The Forum | General Education

The Importance the Liberal Arts Play in Civic Engagement

July 26, 2019

A crisis has been emerging at our nation’s small liberal arts colleges. Enrollment is dwindling at most small colleges. Consequently, these schools have been forced to take on greater budget deficits. One of the major contributors to this decline in enrollment is the misconception that earning a liberal arts degree is “worthless” and students instead should pursue career-oriented majors. For instance, students abandon classic liberal arts majors, like history, in favor of STEM majors. With fewer students interested in majoring in history and similar subjects, liberal arts colleges have made cuts to their liberal arts departments or, in some cases, have been forced to close their doors completely. This year alone, three small liberal arts colleges only a short drive from my hometown in Greenwich, New York—Green Mountain College, Southern Vermont College, and the College of St. Joseph—closed their doors.

In the face of this crisis, we must not forget the critical benefits a liberal education has for students. While recent works, such as George Anders 2017 book You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education, discuss some of the key advantages of a liberal arts education, including its role in developing critical thinking and communication skills, a less discussed benefit is how the liberal arts promotes civic engagement.   

Courses in the liberal arts prepare students to become engaged and informed citizens by equipping them with a comprehensive foundation in history, government, and philosophy, among many other topics. Classes in American history provide students with the opportunity to discuss our country’s key documents such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers. Political science classes allow students to learn about the policy-making process in the U.S. and abroad. Philosophy courses give students the chance to read Plato’s The Republic and discuss the duties of citizenship. Courses in literature and the arts allow students to study great works from Jacques-Louis David’s painting, the “Oath of the Horatii”, to “The Tennis Court Oath”, and examine how these great works relate to civic virtue.        

“The liberal arts prepare students to become engaged and informed citizens by equipping them with a comprehensive foundation.”

My own two years immersed in the liberal arts at Elmira College, a small liberal arts college in New York’s Southern Tier region, have been transformative for my overall involvement in politics and my beliefs about what the responsibilities of a citizen entail. One of the most influential classes I have taken was a history course which covered major American intellectual thinkers in the United States between the 1870’s and 1910’s. Through this course I was exposed to the works of William James, John Dewey, and Randolph Bourne. Bourne’s work in particular stood out to me. During his brief life, Bourne wrote in a very tumultuous time. America was on the eve of joining World War I and Americans questioned the roles that immigrants play in society. People debated if immigrants would be loyal to their new country and positively contribute to the American experiment. Bourne wrote passionately about this subject, and had faith that the college-educated could help address the challenge. In his famous 1916 work, “Trans-National America,” Bourne asserted that given how the world was becoming increasingly globalized, a college education could provide the skills needed to become a citizen of the world. He wrote of the young American: 

“In his colleges, he is already getting, with the study of modern history and politics, the modern literatures, economic geography, the privilege of a cosmopolitan outlook such as the people of no other nation of to-day in Europe can possibly secure. If he is still a colonial, he is no longer the colonial of one partial culture, but of many. He is a colonial of the world.”

Over 100 years later, we can see that Bourne’s observation plays true in today’s world. College students are more politically engaged today than they have been for 50 years. According to a 2016 University of California–Los Angeles poll, the number of students who say there is a “very good chance” of participating in grassroots political activism is up 2.9% (8.5% total) compared to 2014 figures. It is likely that we will see another spark in political engagement among college students as the 2020 elections near.

Moreover, college students continue their involvement in the political process once they graduate. According to the US Census Bureau, 65.7% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 74.0% with an advanced degree voted in the 2018 midterm elections, compared to 42.1% of those with only a high school diploma. Regardless of where a student stands on the political compass, it is crucial for a well-functioning democracy to have our nation’s young adults well informed and involved in the political process.

Even though we are living in a period of great political uncertainty, a college education, rooted in the liberal arts, provides young Americans with the skills they need to navigate the world. From politics to literature, all of these liberal arts subjects are important to the development of our nation’s youth. Therefore, let us remember Bourne’s message and recognize the role a liberal arts education plays in developing civic-minded and engaged individuals. 

Adam Horey is a curricular improvement intern at ACTA and a rising junior at Elmira College. 


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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