The Forum | Liberal Arts

Reviving the Liberal Arts in the Age of Cancel Culture

February 10, 2021 by Leah Schnyders

Over the past decade, student protests against speakers, faculty, and peers who express ideas that challenge campus orthodoxies have become common on campuses across America. Several institutions have invited renowned scholars to campus, only for the scholar to be received by protests, chants, and physical violence. Responses like these are an alarming symptom of the widespread crisis of free speech at our colleges and universities and have caused the public to wonder if free expression is still the lifeblood of American higher education.

However, it is not just free speech that is under question—the very core of educational institutions is in jeopardy. The disappearance of a rigorous liberal arts curriculum has contributed to the decline of the free exchange of ideas on college and university campuses today. Renewing the study of the liberal arts is essential to resolving the free speech crisis.

Founded on the medieval European university model, the initial concept of the liberal arts was based upon the trivium and quadrivium. By studying the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy), students developed foundational knowledge and critical thinking abilities. Current liberal arts curricula include literature, languages, philosophy, mathematics, history, and science. The combination of these studies, according to one scholar, “contribute to the formation and ordering of the soul.”

The liberal arts tradition, derived from the Latin phrase liberalis ars (“free art or principled practice”), would become the foundation of the curriculum as colleges and universities sprouted across the United States, including Harvard University, the College of William & Mary, and Yale University.

Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, emphasized the importance of the trivium and quadrivium. In his 1818 Report of the Board of Commissioners, he explained the goal of higher education to cultivate well-informed citizens: “to improve by reading, his morals and faculties. To understand his duties to his neighbours, & country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either. . . . And, in general, to observe with intelligence & faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.” With these goals in mind, President Jefferson proposed that the University of Virginia incorporate “reading, writing & numerical arithmetic, the elements of mensuration . . . and the outlines of geography and history” in their curricula. These subjects were to develop “the statesmen, legislators & judges, on whom public prosperity, & individual happiness are so much to depend.”

The entire landscape of higher education has changed dramatically since Thomas Jefferson’s 1818 report. Colleges and universities are facing an identity crisis. For decades, institutions such as Yale vowed to “hire the best faculty, establish strong curricula, reward teaching and research excellence, and foster a free and open marketplace of ideas.” Today, however, university education, once marked by rigorous study and deep thought, is now more often defined by the quality of dormitories and the luster of the facilities. A focus on career readiness has elevated STEM disciplines and led to budget cuts in academic departments that teach the fundamental skills which most effectively prepare students for the workplace and informed citizenship.

According to a 2019 study of 1,123 general education programs, only 32% have literature requirements, 12% require intermediate foreign language study, 18% require United States history and government, and a meager 3% require economics. If the purpose of the university is to “foster a free and open marketplace of ideas,” where are the ideas taught? If universities claim to be committed to diversity, why do so few require foreign language study—the best tool for cultural engagement? The once-robust liberal arts curriculum has been stripped and rebuilt with new requirements, such as ethnic and social justice studies. Gender studies and pop culture classes have replaced basic philosophy, economics, and writing courses.

The results of the erosion of the liberal arts are manifested in the free speech crisis. A robust liberal arts curriculum challenges students to explore diverse ideas and learn how to evaluate different perspectives, even ones they disagree with. America’s college students lack these essential skills. Students shout down and attack invited speakers with impunity, and those who claim offense at hearing opposing views demand their administration to guest speakers. Professors and teachers who promote the study of Western Civilization and its contributions to democracy and prosperity are fired for promoting “racist ideologies” and “harmful rhetoric,” with others claiming that the study of Western literature marginalizes authors of other countries and reinforces “white supremacy in our classrooms.” This “cancel culture” stifles any type of dissent, discussion, or debate and threatens to replace the culture of free expression that universities have historically defended.

It is in this hostile climate of cancel culture that the liberal arts are needed more than ever. The university was not intended to be an echo chamber of comfortable ideas and opinions. It was created for one core process: questioning. According to Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, this questioning should involve “challenging assumptions, arguments and conclusions. It calls for multiple and diverse perspectives and listening to the views of others. It requires understanding the power and limitations of arguments” and “demands an ability to rethink one’s own assumptions.” How will the views of a young, maturing adult ever develop if they are never challenged? How will the next generation of leaders learn to respectfully and graciously engage with others if their professors and fellow students cannot question them for fear of causing offense?

If the liberal arts are not quickly revived in higher education curricula, the worst is yet to come. We cannot move forward as a country without thoughtful, conscientious citizens who can question established ideas, conduct civil, well-reasoned debate, and listen respectfully to their countrymen. We need citizens that have a deep understanding of American government and history, which equips them with the knowledge to lead and inspire future generations. We need problem solvers, whose study of mathematics, science, and economics can help them tackle our nation’s most difficult problems. By renewing the study of the liberal arts, colleges and universities can once again live up to their intended purpose, forming well-rounded citizens who are prepared to serve their communities, families, and country.

Leah Schnyders is a graduate of the Heritage Foundation Academy and the American Enterprise Institute Summer Honors Program.


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.

Discover More