Ruined temple

Where the Liberal Arts Went Wrong

We’ve lost touch with the ultimate purpose of education: to transform our being and improve our character. 

A century ago, the purpose of education was so widely accepted that it wouldn’t have been worth mentioning. But today, it’s controversial. 

In the 1970s, three-quarters of freshmen said college was essential to developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Only one-third said it was essential to financial well-being. Today, those fractions have flipped. 

Runaway student debt and high tuition costs may be to blame. Regardless, American universities have been reduced to farm teams for the corporate big leagues. They assume that you have to accumulate wealth before you can cultivate goodness — as if you can only focus on bettering yourself once you’re financially secure. 

Take Harvard. Like many of the Ivy Leagues, it was founded to produce students of exceptional moral character. But today, it’s been reduced to an institution designed to help students fatten their wallets and climb the power ladder.

A graph showing the decline of humanities degrees over time, sourced from Ben Schmidt

One reason why people belittle the liberal arts is that we lack a consensus for what a virtuous life looks like (no surprise that the decline of the liberal arts traces the decline of religion). Without a shared moral code, even the world’s top universities are lowering their sights to mere utilitarian endeavors, like making money or building a professional network — all of which are necessary pursuits, but only a means to the higher ends of wisdom and virtue. 

The liberal arts are the ends, not the means. 

They’re a capsule for the human spirit. Through art, we express our humanity. Through history, we solidify our civilization. Through spiritual practice, we generate meaning. 

The treasures of the liberal arts lie not in financial riches, but rather in the wealth that comes with depth and wisdom — the stuff of a life well-lived. That we belittle such a worthy endeavor as a “useless major” and a “colossal waste of time” should make us wonder what’s gone wrong.

Cover photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash