Conservatives, Please Stop Trashing the Liberal Arts

I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Scalia. And I consider myself way on the conservative end of the scale. We don’t diss math because white collar criminals use it. We don’t speak against sex because some men rape women. Why don’t we think and discuss liberal education the same way?
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By Christopher J. Scalia
March 27, 2015 6:07 p.m. ET

Dismissing the liberal arts seems to have become a litmus test for conservative politicians.

Earlier this month, addressing the issue of student debt, Sen. Marco Rubio joked that students ought to know in advance “whether it’s worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major. Because the market for Greek philosophers is tight.” His remarks echo North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who in 2013 mocked liberal-arts courses and said, “I don’t want to subsidize [a major] that’s not going to get someone a job.” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas have passed legislation encouraging students to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines rather than the liberal arts.

This is an unfortunate trend. Conservatives should be among the strongest defenders of the liberal arts, for at least two reasons: one economic, the other philosophical and political.

A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce did show that unemployment rates for recent humanities and liberal-arts majors are higher than for, say, biology and life-science students. But the difference is not great: In 2011-12 the rates were 8.4% and 7.4%, respectively. The unemployment rate for recent computer-science, statistics and mathematics graduates was 8.3%. So while humanities and liberal-arts graduates are not making out like bandits, the difference between them and their STEM peers is exaggerated.

Income data provide an even stronger rebuttal to the stereotypes. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that humanities and social-sciences majors earn more right after college than students majoring in physical sciences, natural sciences and math. And although they earn less at that stage than peers who major in professional and pre-professional fields, they earn more than those peers by the time they reach the peak earning years of 56-60 years old. (On the other hand, science and math majors earn much more than either group of majors during those peak years.)

Income and employment are surely important, but financial reward is not all that a college education offers to student and the state. By perpetuating this notion, conservatives ignore a long tradition that places the liberal arts in the center of a thriving society and an informed citizenry.

Thomas Jefferson recognized that a broad education could ensure the survival of the new democracy. He recognized that “even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” To defend against this threat, Jefferson wanted “to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purpose.”

The liberal arts, Jefferson recognized, have a practical value that has nothing to do with direct economic benefits: They are linked to the vitality of a commonwealth and the survival of a free people. It’s easy to see how such knowledge could help a politician, but Jefferson encouraged a general education for “the people at large” to protect themselves from politicians.

Considered in light of Jefferson’s argument, Mr. Rubio’s choice of Greek philosophy as a useless major seems especially inapt.

Apart from specific historical and philosophical knowledge, the liberal arts also provide general intellectual tools that reinforce democracy. Liberal-arts professors use the phrase “critical thinking skills” so often that our students could turn it into a drinking game. But we do so because the term conveys a serious and valuable idea: Students who read and comprehend difficult works, engage with sophisticated ideas, and express themselves clearly are well-suited to contribute to a representative government. Such a citizenry is valued by the left—speak truth to power!—but also by the right, which distrusts centralized power and promotes a stronger civil society.

Yes, college is too expensive. Of course, we need to find ways to control tuition and to ensure that graduates don’t find themselves chained by debt. But conservatives won’t solve these problems by scorning the liberal arts. Instead, they will deprive students of our great intellectual heritage and leave them less capable of governing themselves—and that would be profoundly unconservative.

Mr. Scalia is an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, a public liberal arts college.

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