Liberal arts education is necessary



Opinion columnist Kevin Wiggins discusses the importance of liberal arts education when it comes to personal enrichment and feelings more connected to the history of humanity.


As we soon head into the third decade in which most millennials will have been alive, it appears that the Humanities are in their worst shape since the condemnation of Aristotle in 1210. The liberal arts are a required odyssey in almost every institution of higher education in the West: So how then are they so amazingly failing to garner majors? The answer I think lays in the necessity of a vivid Liberal Arts education.

The humanities give you the toolkit to become a self-full person. By this, I mean that philosophy, history, religion, literature and other liberal arts subjects are tools for navigating life. These disciplines are part and parcel of a 4,000-year journey of engagement with what it means to be a human being and the best possible highway for truly and bravely existing in this world. While it might sound Sisyphean, students will only ever be able to get out as much from any class as they invest in it. Education is an invitation to a dance that can only be done if both partners do their share. For some, this might only be a memory, but for others, it is the beginning of a love affair that will last a lifetime.

I met my first love, Plato, as a freshman. I was sitting outside of Hagemann Hall scribbling notes for Professor Boedker’s class, and I was transfixed. Plato introduced me to Aristotle, he to Cicero, Camus, Sartre, Marx, Aquinas, Rand, Dostoyevsky, Foucault and this year, William James. That was how I was won over, but as Lady Philosophy and I began our relationship I discovered history, literature, art and film. What’s more, I found people in love with these things, too.

My best friend is an art major. At least history and philosophy majors have the “I’m going to law school” excuse at family holidays, but she doesn’t even get that. The passion that I’ve seen in her and her compatriots is breathtaking and inspiring. The engagement art gives them with existing bravely and fully in the world is truly wonderful. Yet, I doubt there is one art student who hasn’t heard the line “oh that’s nice what are you going to do that?” most likely from an adult who means a tremendous amount to them.

This anxiety from other people I believe usually comes from a place of care and with a warm heart. Since the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, declared majors in the humanities have plummeted. Nationwide, philosophy majors alone have fallen by almost 45 percent. Alongside this, there has been an explosion in the consumption of long-form “podcast” entertainment. Millennials and Gen-Z’ers are listening to people with a wide range of diverse political viewpoints, such as the left’s Slavoj Zizek, the right’s Jordan Peterson and King College London’s Professor Peter Adamson for as long as three hours at a time. Young people want to learn, we’re thirsty for meaning and knowledge – to place ourselves in this wonderful world we call home.

I think this highlights the real issue with the university: Its transfiguration into a capital maximizing machine. I don’t think this is because of a nefarious backroom plot, but rather, it is part of a larger, societal-wide cancer. This tumor is fracturing our political landscape, dissipating it into nothing more than elementary name-calling. Our word “politics” comes from the Greek “politiká”- which means the affairs (discourses) of citizens. As our societal tumor spreads, it’s getting harder and harder just to talk to each other. This is true of the academy as well. The Athenians discovered just how difficult an efficient polity is in the days of Cleon and Pericles. 2,400 years later, college administrators, professors and students are finding that they struggle to even communicate, as if we don’t even speak the same language.

The Spartans are at the gates of the liberal arts, and we’re as weary as the Athenians were. As more and more of us realize our majors aren’t useless but ask “is college useless?”, it appears a revolution in the Liberal Arts might be shaping itself. Yet, it was the academy which created the people who made this digital revolution possible. The humanities won’t die, but colleges need to ask themselves why they exist. When the boomer alumni are gone, football teams aren’t winning and admission rates are still falling, what does a university have to offer? The answer is a vivid liberal arts education; one that prepares its students to live boldly and fully in the world.