Home / General / The Conservative War on the Liberal Arts

The Conservative War on the Liberal Arts


Katie Billotte rightfully exposes the decline of the liberal arts in higher education as an important facet of the conservative war on anything institution in this country that might create free-thinking people.

Education is a political act. For over half a century, the conservative movement has waged a political war on liberal arts education. They have waged this war because they know that without the skills we are provided by a liberal arts education citizens must abdicate our power. They know, like the Greeks and Romans did, that only those with the ars liberalis can do the job of citizens. That is why we must not allow the liberal arts to be further attacked, economically or ethically. A democracy without citizens will not long survive and citizens are only those who have mastered the ars liberalis.


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  • Davis

    George Will, in his bizarre tirade about college football, said that, before progressives ruined everything, the purpose of higher education was “moral instruction.”

    • DrDick

      Translated from the wingnut means “to be devoted and uncomplaining servants of the righteous wealthy.”

  • patrick II

    An instructed and intelligent people … are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government. In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it.

    Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

    • Reasonable 4ce

      Adam Smith was a commie.

      • DrDick

        Well he did believe in the labor theory of value and argued that capital creates nothing.

        • LeeEsq

          He also thought that government must step in if businessmen refuse to obey basic ethics and morality.

          • DrDick

            A fucking commie if ever there was one!

    • AR

      Smith is remembered for Wealth but The Theory of Moral Sentiments is very important for the development of utilitarian liberalism. One reason the right turned away from him (beyond the fact that his books are long and picked their style cues from Kant) is that he is one of the key founding thinkers for the turning away from the “night watchman” state.

  • Paul Orwin

    I think the article misses a major part of the issue, which is the “consumer” model of higher ed that has become prevalent outside the ivy covered halls. It comes from students, parents, and administrators (and often faculty esp in more practical subjects). The idea that an education is about job training rather than building a base of knowledge important for life is one that is losing the battle in many places. And of course, as funding gets tighter, and college becomes more expensive, this gets reinforced on all sides. I don’t really think this is “conservative”, because many on the left seem to me to engage in it as well. I think it is a general feature of our nation that we think of education more as a means to economic prosperity than as a basic feature of a well lived life.

    • jeer9

      Agree, though I do think the consumer approach serves conservative rather than liberals ends.

      • James E. Powell

        The consumer way of thinking is the American way of thinking. That it affects how people view higher education is no surprise.

        Everyone from the president (current and former) on down to the high school counselor argues for college as means to gain higher-paying employment. Other purposes may be mentioned, but not often and not very loudly.

        • jeer9

          I’ve noticed a trend of late with my best and brightest that, despite their superb writing skills, debate talent, and participation in the school’s Constitution team, many choose to become engineering majors at college – because that’s where the reliable decent-paying jobs are. When I ask them what they’re going to do with all that polemical energy, they just sort of shrug. (Of course, I suppose it’s better than shooting for law school.)

          • bgn

            When I ask them what they’re going to do with all that polemical energy, they just sort of shrug.


    • Katya

      Of course, as college gets more and more expensive, you’d expect to see this sentiment on the rise. If education is beyond the financial reach of many people, it can hardly be “a basic feature of a well-lived life,” or else the well-lived life is only available to the wealthy or those willing to take on astronomical loans. When you have five- or six-figure debt to repay, you are going to think more in terms of investment and utility than if college was more affordable.

  • tt

    Neither Billotte nor Epstein provide any evidence that the liberal arts are actually declining. There’s been a great increase in the proportion of students who go to college over the last 30 years, so a relative decline (with total undergrads as the denominator) would make sense–but has there really been an absolute decline in the number of students getting a liberal arts education?

  • c u n d gulag

    Serfs don’t need them no “ars liberalis.”

    So, you can bet your arse that Conservatives and Plutocrats will allow no “ars liberalis” to be taught.

    The less there is in your brain, the less it takes to wash it – and to keep it washed.

  • Decrease Mather

    This is wrong. The conservative criticism is simply that there’s no money in studying liberal arts. What’s the value in reading literature if it won’t help you create jobs?

    There are still some old school conservatives (such as Will) who have always valued education as a way to teach conservative values.

    • No–the thing about making no money at it is the rhetoric used to convince students not to take it. But look at the conservative culture war on the “studies” programs, David Horowitz’s attempt to create a McCarthyist attitude in the universities, conservative legislators seeking to undermine funding to these departments, conservative attempts to end funding for departments like German and Classics at the University of Virginia when they fired the president, etc.

      It’s all part of the same war.

      • somethingblue

        This is exactly right. It’s like tax cuts or the Iraq war. What’s consistent is the goal. Any argument will do, even ones that contradict each other. A generation ago, universities were bad because they were teaching Women’s Studies instead of Plato and De Tocqueville. Now they’re bad because they’re teaching Plato and De Tocqueville instead of STEM.

      • DrDick


  • CD


    If someone wants to update the data, that would be great, but both the Epstein and Billotte essays look like fact-free effusions. When Billotte writes “The decline of student enrollment in university and college liberal arts programs is a well-documented phenomenon” and then provides no source whatever, bullshit alarms should go off.

    Far as I can tell Billotte is just linking two obvious facts about conservatives: (1) opposition to redistributive government spending (2) a traditionalist approach to the humanities. What’s new here?

    • Enrollments are shrinking at schools like Harvard and Georgetown. Don’t have figures in front of me but this is what I am told by people who would know.

      • CD

        And with two minutes’ googling I can find


        with actual data. I think this is more useful than claiming you heard something from someone who should know, and about only two institutions.

        • Just to be clear: you complain about lack of data and then complain that I didn’t find it for you. And when you do it indicates a decline, although the data is admittedly out of date. Would you prefer that I had provided you with a let-me-google-that-for-you link?

          • tt

            Where’s the decline? According to the data posted, proportion of humanities majors has been stable over the last 20 years.

            • 1) It looks like a pretty steady drop of 1% over the last 20 years using NSF rather than the measurement the society wants to flog. Remember that when it comes to resource allocation, percentages, not absolute numbers, matter.

              2) Just to be clear, I’m not advocating the thesis of this article, which is terribly confused. Most 4 year colleges offer “liberal arts” educations; they do so through core and distributional requirements. Getting a degree in English is not synonymous with liberal arts, and people involved tend to extrapolate from one or two humanities departments to the whole area of study. The real issue is making college less affordable, and thereby reducing a key mechanism for equality of opportunity.

              • tt

                This is dependent on the endpoints you choose–there’s a 1% drop over 20 years after a 2.5% gain over the 5 years previous.

                I agree on your second point. There is no evidence that the liberal arts are declining. And since more people are going to college than ever, the proportion of citizens with liberal arts educations is probably higher than ever.

          • CD

            No, my point was that you were appending lazy hearsay to a comment about real data, which was linked to in the Berube piece I linked up top.

            The data show *percentages* holding steady over the last decade. They also show (look at the spreadsheet) a near-doubling in total humanities degrees awarded since the early 1980s. Yay, humanities! The precipitate drop is 1967-1982. The picture is not simple. You might be more thoughtful about period and relevant concept.

            • “Hearsay” in this case = faculty meeting and DUS of Department, but whatever.

              Wake me when you find data from later than 2009.

            • Also you might be less of a prick when someone makes an offhanded comment. Just saying.

  • njorl

    Well it ain’t like they’re all gung ho about science.

    • They do like petroleum geologists and certain types of chemical engineers.

      • DrDick

        They love applied science, at least as long as it has commercial applications, but generally hate pure science, which like the liberal arts teaches critical and analytical thinking.

        • GFW

          Pretty much the point I came here to make. My undergrad courses by credit were approximately 15% “Arts” and 85% physics & math. Critical and analytical thinking is my job.

          But I agree with the larger point – that a quality University education creates citizens, while a focus on credentialism and the personal income cost-benefit of those credentials creates consumers.

          • DrDick

            And, just as importantly, worker drones.

  • Candid Conservatives will admit that they don’t want the masses to get a liberal education. Exposure to civilization’s higher ideas and dreams will give middling people an exalted notion of their own worth and make them difficult to govern. Many of these conservatives nevertheless claim that they support liberal education for the elite. That was the point of Bloom’s famous book, the Closing of the American Mind. He wasn’t talking about what goes on in state colleges and other vocational factories. In his Straussian rendition of Plato, the Guardians require a different paideia than the others. It’s the umpteenth version of Conservatism’s basic principle: rum for the ratings, gin for the gentlemen.

    • burritoboy

      I don’t think that’s precisely fair to Bloom, who spends quite a bit of time in Closing describing how his beloved UC was primarily a place for educating weird Jews. There’s not much comparative praise for the Ivies.

      Anyways, Bloom taught at Cornell for a long time, even though he didn’t enjoy it.

    • rhino

      Actually, I don’t think most people should go to college or university at all, and I am pretty left wing.

      I do think that grade school should contain a whole lot more liberal arts, however.

  • Fighting Words

    Talk to me because I’m stupid. I’m a little confused here. I always thought that “conservatives” were for a liberal arts education – as long as it was of the “great books” or “great dead white males” variety. They were opposed to the area, ethnic and gender studies and basically including anything written by non-whites from the canon (ala “Closing of the American Mind”). So now “conservatives” don’t even want to teach “dead white males?” When did that happen?

    • bobbyp

      Liberal arts are great for the scions of wealth. For others, not so much.

    • DrDick

      They are not for liberal arts, but for a particular kind of cultural indoctrination which reinforces conservative moral and social values. They are very selective about what they want taught and it does not include anybody except old, white men.

      • Holden Pattern

        And not even all of those. Most of the DWEM classics of philosophy won’t make you more conservative unless you import a hell of a lot of other baggage into your interpretations.

        • arguingwithsignposts

          If by Dead White Males you include all the writers and main characters in the Bible.

          • LeeEsq

            I demand that Jewish men get exempted from the Dead White Men category. The Talmud doesn’t get enough consideration as an important work of world literature.

            • DrDick

              Some Jews get to be honorary white men, and others (like Marx and Engels) get exiled to the outer darkness.

              • While Marx had Jewish ancestors, the family converted, Engels did not. I have no idea where the you got the idea that Engels was Jewish, but it is totally inaccurate. It is much more accurate to describe both Marx and Engels as German.

                • LeeEsq

                  Otto, stop being clever. Under Jewish; once a Jew always a Jew even if you do something bad like having yourself baptized. Since Marx was the son of a Jewish mother, his parents were from very prominent Rabbinical families, he was Jewish.

                  Second, Marx was seen as Jewish in his time even if he did not. Many Jews have attempted to leave the Jewish people by one way or another over the centuries. It never worked.

        • gmack

          Well, it depends on what you mean by “conservative,” doesn’t it? One of the reasons why it’s kind of fun to teach Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau is that they don’t really fit on the contemporary political spectrum.

          To take a few examples: Machiavelli might be cited as a kind of amoral “realist,” but he also advocated for republican governance and (I would argue) actually supported a pretty radically democratic understanding of the importance of popular participation. Hobbes’ celebration of obedience seems conservative, but he also explicitly gives soldiers who have been drafted the right to run away; he also seems to have no interest in things like patriotism or natural hierarchy. Rousseau seems to celebrate patriotism and even can be read as providing a critique of urban life/cosmopolitanism, but is also radical in other ways (e.g., in his rejection of natural hierarchies). Burke offers a critique of Enlightenment thought, usually associated with liberal rationalism, but also has a critique of colonialism. In short, it’s not at all clear whether it makes a lick of sense to fit these folks into contemporary political categories.

          • DrDick

            Perhaps, but modern conservatives do not want that kind of nuance taught. And yes, I agree that modern conservatism does not easily map on earlier versions.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Incidentally, if you can find any new black women who are gung-ho, quote-mine-able supporters of the present distribution of wealth and power, I am confident of their inclusion in the canon.

        It’s not like we’re racists or sexists anything…

        • somethingblue

          “Who is the Dinesh D’Souza of the Papuans? The Jonah Goldberg of the Zulus? I’d be glad to read him.”

          • Hogan

            Harrumph harrumph

          • Davis X. Machina

            If it’s a truly unmet need, and there’s money to be made from meeting it, the Market, blessed be It, will summon forth these paragons.

            It must. It is the Market, the righteous judge.

  • Conservatives hate the liberal arts because they hate both words in the name and assume that’s all they need to know about the field(s).

  • Chet Manly

    Well, part of the problem also has to lie in framing. That counter argument to conservatives is going to be difficult to make with the general public because of the subjects included in modern “Liberal Arts”.

    Most non-academics today hear “liberal arts” and think theater, literature, music, religious studies, multicultural studies, etc. It’s going to be hard to make the classical argument that liberal arts are essential to citizenship if that’s the image your audience has when you say “liberal arts”.

    I’d be willing to bet the consciously anti-free thinkers are a tiny minority and even most conservatives would agree history, grammar, logic, mathematical competence, basic science education, and the like are important and deserve funding if you framed the argument that way.

    • somethingblue

      I’d be willing to bet the consciously anti-free thinkers are a tiny minority and even most conservatives would agree history, grammar, logic, mathematical competence, basic science education, and the like are important and deserve funding if you framed the argument that way.

      You’re on. $10,000?

      • Chet Manly

        Ugh. On second thought, no. I sometimes forget about how strong the proudly ignorant strain of conservatism has become.

        Let’s just pretend I’m talking about the centrists and “liberals” who buy into conservative arguments and allow them to reach a plurality in that paragraph.

    • Anonymous

      Most non-academics today hear “liberal arts” and think theater, literature, music, religious studies, multicultural studies, etc. It’s going to be hard to make the classical argument that liberal arts are essential to citizenship if that’s the image your audience has when you say “liberal arts”.

      In fact, two of those–literature and music–are exactly what you should be thinking when you hear “liberal arts.” Rhetoric, grammar, and logic made up the trivium, while music was part of the quadrivium. As far as conservative bona fides go, it’s tough to beat ancient Greece.

      • LeeEsq

        I can’t recall any conservative into Antiquity. Mainly they seem to want the Middle Ages with Evangelical Protestantism rather than Catholicism and even less intellectual activity. I’d say they would be happiest during one of the early Reformation states.

        • burritoboy

          They would most enjoy being industrialists in a mid-nineteenth century industrial town – say, Leeds or Sheffield or Birmingham. That’s where, after all, they got their economics from. Though, admittedly, even 19th century evangelical protestantism is too intellectual and demanding for them. (The twenty-first century version is immeasurably stupider and crasser than the 19th century versions).

  • Davis X. Machina

    “Business” is simply the theology of the present-day university.

    Meal-ticket and religion, all rolled into one.

    The average lecturer on the Sentences of Peter Lombard would know exactly where the professor or marketing at Enormous State University’s B-school was coming from.

    Guaranteed bums-in-seats, and, wonder-of-wonders the paycheck clears whether you actually believe in what you’re teaching or not.

    • Ian

      “Business” is simply the theology of the present-day university.

      I think that’s unfair to theology, which is (and was) a rigorous and difficult discipline. Most business degrees are more like Sunday School.

      • Lurker

        Yep. In fact, you could become a parson of the Church of England simply with an Oxbridge BA. The theological degrees were for those who were seriously interested in theology.

  • DZ

    Liberal arts professors are happy members in good standing of the new expoitive model of higher education. Each year they demand more money for lighter teaching loads, and happily fuck over their grad students, adjuncts, and undergrads borrowing tuition they can barely afford to pay back.

    Tenure track hiring, as SEK recently noted, operates on the same ruthless track system as investment banks and large law firms. You better come from serious money to make it in academia these days. My observation of graduate students at Harvard is they almost invariably come from wealthy families and private colleges.

    It is easy to blame conservatives for wanting to cut the liberal arts, but it is the academics who decided to start provoking conservatives at every turn and focus on producing “scholarship” that is both unreadable and unread, full of meaningless pomo jargon.

    I for one look forward to future focused cuts in funding to LA departments almost as much as the complete cession of funding of public law schools and for-profit diploma mills surviving on federal loans that have a half-life to default of about 15 months.

    Good riddence to the SUNY philosophy departments etc. And the cuts will keep coming given that solid left wing voters like me don’t care as democratic state governments in states like CA and NY keep the cuts rolling in.

    • somethingblue

      It is easy to blame conservatives for wanting to cut the liberal arts, but it is the academics who decided to start provoking conservatives at every turn

      Yes, wearing those provocative outfits and everything.

      (Hey, let it be a lesson to us. If we hadn’t been in the library that year, none of this would have happened …)

    • firefall

      meaningless porno jargon? I must go back to reading some of this scholarship :)

      I certainly think the huge career emphasis on publishing, at the expense of teaching and longterm research, is fairly destructive in the liberal arts (I’m not too thrilled about its effects on ars natura either, for that matter), and does lead to a lot of abstruse arcana, but painting ‘the academics’ as deciding to provoke conservatives at every turn is quite ridiculous.

      Far & away the majority of academics do nothing but keep their heads down, and of those who don’t, I’d have to say 90% of the provocation comes from the other direction, and they are responding. Even a bomb-throwing radical IWW fanatic like our good host Mr Loomis, are hardly provoking conservatives, unless they go looking for provocation (at which point, who is provoking who?)

  • VeeLow

    “I for one….”

    thanks for signalling that your post was parody!

    • DZ

      I take the lack of substance in your reply as an inability to produce a substantive response. Or do you consider snark as something that changes people’s minds? I am happy to engage should you want to prove otherwise.

  • DZ

    By the way, I often meet tenured professors at places the wealthy gather for their leasure, like gallery parties, cooking classes and 10k runs. I’ve never met one volunteering for a political campaign, and this is out of a large pool of people that did include a fair number of underemployed Ph.D.s.

    • DrDick

      May I introduce myself? I have worked on several campaigns.

      • DZ

        That’s great, I’m sorry I didn’t meet you. What percentage of your fellow professors do you estimate are volunteering for Obama or a local democrat this year?

  • DZ

    Gail Collins makes similar and related points more gently here:

  • Pingback: Reader Feeder Bits for (Sat. 15-Sep-12 1730) | Boulder Dude()

  • LeeEsq

    Isn’t part of the problem that the non-intellectually inclined part of the population on the side of the Conservatives? A lot of people do not see education as being about self-actualization or producing good citizens. They put up with it because they want a decent paying job upon graduation. Even intelligent students are often frustrated by things they find irrelevant. Notice the disdain of some math and science enthusiasts for literature, history, and philosophy.

    • Cody

      Well, I personally am rather uninterested in literature and things like that. I like creating physical things, and as such decided engineering was for me. However, I certainly don’t think reading books is bad.

      I think it’s quite a leap for someone to not see Liberal Arts as useful, to thinking no one should study it. I can see how the Right seems to be pushing people into that view.

  • cheap wino

    Bah. “Conservatives” do not have a plan to eliminate the liberal arts. It may be that conservative monied interests, over the last 30 years or so, eventually have created a climate where a jackass like David Horowitz can write his 101 idiotic claims about people I don’t know book, etc., etc. But there is no “conservatives” sitting in a smoky room somewhere hammering out a bullet point document where #3 is kill the liberal arts.

    Fifteen years ago I might have bought into this kind of rhetoric. But I’ve listened to Limbaugh and Hannity enough (which, of course, is too much) and know that they make these exact same types of claims about liberals and their nefarious plans to screw America over with a secret agenda that they aren’t telling you about. You’ve heard it before, college professors made up global warming so they could get all that juicy grant money, full stop. They all got together and planned this to screw us out of our tax dollars. Fucking liberals, all of a singular mind with pointed, specific, America hating plots that only Sean Hannity and his cadre of conspiracy theorists could uncover. Thank God!

    Seriously, we need to address the debilitating businessification of our universities, and funding for education and opportunity therein is an incredibly important facet of the development of our country. Yes, lets examine the policy with a fine tooth comb and get it right. But let’s not engage in the same kind of hyperbole that Rush Limbaugh traffics in. How does that help?

    • DrDick

      Seriously, we need to address the debilitating businessification of our universities

      Do you think you might want to consider the inherent contradiction between this and your initial statement?

      • cheap wino

        Where’s the contradiction? It’s not as if running it like a business is something targeted directly at universities. It’s a generic good (as posited by the conservative movement). Did Reagan have a cabinet meeting where somebody said, “If we get the idea out that we should run our colleges and universities like a business we can get rid of liberal arts education and rule the country for decades. Lets get on it, pronto!”

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