreign language study all but disappeared.
Like it or not, from the students’ perspective (and that of their parents’, who often pay the bills), the primary purpose of the university is to provide entry into the white collar professions. It’s other main role – conducting the scientific and other varieties of research that are at the heart of technological, medical, and other forms of material progress – is entirely separable from this, and as anyone who has worked in a research-oriented university knows, the people doing the serious research teach as few undergraduates as possible, if any. The result is an institution that is financially unsustainable, as part of a system of mass education. We cannot use the places where we do advanced medical and engineering research, with all the wildly expensive infrastructure this involves, to educate every accountant, hospitality manager, and fifth grade teacher.
The idea, further, that these accountants, hospitality managers, and fifth grade teachers should spend four years in places that have become something akin to resorts – I am speaking here of all the “student life” amenities and infrastructure that have further bloated university budgets and raised costs – also makes little sense and is due, in good part, to General Education requirements that commonly take two years of full-time enrollment to complete. The rationales offered for this fluctuate, depending on the political winds and public mood – they are required to assure “basic skills”; they are necessary to produce “educated citizens”; my own university includes “cultural competence” (whatever that is) as one of Gen Ed’s raisons d’etre – but virtually no one buys these explanations anymore. A substantial portion of the voting public doesn’t attend college, so anything truly necessary for “educated citizenship” would have to be offered at an earlier point in students’ lives, where formal education is near-ubiquitous. The same could be said about anything that might plausibly be deemed a “basic skill.” And it’s too hard not to notice that the Gen Ed curriculum is packed full of all the things that most people are not going to college for and which cannot sustain sufficient enrollments or numbers of majors on their own.
That one must take organic chemistry and biology in order to be a doctor makes perfect sense and is easily explained. That one must take philosophy and art history to be an accountant or a hotel manager does not and is not, and folding them into Gen Ed and making them requirements doesn’t change that. With an undergraduate education easily costing 100K, this isn’t going to fly, and in fact, the revolt against it is already underway, with students increasingly doing their Gen Ed credits at much cheaper local community colleges and only spending their last two “major” years at a four-year university. So rapid has this development been that my last university, where I spent over twenty years as a professor, has essentially turned into a two-year finishing school. Add a lavish infrastructure that was designed to house, feed, sustain, and entertain 20,000+ undergraduates for four years and demographic trends lowering enrollments nationwide, and you have a financial house of cards waiting to collapse.
I devoted my professional career to teaching philosophy, so obviously I think it’s valuable. But many things are valuable that are not taught as part of a university education, so it is important to understand what kind of value something has, before forcing every person who wants a white-collar job to study it. And because I reject the commonly invoked rationales mentioned earlier – education for citizenship; basic skills (of which “critical thinking” is philosophers’ favorite to trot out); and the like – I should say something about what I think the value of Arts and Letters – and of philosophy – consists of.
My colleagues likely will not be pleased to hear that I think the value of our subjects is overwhelmingly personal. Arts and Letters – including philosophy – enrich our lives. They provide food for thought, beauty, intellectual and emotional engagement, and the opportunity to engage with our humanity in a distinctive and satisfying way. This is no small thing and may be as important to a person as a gratifying and successful career.
But it’s also subjective and class-infused. Arts and Letters as represented in the university is essentially an education in High Culture and High Mindedness (a gaggle of course offerings in popular culture and entertainment notwithstanding), and one’s mileage may vary. The instrumental goods I just listed and for which we credit the academic study of the humanities are achievable elsewhere and through other means, and though many if not most of the students in, say, my philosophy of literature or aesthetics courses found the experience gratifying and enlightening (if my student evaluations and testimonials are to be trusted), many others undoubtedly would have been left cold. There is a kind of student who will benefit from formal instruction on the indeterminacy of history that is hinted at in The Man in the High Castle or the difference between relational conceptions of art and those grounded in manifest or exhibited characteristics, but there are plenty who will not, and pretending that these things are essential to being a doctor or engineer, in the way that biology or calculus is, seems absurd on its face. That everyone seeking a college degree should have to spend two years studying High Culture and High Mindedness may have made sense when a central aim of the university was to acculturate a person into elite society. It makes no sense in a university whose purpose is to credential everyone seeking entry to the white collar economy.
The one subject that philosophers will claim is crucial and especially for professionals is Ethics, but this rests on a confusion: namely, that the academic study of ethics makes one a better person or is in some way constitutive of becoming one. It does not and is not. As I observed in a recent essay, studying ethics at university at best confers expertise in a literature whose subject is ethics; it does not make one more ethical. In part, this is because this literature is conflicted at its core – there is fundamental disagreement over mutually exclusive, foundational views, with no possibility of resolution (consequentialism and deontology, for example) – and in part it is because the literature only provides a rational reconstruction of ethical practice, which is the only thing that philosophy’s toolset allows for. This is akin to being given a black-and-white photo of a fragrant, colorful rose: one is only capturing a small part of the thing and in the case of ethics, it’s not the most important part. (One of the best treatments of this in popular culture has to be the character, Chidi, in The Good Place; a moral philosopher who ends up in Hell precisely because the academic study of ethics gave him such a distorted picture of what being good is.)
What I expect will happen is that the role of the community colleges will continue to expand while that of the university continues to shrink. Professionals increasingly will be credentialed through targeted, two-year degree programs; universities with middling or insignificant research footprints will be shut down; and the formal study of humanities and liberal arts will once again be the province of already well-off elites, who can afford four expensive years of “leisure,” in the Aristotelian sense of the word. This seems fine to me. After all, in the age of the internet, the great masterpieces of art, literature, and philosophy are available to anyone who cares to be enriched by them, and the idea that such enrichment is only possible through formal study in undergraduate degree programs is a self-serving conceit.