Thanks to those who answered my question about defenses of the liberal arts and the humanities.

What makes for a good defense of the liberal arts? (I’ll refer only to the liberal arts in the rest of this post, since defenses of the humanities can usually be fit within that larger category.) That’s a question that can only be answered in relation to a particular audience.

The first possible audience is those who are already involved in the liberal arts but are not sure precisely why — people who sense that what they are doing has some value, but can’t confidently articulate it. For those people, essays like this one, by my colleague Elizabeth Corey, do a wonderful job of teasing out the implicit values and commitments in what we do.

A second possible audience includes people — scientists, or people who associate themselves with SCIENCE (their mental capitals, not mine) — who think that science alone is truth-conducive and that the artes liberales are just a higher form of fooling around.

A third possible audience — and for those of us who teach in liberal-arts settings a likely one — is an especially tough one: parents of college students who want their investment in their children’s education to be repaid in the coin of … well, coin: a good job upon graduation, or as soon after graduate as possible, followed by a lifetime of financial security and steady income growth.

To that first audience I can enthusiastically recommend essays like Elizabeth Corey’s; to the second I am prepared to make some strong arguments about the multiple forms of knowledge and the limits of the scientific method; but to the third audience I don’t have any arguments that I really care to make.

To be sure, I truly believe that study of the liberal arts can yield much economic value, and I can point parents to many, many financially successful people who are quite vocal about how much of their success they owe to liberal education; and when pressed I dutifully pass along the relevant information — because I believe it’s true. But my heart is never in such defenses.

For one thing, I don’t expect the parents to buy it. Parents who think about their children’s education according to an ROI model tend to have very specific beliefs about what professions are sufficiently remunerative, and about how people get into those professions; I know from long experience that those beliefs are not easily shaken.

But even more to the point, I may believe that the liberal arts have economic value but that’s not why I’m in the line of work I’m in; and that’s not why young people want to major in liberal-arts disciplines, either. They, like me, will trot out the ROI arguments, but their hearts aren’t in it either, a condition quite transparent to their parents.

This situation bears close and significant analogies to another one I find myself in fairly regularly: being asked to explain why I am a Christian, or why I think Christianity makes sense. Over several decades I have tried many responses to those folks, but I now think the best one is simply this: Come and see. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs; what Christians believe is intimately intertwined with what they do. Christian life is a set of practices — intellectual, doxastic, social, economic — and cannot be fully defended, or even accounted for, to people unwilling to participate, at least to some degree, in those practices. To put it another way, you can’t get any return on an investment (of time and observation) that you haven’t made.

I think much the same can be said of the liberal arts. When properly pursued, they constitute something close to a way of life: a set of practices of inquiry conducted by people who share space and time with one another, whose conversations are extended and embodied. If you want to understand the value of a liberal education, in a very real sense you have to be there.

So to the parents who can’t understand why they should pay for their son or daughter to study literature or philosophy or art history, maybe the best thing I can say is something like this: “I fully understand your concern. And you have every right to know what you are paying for, and to believe that it has value. But if you want to know what value this education has, you’ll need to spend some time with us. It may not make sense from the outside; so come and see.”


  1. It seems to me that there are two, orthogonal axes here. The contrary of 'humanities' is usually 'sciences', but the contrary of 'liberal arts' is what? I'd say 'professional studies.' The professional training of a classicist, for example, with all the philology, history, and scholarship the discipline has accumulated over the generations, is very different from the reading, translating, interpreting, and discussing say, a Platonic dialogue or a Greek Tragedy as part of the practice of the liberal arts. The same goes for mathematics and the natural sciences: they admit of a professional study (scholarly methods, research standards, historical developments, inculcation in a disciplinary tradition), as well as a liberal study (inquiry into roots and elements, comparison with other ways of knowing, reading and interpreting from the standpoint of ordinary life).

    I agree that the liberal arts are best understood not in terms of their product, result, or outcome, but in terms of their living activity. This can be hard to get across.​

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