ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.
There’s no way around it—the college experience just ain’t what it used to be. Liberal arts colleges, which have played an important role in our nation’s Founding and growth, are turning away current and prospective students as they face financial constraints. The number of schools that have gone bankrupt from low enrollment and high costs has increased at a dramatic rate in the last three years.
Attitudes toward the value of studying the liberal arts are also changing. Students faced with, on average, between $26,000 and $30,000 of student debt are increasingly abandoning fields that are not obviously linked to money-making in favor of STEM fields. The University is becoming more akin to a business than a sanctuary of higher learning, implementing “academic prioritization” that emphasizes professional-training programs and devalues fields that fail to promise an easy career track to students.
With the erosion of liberal education, colleges and universities are failing to fulfill their stated missions of educating the whole person and creating well-rounded individuals. But what are we really losing when we neglect the liberal arts? Surely if students are going to invest such a significant amount of time and money into their degrees, they should expect to graduate with profitable skills. Traditional higher education institutions were devoted to exposing students to texts, ideas, and enriching discussions that encourage students to embrace a world beyond themselves. Many colleges prioritize civic mindedness as a primary benefit of a liberal arts education. Students who gain a foundation in a comprehensive range of liberal arts subjects including history, philosophy, literature, and foreign language, among other subjects, is better prepared for life in an ever globalizing world.
Despite cries over college students’ lack of civic knowledge, studies in literature and foreign language (areas of study that are excellent at turning students’ gaze away from their navel) continue to get the axe. Great works of literature reveal to their readers invaluable lessons about the struggle of human existence that we all share, which college students, who are in their formative years, benefit from exploring. The reader of Dante’s Divine Comedy learns important lessons about the common human struggle that can inform their ability to connect and understand their peers and fellow citizens. Foreign language study allows us to find a voice in a culture different than our own and opens a completely new pathway to communication which can increase social skills and empathy. Through the study of literature and foreign language, students gain deeper knowledge of the ideas that influence our society today, and learn to understand the culture and thought processes of mindsets dissimilar to their own. Living in the world’s melting pot, developing an appreciation for other cultures and a respect for differing ideas is not a luxury, but vital to everyday life.
It is surely an understatement to say that this is an increasingly polarized age. More often than not, even those who speak the same language find themselves unable to talk to one another constructively and civilly. Where dialogue ceases, division blooms. Learning how to appreciate the viewpoints of those who hold views antithetical to ours is essential not simply on an individual level, but on a national and global scale as well. A robust liberal arts education that spans history, literature, philosophy, and foreign language trains students to be more receptive and open to dialogue by introducing them to a wealth of ideas and teaching them to weigh the merits of those ideas through serious study. Nonetheless, language requirements at liberal arts schools are rapidly diminishing, and English majors are similarly falling. Rather than emphasizing the overwhelming benefits of the analytical and critical thinking skills gained through liberal arts study, college administrators are refocusing English departments on more technical areas, such as professional writing.
If universities want to fulfill their traditional mission to form adept citizens, more critical than ever in a time of increasing division and polarization, they need to recognize the important role that literature and foreign language study play in forming young minds. Now is the time to make an earnest effort to learn how to talk to each other and understand people from all walks of life in our diverse society. For this serious undertaking, there is no better teacher than the liberal arts.
Melissa Haley is a curricular improvement intern at ACTA and a rising senior at Lee University.
The Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler
The Atlantic, Joe Pinkser
Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo
Chronicle of Higher Education, Lindsay Ellis and Lily Jackson
Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan
Education Dive, James Paterson