Free Agents, Saints, and Citizens

Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Liberal Arts

Whether or not I am a conservative is irrelevant. In economic, religious, and political terms, there is a conservative argument to be made for the liberal arts and I am going to make it.

Just as fiscal, small-government conservatives hope, the liberal arts accommodate the variability of the free market. Just as religious conservatives of various stripes desire, the liberal arts empower individuals to care for their neighbors. And just as political conservatives profess, the liberal arts have the potential to produce the ruggedly independent citizens our nation needs.



My motivation in writing this is the movement among some state-level Republican leaders to undermine the liberal arts in higher education.

In December 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed legislation to freeze tuition rates at state universities for students in STEM majors (science, technology, engineering , and mathematics). This would, in effect, make all other majors more expensive. The goal, in the words of New York Times Miami bureau chief Lizette Alvarez, is to “nudge students toward job-friendly degrees.”

For similar reasons, in a radio interview on January 29, 2013, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory insisted:  “I’m a big vocational training advocate. I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education, where we’re offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs. And right now I have the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country, and yet I have employers who can’t find qualified employees. To me, that means that we have a major disconnect between the educational establishment and commerce. And so I’m going to adjust my educational curriculum to what business and commerce needs [sic], to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate from [sic] debt.”

It is good to want students to graduate with jobs and to be free from debt. Unfortunately, the governors’ proposed methods for meeting their goals fall short of their own professed ideals, in addition to the myriad practical reasons they would likely fail.


The Economic Argument

The liberal arts train students to be versatile, both intellectually and, by extension, vocationally. There is a reason that the traditional civilian recruitment pool for U. S. intelligence agencies included humanities majors from the Ivy League. No, the C.I.A. does not need to better understand 18th-century agrarian business; but the Agency needs quick minds that can grasp the nuances of divergent cultural contexts and complex situations. If you can do that in print regarding the past, you have a better shot at doing it in person in the present. In short, the liberal arts empower students to learn how to learn.

The complaint offered by Scott, McCrory, and others is that right now they need engineers in their states, not philosophers. That may seem to be the case from a short-term, business standpoint. But who is to say what vocations will be in demand five or ten years from now? I remember the engineering boom of the early-1990s. All of my precocious middle school friends and I were planning on becoming one kind of engineer or another. Then the bubble burst. The government should not place bets on some vocations at the expense of others.

In their concern for practical solutions, the governors also raise but fail to address a deeper issue: why should we not all be philosophers, in addition to our day jobs? (And how can we even venture to answer that question without philosophy?) “Engineer” and “philosopher” are not two mutually-exclusive categories. Those trained in philosophy can become engineers, should they so desire.

Students are the ones to decide what to major in. There is no need for the government to intervene and skew their decision. Many, if not most, of current students already make their decisions, in large measure, in light of market forces: demand, pay-scale, etc. And if they do not, that is their business. It is the prerogative of those who major in liberal arts fields to know, as best they can, what they are getting into; and it is the job of us, who are their professors, to make sure they are well-informed.

Regardless of their major, all students need something like what we call “the liberal arts.” All workers, regardless of their field, must now be able to quickly acquire new knowledge and new skills. This is not a distant, future reality. This is the case in the present. Only the flexible are fit to survive, at least in economic terms; and those whose innate flexibility has been enhanced by their education have the potential to stand among the fittest. The market is fickle. Those with versatile training and training in versatility will be best able to adapt to its whims.


The Religious Argument

At the heart of the morality of virtually every faith is the admonition to care for one’s neighbor. The liberal arts help us understand our neighbors. You do not have to agree with your neighbor to understand him. But if you understand him and love him anyway, you know what he needs and you know how to better care for him in light of his own perspective.

Caring for the poor and the needy is the task of individuals, charities, and religious organizations, not the state. That is the position of those in the U.S. who are both political and religious conservatives. To the extent that such individuals personally engage in such care, those on the Left should applaud them. On both sides of the aisle, too often, we Haves tend to treat the Have Nots as someone else’s problem.

Because they concern understanding the scope of human ideas, ideals, and emotions, including wrestling with suffering in all of its various forms, the liberal arts provide the tools for the cultivation of empathy. Those with a heightened sense of that virtue can best engage in the messy business of transforming others’ lives for the better.


The Political Argument

The liberal arts have the potential to enable individuals to navigate the tension between autonomous moral action and participation in a broader community. By cultivating the intellects and moral sensitivities of individuals, we are simultaneously empowering them to participate in society, engaging in complex issues thoughtfully and critically.

Some fear that the liberal arts serve to indoctrinate students, filling them with “liberal” ideas and values. The true liberal arts reject indoctrination of any kind. Students should learn that they can and must question authority, both on the Right and on the Left, secure in the hope that, in the end, truth will prevail. Indeed, democracy depends on citizens questioning, investigating, and discerning for themselves what is in the best interests of the country.



The liberal arts help us adapt to a changing world, both culturally and economically. The humanities help us understand humanity, and to truly love one’s neighbor is to understand him and love him anyway. When practiced correctly, these disciplines hone our ability to be both truly free and truly engaged in fulfilling our civic responsibilities. Regardless of one’s political bent, the liberal arts have something to offer us all.

Through reading widely and writing, listening and speaking carefully, both in person and in print, we come closer to being the saints and citizens we are called to be, whether by our God, by our forefathers, or by one another. Such are the demands of true freedom.

5 Responses to “Free Agents, Saints, and Citizens”

  1. Enelia on

    “By cultivating the intellects and moral sensitivities of individuals, we are simultaneously empowering them to participate in society, engaging in complex issues thoughtfully and critically.”

    This is absolutely one of the better arguments for the liberal arts. There are universal truths to be learned from reading the likes of Plato and Chaucer. The liberal arts connect us to our pasts and to one another within a global context.

    I’m curious to know if a country like China is doing something like this?

  2. kennethos on

    Some good thinking here. My question: is there actually any real movement (outside of selective criteria) demonstrating that any in leadership positions on the right have actually *targeted* liberal arts education, as opposed to a) being opposed to progressive excesses in higher education (i.e., those who’ve gone to “liberal arts” schools and now have a degree which does not serve them intellectually, much less practically), or b) succumbing to the normal political desire to highlight the *hard sciences*?
    I’m not really seeing any such movement on the right. Granted, my time is not spent in academia; your vantage point may afford you insights I’m lacking. Otherwise, given how many on the right typically hype “great thinkers” education, and how often I see this advertised in media for higher education, I’d say it’s the direct opposite: those of the right heavily *push* liberal arts education, for such conservative reasons.
    Thank you for some thoughtful insights.

    • georgefaithful on

      My short answer: I don’t know. I don’t spend enough time consuming news media across the political spectrum to say with any certainty. My concern is that, if we see two of our fifty governors taking decisive steps to undermine that liberal arts in higher education, that is already statistically significant. If you listen to McCrory’s full interview, though, the undercurrent really does seem to be that these subjects are effectively useless. This same line of thinking is prevalent among my students. We liberal arts professionals need to more consistently and boldly make the case for our own usefulness, whether to our students or to the governors and their supporters.

      You do raise a compelling issue: there are many in conservative circles who promote in principle a liberal arts education. The classical Christian schools movement comes to mind in terms of primary and secondary education. I’ll keep my ears open for other examples. Please let me know if any occur to you.

      • georgefaithful on

        I should also add that googling “conservative support for the liberal arts” mostly yields negative and ambivalent results.


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