In Defense of the Liberal Arts

unspecifiedThe purpose of the university, in the good old days, was to make fully functioning human beings. Alas today the purpose of the university is to created human doings, automaton who possess marketable skills—but are incapable of participating in a thoughtful conversation. The university, traditionally a place for the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtue, is today largely driven by market factors which place a priority on sports over academics, image over substance, and research—especially grant money research—over teaching. Only the fittest students and professors survive.

In this environment, knowledge is under fire. If you or your academic department cannot show some non-cognitive benefit to the knowledge gained in your field, the subject matter of your discipline is deemed unworthy of further pursuit. Science has fared rather well in the modern world. Science has ushered in, along with understanding, technology, and technology has made our world better (setting to the side, the monstrous horrors technology has also made possible). The humanities, on the other hand, offer little in terms of non-cognitive benefit. It’s argued that literature, language, art, and philosophy help us learn how to think, write, love, and feel, but they don’t help us earn an income or cure cancer. The humanities, therefore, are a luxury—a luxury that can be dispensed with in troubling (financial) times.

In this environment, it should be no surprise to learn that Darwinism has invaded the humanities. In order to gain respect—or remain respectable—the academic disciplines traditionally associated with the liberal arts have adapted to be valued by university administrations. As the philosopher Roger Scruton observes,

Over the last two decades  . . . Darwinism has invaded the field of the humanities, in a way that Darwin himself would scarcely have predicted. Doubt and hesitation have given way to certainty, interpretation has been subsumed into explanation, and the whole realm of aesthetic experience and literary judgment has been brought to heel as an “adaptation,” a part of human biology which exists because of the benefit that it confers on our genes.[1]

This slow death of the humanities, I submit, is a great tragedy. Science is not the sole domain of knowledge. Nor is it the most important or fundamental domain of knowledge. In order to do science we must first do philosophy and often theology. In order to do science well, we must be certain kinds of people—virtuous—and abide by certain kinds of principles—moral ones. In other words, in order to be good scientists or Darwinists or whatever, we first need to be good human beings. Virtuous human beings are the benefit of a liberal arts education.

The humanities however don’t need to justify their existence based on some non-cognitive benefit they provide. Knowledge is an intrinsic good—a good for its own sake. It is only in a world such as ours that commoditizes and objectivizes everything, that knowledge would need to justify itself.

We must resist Darwin’s invasion into the humanities. If we don’t, virtuous humanity will not survive. Perhaps a hollow shell, a wraith of humanity will continue on, but the fully functioning, flourishing human beings will be difficult to find.

For more on the the traditional view of the university and my vision for Christian higher education see my book The Outrageous Idea of the Missional Professor along with the companion website.

[1] Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 142.

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