Can we make good on the ancient promise of freedom?
What does higher education need now? Many are asking this question with considerable urgency, including us. Last week we began a forum guided by this question with features on Monday and Tuesday, and we picked it up again this past Monday. The forum will continue through Thursday of this week.
The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Jessica, and David Henreckson, eds. Plough Publishing House, 2023. 224 pp., $19.95
The gifts of the liberal arts have, arguably, never been more relevant and urgently needed than today. Alas, the benefits of the liberal arts have never been as ignored and misunderstood either. Analogies readily come to mind: a hungry person who walks by food and fails to recognize it as nourishment; a sick person who declines essential medicine.
The editors of this collection of short essays, The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education, gather a wide range of voices. The contributors offer reflections on a series of questions that can be reduced to one: What stops our society from recognizing and receiving the liberal arts for the rich treasure they are? The volume is a welcome addition to the long tradition of advocacy for the liberal arts. It brings together argument and delight, uniting the format of apologetics with the spirit of celebration.
The content is, in many ways, nothing new. What is new, rather, is the context that gave rise to the community from which this book emerged. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, friends of the liberal arts—both inside and outside the formal academy—discovered that their abstract beliefs about the virtues of the liberal arts stood the test of concrete reality. What do I mean by this?
The Liberating Arts is, first and foremost, a testimonial to the value of the liberal arts for the good life. The liberal arts are not just a set of academic disciplines that students study, often reluctantly, as part of their general education or core curriculum. Nor are they simply a framing philosophy of education for particular types of academic institutions, or a certain approach to education. The liberal arts truly have the capacity to provide sustaining freedom of spirit when outward circumstances threaten to confine us against our will or stand in the way of human flourishing. One strength of the book in providing this message is that it offers not just one person’s testimony but myriad voices from widely varying circumstances. Through their collaboration on this project, the book’s editors and contributors, who represent a wide range of academic and professional disciplines, became a true community of kindred spirits, deepening together their understanding and appreciation of their inheritance of the liberal arts.
Their book is an affirmation that the liberal arts are for everyone—not just for students and professors in a traditional academic context. Sean Sword’s essay testifying to the discovery of the liberating power of the liberal arts in prison is certainly the most compelling example of this assertion. But so are the multiple voices in this book from outside academia and those that draw their inspiration from testing the impact of the liberal arts in community settings—including the media and the nonprofit world.
The book directly confronts a variety of familiar challenges to the value of the liberal arts. In the process, it challenges the facile dichotomies that plague typical discussions of the liberal arts. The essays argue for transcending such reductionist either/or categories as “liberal arts vs. professional disciplines”; or “learning for utility vs. learning for its own sake”; or “learning for profitability in the marketplace vs. learning for personal flourishing.” The contributors also make it clear that the liberal arts increase in value over the course of a lifetime, paying rich dividends not only in one’s vocational life, but also in one’s friendships and in service to one’s community and civic organizations.
In addition, the book offers a wealth of additional resources through the notes and bibliography for those who wish to explore further the liberating impact of the liberal arts. The narratives in the book are personal, the style of the contributions is invitingly accessible, and the overall length of the book is remarkably short for what the reader gets. As a result, this is an appropriate gift not only for those who are already “in the fold” of the liberal arts community but also for friendly skeptics and potential converts.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Liberating Arts and particularly appreciated the inclusion of voices from outside the academy. But then, I am a longstanding “true believer” in all that the project affirms. While the volume purports to take on the questions of the critics of the liberal arts, it may, in fact, be guilty of the proverbial “preaching to the choir.” For one thing, the authors give only cursory attention to defining what they mean by the “liberal arts,” assuming that most readers will already know what they are. My four decades of experience working among students and their parents, and even among colleagues at liberal arts institutions, lead me to believe that we often take a common understanding for granted.
These observations in no way reduce the book’s value. In this cultural moment, those who have given their life to the cultivation of the liberal arts may well need to be encouraged. They have lived over the course of their lives with these very real questions from the critics. Perhaps they faced these questions from their own parents when they chose to major in history or literature or philosophy or art. Or maybe these questions came from parents of students who believe their children have been led astray from practical majors with immediate job prospects by vague promises and idealist visions of professors who, at best, are not living in the “real world” and, at worst, are simply trying to keep their jobs.
Those who have experienced the healing, liberating, and enlarging power of the liberal arts are all too familiar with the barrage of cultural criticism of the humanities in particular and higher education more generally that intensified following the economic downturn of 2008. We know well the litany of charges: Higher education—especially residential higher education—costs too much; students start their post-university life with too much debt; too many students take on debt but do not finish their degrees; they are not prepared with practical skills for the workplace and end up back in their parents’ basement eking out a living as a barista or fast-food cashier; they have been so infected by liberal professors that they no longer share their parents’ values; they would be better served by practical courses linked to job training or apprenticeships hosted by employers; technology will soon make the traditional classroom obsolete. The list goes on.
The hoped-for “return to normal” following 2008 never came. Instead, the challenges became ever greater, as higher education struggled to catch up with the demands of changing demographics. Many of the older institutions were not set up for the growing new populations that wanted education—older adults, part-time students, commuting students, those from outside North America, and ethnic minorities. Furthermore, economics complicated everything. For those with the capacity to pay, there were plenty of options. By contrast, few or no educational opportunities were available for far too many of those who earnestly desired the privileges and benefits of higher education but were unable to finance their dreams.
In short, the pandemic did not create the crisis of confidence in the liberal arts or in higher education more generally. In an odd irony, the enforced reliance on technology during the lockdown may actually have enlarged imaginations about how technology might be a friend of liberal learning and could increase its accessibility beyond the confines of the academy.
And so, the celebration of the gifts of the liberal arts is a welcome encouragement even for those already well ensconced in the community of kindred spirits. The book reminds us that we are not alone. It affirms that what we have long believed is, in fact, defensible not only within the classroom but also in “real life.”
But The Liberating Arts is more than a welcome encouragement to the true believer. It also holds out a challenge, a dare on which we must act. Those who most need to hear the good news of the liberal arts are not likely to come across this book in the daily course of their lives. Nor are most people going to be argued into a new set of beliefs about the liberal arts any more than most people can be argued into changing their political or religious beliefs. If argument and quantitative data could change the public discourse around the liberal arts, it would have happened already, thanks to recent concerted public efforts of such organizations as the Council for Independent Colleges and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. One might see, for example, the “Libby and Art” campaign sponsored by the CIC, and the efforts on the AACU website to convince the public of the importance of liberal education for democracy.
One of my former colleagues used to say, “Apologetics is really for the believer, not for the person who does not yet believe. It is one of the tools to prepare one for the cross-cultural work of translation.”
People change their minds when they come to see the world differently—not when they encounter a new argument. They are more likely to catch a vision of the power of the liberal arts when they see it embodied in the freedom and flourishing of a friend or colleague than from any sort of abstract rationale. The Liberating Arts reminds those of us on the inside of the liberal arts community of our responsibility to steward the treasure that has been given to us in trust. We have been given this gift to pass along. We are not entitled to keep it to ourselves. Like a thoughtful course in apologetics, The Liberating Arts may not fully bring a skeptic to a change of heart, but it does provide resources for removing objections.
Ultimately, The Liberating Arts reminds us that the timeless tradition of the liberal arts is more relevant than ever in addressing the challenges of polarization, fear, increasing compartmentalization and specialization, and growing pluralism of our society. Yes, we should relish the opportunity to celebrate this gift among ourselves and to renew our own commitment to live reflectively and intentionally in service to all that is truly excellent and enduring. But more than that, we must allow our celebration to inspire us to the creative, embodied, and sometimes humbling work of translating the good news of the liberal arts to those who might never have the opportunity to take an introductory class in some version of “Enduring Human Questions” or who might simply assume that the liberal arts is for others, not for them. Personally, I wish I had discovered earlier the gift of “free agency” that has come in retirement from my work as a professor of history and college administrator. I can travel incognito more often and seek to be ever more effective as simply one human being welcoming other human beings into their rightful inheritance in the liberal arts.
Shirley A. Mullen (PhD) is President Emerita of Houghton College and longtime history professor.