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Is a university a university without liberal arts?

That’s the gripping capsule summary of a new seminal analysis by New York Times guest columnist Bret C. Devereaux: “College Should Be More Than Just Vocational Schools”

Or to be blunt: Will liberal arts studies adapt enough – and fast enough – to survive the current attacks on it?

There is, of course, much at stake. Deveraux, a teaching assistant at North Carolina University, is eloquent in his summation:

“Higher education, with broad study in the liberal arts, is meant to create not merely good workers but also good citizens. Citizens with knowledge of their history and culture are better equipped to lead and participate in a democratic society….We should not dismantle the educational assets that built America’s 20th-century success.”

He contends that we are dismantling it: “… a bipartisan coalition of politicians and university administrators is now hard at work attacking it – and its essential role in public life – by slashing funding, cutting back on tenure protections, ending faculty governance and imposing narrow ideological limits on what can be taught.”

All this at a time when cultural wars are straining the bonds of democratic societies. Tragically, liberal arts studies are under attack and undervalued in today’s roiling, deeply divided society that is in great need of mutual understanding, tolerance, and cooperation.

An antidote to this miasma : Carleton College history professor Clifford Clark captured the essence of liberal arts studies:

“The educational philosophy that animates the liberal arts is grounded in the belief that not only are there are many ways of viewing the world, but that each lens is worthy of consideration…a liberal arts education ideally makes us better able to consider, understand, and be moved by perspectives and visions that differ from or own, be they those of a neighbor or another person who may be geographically distant from us.”

Adapting to the times–

Liberal arts studies in universities has evolved in many waves over the decades – indeed, over the centuries. So, it should not surprise that at many schools it is once again adapting to historic societal change. Objective: Achieve the delicate balance between traditional liberal arts emphasis and topical curriculum attuned to current careers and employment. Examples:

“Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota), … is the latest example of a liberal arts college adding technically based apprenticeships to prepare its students and graduates for early-career employment in the business sector.” (Forbes)

At Arizona State University, “a new interdisciplinary major [will] start in the fall: ‘Culture, Technology, and Environment.’” (The New Yorker).

 The Manhattan College School of Liberal Arts is introducing a new B.A. in a criminology major in the fall, as “a response to both internal demand and larger national trends in higher education.”

A survey of the 125 member institutions of the Annapolis Group of Liberal Arts Colleges would no doubt add quite substantially to the list of such innovative, topical, recent or planned additions.


There is an “aesthetic bonus” inherent in many of these new liberal arts academic offerings.

Mathematician-author Sarah Hart explains it in “The Wonderous Connections Between Literature and Math” :

“… the more holistic connections between mathematics and literature have not received the attention they deserve … .the two fields are inextricably, and fundamentally , linked. …

“Good mathematics, like good writing, involves an inherent appreciation of structure, rhythm, and pattern…

“As a mathematician, it’s been one of the great joys of my career to uncover and explore these connections…Great literature and great mathematics satisfy the same deep yearning in us: for beauty, for truth, for understanding.”


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John Paluszek

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Executive Editor at Business In Society
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