The University and the State of the Liberal Arts in Higher Education

By: Austin Wendt & Dr. Patrick Perkins


The big question of the purpose of the university and the place of Liberal Arts education is quite a complicated one. To many, especially in America, the university is the cornerstone of American democracy and the foundation of a republican society. In this rationale, what lies at the heart of the university education is the study of the Liberal Arts or what some refer to as the Humanities. Recently, many academics and those who study the social sciences blame the current political climate on both the lack of a solid foundation in the liberal arts and denigration of societal standards that keep intact the democratic society that Americans enjoy today. America has prided itself on its First Amendment of freedom of speech and expression, and the ability to express certain individual views without the fear of being automatically labeled. This unfortunately is not the case in modern Americana. Many who seek to have an informative conversation or debate in an open forum are labeled as bigots, racists, sexists, nationalists, haters, and the list goes on and on. To fully understand the purpose and effect the university and the liberal arts education and its current state are contributing to the current woes of the socio-political climate, one must endeavor to examine what the purpose of a university is, what the liberal arts are, what has led to the university being in its current state, its effects on society, and how to remedy the current state of higher education and degradation of the Liberal Arts.

The Purpose of the University

To understand what the purpose of the university is, it is important to quickly review the development of the university. A quick historical synopsis will show that the concept of the university was started in Greece by the classical philosophers. After being conquered and added into the Roman Empire, the academy then went through further developments. As Christianity became a main political and cultural force through the empire, the university would then become adapted to a model of religious education, principally to educate its clergy.

In the Middle Ages, particularly in the West, Oxford and Cambridge would become notable centers of studies. These two institutions aided in the development of the modern concept of the classical or Liberal Arts discipline becomes close to what is considered the standard for a liberal education. Concurrently, the university in Germany began to diverge from the Oxford/ Cambridge model and became much more a center of research. Additionally, due to religious wars and differences many began to immigrate to the New Word in the hopes of finding freedom and prosperity. Religion, especially those of a protestant proclivity, began to establish their own institutions to educate their clergy and professionals. Through this establishment of institutions came names like Harvard and Yale, which would lay the foundation of a Liberal Arts education in America. However, in the 1860’s, Congress passed the Land Grant Acts, which led to Western Expansion. This legislation then led to the Morill Acts which created the concept of the Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges. The institutions were mean to aid in the growth of the economy and new advancements in technology and it was quite successful; however, in the later part of the 19th century university administrations began to look to make themselves more prominent and well respected in the American landscape. Justin Stover, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, says it best when he refers to the transformation of Illinois Technical University to the University of Illinois and states: within decades,[ its] presidents realized that they needed to build a proper humanities core to justify being a premier public university” (Stover, 2017) He then goes on to state that, “The first decades of the 20th century saw both its (University of Illinois) departments of classics and English literature become leading American centers” (Stover, 2017). The University of Illinois was just one example of how Land Grant University began to substantiate as a university. However, this characterization does not answer the question of what is a university or how did the university get in its current state. It is important to understand the Academy’s development in order to answer those questions posed in the thesis. The purpose of the university is one that is quite complicated and one that scholars have debated for hundreds of years. One of those scholars, John Henry Newman states,

“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society…It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.

(Cardinal John Henry Newman)

Here, Newman asserts that the purpose of University is to form someone into a productive and well-rounded citizen in order to engage in debate and to, as Professor Joan Scott says, “to entertain uncertainty and doubt.”(Joan Scott 2014). This uncertainty and doubt forms the cornerstone of democratic citizenship as it causes a general distrust in government and question everything that is promulgated from the ruling class. One needs only to look to France as an example of the interplay of the doubts and uncertainties. This is part of the reason why the French are frequently protesting against their leadership. Thus, uncertainty and doubt does play a role, but the goal of being educated in the university is that it allows a person to have a refined discussion and the ability to argue one’s point in an elegant and sophisticated manner, without resulting to throwing political insults. Put another way, a civil society is one in which two people of opposites views may come to an understanding through healthy debate. The question now arises, if this is the university’s goal, then how does an institution accomplish this? The short answer, presumably, is through the instruction of the liberal arts.

The liberal arts can be described best by Joseph Epstein in his 2013 Weekly Standard article saying, ” In a loose definition the Liberal Arts denote college study anchored in preponderantly Western literature, philosophy and history, with science, mathematics, and foreign languages playing a substantial, though less central role…” For centuries, these areas of study formed the core of the institutions’ existence. In fact, every student would have to traverse the different art curriculums before pursuing an employable degree. The seven liberal arts that would have been mandated were grammar (literary studies) logic, physical and natural sciences, and mathematics. Additionally, there were the three higher degree orientations: law, theology, and medicine. The intent was to build a firm foundation based on the arts and then have the student progress into a more marketable degree, such as law. The reasoning was not just to produce a good and active citizen, but to develop a thirst and love for knowledge. This proclivity for knowledge would lead one to continue the quest for knowledge and innovation in their given field so as to progress the whole of human civilization. The question now arises that if the liberal art are so essential to a university’s institution, how did the institution get to its current state where the liberal arts are diminished?

Since the 1980’s, it has become common practice for the liberal arts to have taken a backseat in universities all across the nation. The only reason these areas of study have not been completely eliminated is purely for marketing purposes. Higher education institutions need the liberal arts institutions in order justify their existence, because without them, there would be little difference in a university education over a community college or technical school curriculums.
This is made clear when Justin Stover states,

Meanwhile, the humanities provide cover for the economic engine that the contemporary university has become. The holder of an endowed chair would prefer not to think of himself as an accreditor of the next generation of corporate consultants, hedge-fund managers, and tech CEOs — even though that is the most socially “relevant” and visible effect of his work today. It is the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity. This “case” for the humanities is implicit in every glossy flier produced by a university development office, but no one could state it without blushing.

(Stover, 2017)

So if it is so essential to have these fields of study included in a university education, than why are the Liberal Arts being watered down in comparison to the other thriving fields of study? The answer is two-fold: commoditization of the university and the professionals within specific departments.

The Commoditization of the University

The classical universities that the previous generation were educated in are quickly becoming an alien place. Universities, used to have grandiose and aspirational principles as expressed by the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement, which stated, “discovering truth to innermost parts and continuing the growth of knowledge in the quest for truth.” Such statements are now being replaced with terms such as “knowledge economies,” “strategic planning,” and “accounting” have replaced those once inspirational and worthy goals. The general reason for this is that there has been an increase in university collaborative programs with corporations.

The collaborative programs, while noble, have eroded the sense of the university being a community of learners. Now corporations, not faculty, have control over what research is to be conducted. Due to the fact that these corporations have large amounts of funds, and in order for a professors to get grant funding for a specific research they have to now follow the guidelines of those corporations that provide the resources for said project. This has led universities to become prominent areas for where the term “return on investment” is now commonplace. This not only applies to the way corporations view universities; but now students and parents are expecting that same return on investment. Universities are no longer places for discovering truth and knowledge; but have been watered down to an institution by means which a person has a better chance of getting a higher paying job. In response to this state, people now look for institutions where they can get the best rate of return on that investment and the way that this is managed is through student outcome assessments.

As Professor Joan Scott points out in her lecture, Assessing Impact in The University of Excellence, universities are made to fit a set of standards of excellence, which is based on quantitative assessments. This not only affects the institution as a whole, but directly affects the faculty. In order to receive tenure or promotion at institutions of higher education, professors, as Scott points out, “are judged not by the quality of their work, but by….quantitative analysis” (Scott). This way of assessing the professor’s worth, not on the quality of the work, but the quantity produced, can be seen in the United Kingdom’s REF or Research Excellence Framework instituted in the 1980’s. The REF, through quantitative analysis, assesses the professor on a scale of excellence; a candidate must meet certain criteria in order to receive tenure or a promotion. In the broader scheme, universities are also assessed on the same scale, which is a determinant for the amount of state funding an institution receives. This is not only a phenomenon that happens in the United Kingdom, but also here in the United States.

In the United States, state legislatures and American disciplinary associations have also begun to rank institutions and professors on scales of excellence, based on quantitative outcomes. One only need to look at the State of Iowa, where the state assembly has mandated that certain outcomes be met in order to justify levels of funding. Many of these outcomes are measured by assessments and market return on student’s investments. “Continuous Improvement Reporting” analyzes if each course offered at a higher education institution is justifiable for its continuance based on the criteria above. The legislation states: “A continuous improvement plan shall be developed and implemented built upon the results of the institution’s student outcomes assessment program using the following phase-in timeline” (See Iowa code: 262.9 (36)). This, in summary, means that it is now up to people with little to no educational background to make decisions on what should be taught at a university. Instead of peer/faculty governance setting its own standards and what should be taught at universities, now it is up to the state to make those decisions. These standards of excellence and the university’s use of the term excellence was a point of commentary for Bill Reading. In his book, The University in Ruins, Readings states this about the term excellence and the “University of Excellence.” “Excellence, names a non- referential principle that allows the maximum of interrupted internal administration interference…” (Readings pg. 55). Simply put, the term excellence has been an overused word, which now resembles little of its original meaning. So how does this excellence and assessment- dependent administration affect higher education?

In this market based university model based on assessments and standards of excellence demanded from university instructors is the ability as Prof. Scott states, “The ability of professors to inspire the minds of their students and to help develop a love for the search of knowledge” (Scott 2013 ). Instead of focusing on teaching, professors, especially those tenured or working towards being tenured have to focus less on teaching and more on the production of published material. This is not to say that university faculty should not be publishing; indeed, it is an important aspect of a professor’s career to continue their pursuit of knowledge and publish; however, the faculty should be assessed by the quality of material not the quantity. While researching and publishing are important differentiating factor between a university faculty and that of a technical college, the production expectation of a certain number of publications with little regard to its quality leads to a dereliction of an important aspect of a university institution, which is instruction and mentoring. Without this key aspect, students are not able to test theories and adequately form themselves to be independent thinkers, ready to deal with the uncertainty and doubt that is so essential in a democratic society.

The Liberal Arts Professorate

In addition to the development of the market economy university contributing to the increasing neglect of the liberal arts, the faculty in said units that make up the humanities are also to blame and a possible reason for increased governmental oversight and assessing of standards. As Joseph Epstein says, “The Liberal Arts have been undermined by many of the people teaching them. Multiculturalism, politicization, and gender studies have destroyed them” (Epstein).Epstein’s statements point out that in order to attempt to stay relevant, the humanities have moved away from their foundation, causing, in some arenas. A political backlash. Conservatives, who are just as guilty in manipulating the humanities, have sought to use, as Stover writes, “The coercive and financial power of the state to correct what they see as ideological abuses within the professoriate are complicit in the eroding of the old fashioned and timeless scholarship that they are supposedly defending” (Stover). This degradation of that “old- fashioned and timeless scholarship” started in the late 1960’s and early 70’s in order to respond to the development of the market economy universities. Many in the liberal arts fields saw the massive endowments being given to areas like the sciences and business and consequently they felt that their disciplines were being shoved to the side. Many lost confidence in their own disciplines being able to weather the impending storm. In order to stay relevant and be cutting edge, the humanities became as Stover states, “a lab for social change, a catalyst for cultural revolution” (Stover). The problem with the 1970’s version of the liberal arts pedagogy, whether it was intentional or not, changed the humanities from being timeless field of study to an instrument of socio-political change, which did more harm than good. Additionally, this mindset of the liberal arts being inadequate and not relevant is baseless, as the humanities are a reflection of humanity; both are constantly renewing themselves.

The Effects

With both, commoditization of the university education and the professorate leading to a decay in the liberal arts, the question now is what are the effects on the whole of society? It was said that the liberal arts form the cornerstone of a university education, but, more broadly, aid in the maintenance of a democratic society. Indeed, it is well documented in American society that the current political discord has followed closely after the de-emphasis in the humanities, specifically the civic education aspect of the Liberal Arts. This discord can be seen through the lack of civility in socio-political conversations. Debating and arguing one’s point is a critical aspect of our democracy and its institutions; however, civility, which is key in the art of debate, has quickly eroded away. Debate, once a useful tool in being able to develop a common understanding, is seen as a destructive tool and has led to a mass distrust in governing institutions. In fact, in a 2016 edition of the Journal for Democracy, it was reported that only 30 percent of adults born after 1980 believe it is essential to live in a democracy. Should the trend continue downward, this spells trouble for our republic and for those in America that cherish the freedoms and rights afforded to them and that are protected by the established democratic institutions. In renewing the reason for a university education and its core foundations, the current trend and climate could dramatically improve and to ideally build a stronger civic-minded society. To accomplish this goal, it will take more than just reinstituting the liberal arts as central to a university education, but to re-envision the way they are taught.

Moving Forward

In a society that increasingly becomes more globalized, there has not been a better time to advocate for the humanities and their importance in higher education. This is due to the fact that a liberal arts education not only improves critical thinking, but also increases cultural sensitivity. However, to do this, those who support the humanities and teach them will have to look at re- envisioning and re-introducing the liberal arts. One way to re-introduce American society to the humanities and to demonstrate their relevance in the modern world is to re-assert the humanities’ importance in an increasingly globalized society. This opinion holds especially true for corporations that have dealings all across the world. A recent Forbes article “This is How Globalization Is Affecting Entrepreneurs” spoke consistently about cultural relevance in dealing with other parts of the world in the West. An education in the liberal arts, as it has been well- documented, exposes a person to different cultures through literature, history, art, political science and much more. In the business sense, having employees educated in the liberal arts helps with cultural sensitivity and having a good knowledge base to know the norms of the different customs that each individual country possess. One only needs to ask business leaders to acknowledge the profitability and the importance of possessing this critical knowledge that comes from a liberal arts education. Ignorance in this area could cost a company millions and priceless business deals. While it is important to re-introduce the liberal education as a lucrative asset for the business world, it also equally important that the humanities are re-envision the way they are taught.

To re-invigorate the way that the liberal arts are taught does not mean that one has to change its foundation or context, but the way it is presented. In a recent Canadian study, academics laid out a basic framework for the instruction of the humanities. It included faculty being engaged and engaging students in research, articulating the value of the liberal arts education to Canada’s further economic growth, engaging alumni as supporters of change and having them demonstrate how the humanities education has led to their success, encouraging and promoting labor market research on the success of liberal art grads, forming partnerships with businesses and civic groups in the commitment of post-secondary institutions to contributing to a more prosperous, inclusive, and innovative society. This framework of actively involving all stakeholders, builds a humanities curriculum that holds true to their original intent, but that is more responsive to the needs of today’s society. This framework, which seems to be working well for Canada, could be a great example for other universities in America they could adapt some or all of these objectives to redevelop their own humanities units. In any case, to further make the argument for the success and longevity for the humanities, new ways of instruction must be adopted to ensure the continuing viability of the liberal arts departments and restore their place of prominence in a university education.


A society that suffers from such political and social polarization and that continuously undermines the importance of the liberal arts as a key component in a university education will only cause the current societal climate to worsen. To improve the state of society, we must insure that the liberal arts remain central component of a post-secondary education, especially one that is earned at a university. To achieve this restoration of the humanities, one must answer; what the purpose of a university is, what are the liberal arts, what has led to the university being in its current state, the effects on society, and how to remedy the current state of higher education and degrading of the Liberal Arts. Only then will a substantial case be made for why saving the humanities is essential for the future success of society.

Works Cited

Epstein, Joseph. “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?” The Weekly Standard, 12 Sept. 2012,

Iowa Legislative Services Agency. “BILLS.” Iowa Legislature, 2018,

Newman, John Henry. “Discourse 7. Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Professional
Skill.” Newman Reader – Idea of a University – Discourse 5, Newman Reader, Sept. 2001,

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. 1st ed., vol. 1, Harvard University Press, 1999.

Stover, Justin. “There Is No Case for the Humanities.” American Affairs Journal, American Affairs Foundation Inc., 20 Nov. 2017, humanities/.

“The Idea of University – A Critical Analysis of the University.” Performance by Joan Scott, You-Tube , 2013.


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