I used to despise the liberal arts. As a pre-med student in college, I hated the prospect of taking liberal arts courses to satisfy prerequisites for medical school. Even a picayune liberal arts course load — a mere two semesters of english — seemed dreadful to me. But my enmity for the liberal arts began in high school when I began noticing feelings of discontent towards my Sylvia Plath or U.S. history readings. At the time, my animosity for such subjects was largely driven by my own appraisal of the value that I saw, or rather didn’t see, in them. I had a myopic vision for the value of the liberal arts, a vision attributed to my ignorance of what a liberal arts education could do for me outside the classroom. I also had a problem with how many of my humanities courses were taught. Many of my liberal arts teachers, despite their best intentions, failed to make the information enjoyable or relevant in my own life. Of course, this isn’t a problem unique to the humanities — STEM courses bring their own style of drudgery for its students — but this type of dull, uninspiring tutelage in the liberal arts was made worse by my predilection for engineering, for which STEM is a necessary foundation. Together, my ignorance of the benefits of liberal arts coupled with banal teaching styles made for years of boredom; hours spent watching the clock waiting for the next class period and a growing bitterness towards liberal arts that blossomed into something much more cynical when I began college.
When I entered college, the disdain I had for the liberal arts persisted. However, only after graduating would I realize that the justification I had for such disdain could be attributed to something other than my general disinterest and ignorance. It could be justified by the capitalist tendencies that I had internalized and which had come to dominate my thinking. This tendency manifest itself in my attitude towards higher education, an attitude whereby I saw higher education solely through an economic lens i.e. the monetary value it would bestow upon me in the future. This is the effect of capitalism. It takes our cherished social institutions and resources, universities, public parks, natural resources, and turns them into machines, appropriated solely in the interest of generating profit. Institutions no longer become valued innately, rather they are only valued to the extent they increase the bottom line; all means become roads that lead to the same end, profit. In the case of the university, the education it provides has come to be valued only to the extent that it can fatten our pockets. The profit motive has tainted our relationship with education and for me, there was no clearer evidence for this than my relationship with the collegiate liberal arts.
My newly christened capitalist mentality meant that I viewed higher education almost exclusively in transactional terms. How much money it would give me in the future in return for four years of menial work and 20K a semester price tag. Of course, given the astronomical rise in college tuition, I can understand why a younger, penny-pinching version of myself would come to hold this view; having to pay upwards of $30,000 or $40,000 a year in tuition, housing, food, and fees really imbues one with the drive to get the most bang for their buck (I can’t keep track of the number of school sanctioned events I went to that offered free T-shirts and food). The economic environment meant that I was expected to maximize my return on investment, to behave like a rational consumer. So naturally this meant eschewing courses such as the philosophy of Kant, the drama of George Bernard Shaw, writing of Orwell, or the rise and fall of the Third Reich, or at the very least minimizing the number of such courses I had to take. It would have been hard to justify how such learning about such niche subjects would translate into a boost in my future earning potential.
Because of this economic mentality I brought to my studies, I began to no longer see the value in reading Hannah Arendt or James Baldwin, dissecting Plato or John Stuart Mill, debating the virtues of socialism, or studying the history of African art. I had become deluded by the impression that college and even high school are for the conferral of skills that make you marketable to the capitalist workforce or, at the very least, demonstrate that one had the grit and drive to succeed at bullshit remedial tasks1. Again, it is easy to see why I began to adopt this view of a college education. The debt accumulation of college and skyrocketing cost of the American Dream tends to sensitize our eyes and ears more to the the cost of things. So not only did I feel compelled to attend college with the hope of relishing in the future benefits it would bestow upon me but, as a rational consumer in a capitalist world, I wanted, indeed needed, to extract the full value out of the expensive commodity that was my college education. This meant viewing education as a means rather than an end, treating it with the same consumer mentality we would treat the purchase of the more luxurious iPhone model or an upgraded airline ticket, purchases purely to fullfil our material appetites. As a result of this, I largely curbed any of my nascent intellectual desires that weren’t “marketable” and shunned any courses that didn’t fit my objective of maximizing my educational ROI.
But after college, remote work and the coronavirus lockdown gave me the flexibility and time to explore subjects that perhaps wouldn’t have interested me before. I took up an interest in literature and began reading more, built projects that satisfied my own intellectual curiosity, and became less hostile towards history, the arts, and philosophy by approaching them instead of dodging them. I softened my stance towards the humanities and civics, realizing that what education has to offer extends so much beyond its impact on our employment prospects or future salary. The moment we treat our relationship with education the same way we would a fancy restaurant dinner or new vehicle, we no longer see it for the benefits it gives us that transcends money or petty indulgences.
The realm of politics is where the need for liberal arts presents itself most urgently. Education, especially the liberal arts and humanities, broadens our perspectives and shields us from our own biases and intellectual shortcomings, traits that are vital for a healthy democracy. We study the rise of demagogues in history so that we may recognize them in the present. We dissect the rhetoric of fascists so that we become immune to their fearmongering and jingoism in the political discourse. We read the Communist Manifesto so that we can seek solidarity with the working class and reject the status quo that is market capitalism. We study psychology so that we may catch our biases before they consume our thinking and lead us astray. The liberal arts give us the historical perspective and introspection to fight against the worst parts of our nature — tribalism, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, chauvinism, racism, sexism — so that we can organize our lives and politics for the better. Education should humanize us and make us want to participate more readily in our own governance.
Capitalism isolates us and dulls our desire and capacity to participate in the political ongoing within our communities. The liberal arts are especially instrumental in this regard. They enrich our humanity and allow us, according to Marx, to flourish as individuals so that we develop more solidarity with one another. Taking up arts, literature, music, or the classics, deepens our own individuality while reading about the toils of feudal peasants, the struggles of those fighting for civil rights, or the responsibility of citizens in a democracy, galvanizes us with a sense of agency in the political happenings around us.
The liberal arts have become adulterated through association with capitalism; courses on Gender Studies or World War II are seen as superfluous and antithetical to the function of maximizing
future worker student productivity2. And it is this view of the liberal arts that, until recently, dominated my vision and gave rise to my animosity towards it. But the more I read and the more engaged I become in the political discourse of this country, the more I see the value in a liberal arts education. I see the value of reading history and learning about the struggles of those who came before me, who gave their bodies and their labor for the life of comfort I now enjoy. I worry that more and more of our citizenry will see education either as a snobby indulgence of intellectuals and elites or will value learning only in so far as it increases their earning capacity later in life. I worry they won’t value it for the richness it gives us firstly in our own lives, and secondly as fellow citizens with shared interests in a community.
For more on capitalism and its relationship with education see Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis ↩