The Value of the Liberal Arts

Constantly given tailwind is the notion that the liberal arts are breeding a generation of radical college students. It is an idea that has old roots, taking its modern form when Bill Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale in 1951.

To be clear, I am not lobbying that there are equal-parts progressive and conservative in the academy or even that the asymmetry is not growing. In fact, it is an almost-innate observation that our professors lean predominantly left. But since Buckley penned that piece, conservatives are still outnumbered and yet the world did not come to the doomsday forecast of their crisis thinking. Regardless of your political orientation, to discover if these criticisms have merit you must ground your views in what the arts actually provide.

Arts does not teach you what to think, it teaches you how. In ten years’, time, you are wrong to think that I will remember anything other than how to misuse the term ‘actor’ and some scattered lines from Rene Descartes. But what I will remember is the how question. Whether you are critiquing Adam Smith or Karl Marx, reading Shakespeare or Rushdie, using realist or postcolonial theories, the content to which you’re exposed tells you the world is more complicated than you once saw. The arts are showing you this mess and telling you to embrace it.

It is true that part of that mess are areas like gender, race, class, and violence, and more often than not, your readings will point you in that direction. But very rarely are these ever shown to be the be-all and end-all of politics. Rather they are shown to offer knowledge just like the state, war, or the international market offers knowledge. There is nothing inherently progressive about this, and if you care about intellectual honesty like so many of these critics purportedly do, your work needs to value these areas.

I am not arguing that change is not needed. Debates can and should be had to ensure that an arts degree engages with a plurality of content that maximally exposes nuance in the world. There are also legitimate grievances if students find it more dependable to write according to a professor’s politics. That being said, this is a far cry from a mass indoctrination brought by the arts, if it were even possible.

 

Aodhan Murphy is graduating with a BA in Politics

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