U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Did Conservatives Kill the Liberal Arts?

In a recent Salon article, Katie Billotte, a classics scholar based in Berlin, answers the rhetorical question of my title with an emphatic “yes!” “The conservative movement killed the liberal arts,” she writes, “Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, William F. Buckley and their latter-day heirs.” How? “They have done so through a combination of decreasing access to education and demonizing academic culture and academics. Make no mistake about it: The death of the humanities is an ideologically motivated murder, more like a massacre.”
There are elements of truth in Billotte’s argument. For example, higher education is more expensive, and the liberal arts are underfunded, in part because of an environment of austerity that conservatives have done much to foster. But the good parts of Billotte’s article are lost in a haze of reductionism.
1) Conservatives, or at least Republicans, have not acted alone in implementing economic policies that have made higher education more expensive. Since Clinton, Democrats (albeit, not the same thing as liberals) have been the party of austerity.Austerity limits public subsidies to higher education, one of the main reasons the cost of tuition has risen exponentially. As the cost of college increases, more and more students who do not hail from economically privileged backgrounds opt for vocational or trade majors that they think are more likely to provide them with a job after graduation. It’s not for nothing that “business” (the antithesis of the liberal arts) has been the fastest growing degree since the 1970s and is currently the most popular major in American universities.

2) The cost of education is also rising because of decisions being made by university administrators who might or might not be conservative (chances are the majority of them vote Democratic, for what that’s worth). As Marc Bousquet, among others, has shown, universities operate by the logic of capital. They’re every bit as interested in capital accumulation as are corporations, even though shareholders don’t reap the profits from university accumulation, as with corporations. Capital accumulation in the university works as such: presidents and assorted higher ups make obscene salaries; high-profile football and basketball coaches make even more, and are usually a state’s top paid employee, as the university operates as a sports spectacle; the president uses capital for power and prestige, by funding pet projects; and perhaps most nefariously, capital accumulation in the university has allowed for the growth of a large administrative class. University administration is a career path of its own now. All of this is to say that operating by the logic of capital is bad news for the liberal arts (and also bad news, more central to Bousquet’s point, for the army of adjuncts who are forced to work for little pay and benefits and no job security). I’m not exactly sure how the “conservative movement” is specifically to blame for these developments. Sure, conservatives have a hand in it, but, again, they did not act alone. If the liberal arts were massacred we can’t single out conservatives as the culprits.
3) My last point goes directly to the heart of my research on the culture wars. Has the conservative demonization of professors, which Billotte ritualistically dates to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, created a context for the death of the liberal arts? It is tough to answer this question one way or the other in empirical fashion. There is little doubt that conservative critics of the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s succeeded in reorienting many people’s opinions regarding the nation’s institutions of higher learning, reconceptualized as a leftist redoubt, where standards were destroyed and the best of Western Civilization had been replaced by a “politically correct” mish-mash of multicultural nonsense. But to what degree did this create a context for the death of the liberal arts?
In the academic culture wars of the 80s and 90s, the debate often focused on the humanities, specifically the teaching of literature and history. Both sides tended to argue that the humanities were important, though the reasons given for their importance were dramatically at odds. Left-leaning academics argued that learning how to interpret texts would make people better able to think critically about the world around them and to make better political choices. Conservatives argued that the humanities—in Matthew Arnold’s words, “the best which has been thought and said”—were the repository of the values that made America a free nation and thus crucial for young Americans to study. Both sides blamed the other for the diminishing prominence of the humanities. Conservatives like William Bennett, who kick-started the humanities wars with his 1984 report as chairman of the NEH, To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, contended that students were turned off by the humanities by professors who “present their subjects in a tendentious, ideological manner.” Left-leaning academics, on the other hand, made the same move that Billotte makes in her Salon piece: they blamed conservatives for poisoning the wells, often, they argued, done in bad faith.
The question to you, dear reader, is this: to what extent do you think conservative culture warriors are to blame for the sad state of the liberal arts? I tend to think that my first two points are much more determinative, but I am genuinely curious about what you think.

24 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Good piece. It should be stressed that vocationalism is now a more or less national consensus, with Obama and his pals leading the way. “Competitiveness,” etc.

  2. I tend to agree with your assessment here, Andrew. Nice piece. As you note, the conservatives in the culture wars of the ’80s and early ’90s were absolutely convinced of the centrality of the humanities. I’m always amused when the newer, bean-counting vocationalist (an apt description, Jesse!) generation of critics of the academy enthusiastically quote Allan Bloom (for a long time the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website had a Bloom quote on the top of it, though they seem to have since taken it down).

    To be fair, I think one of the things that distinguishes conservative vocationalists from “liberal” ones today is that those on the right due maintain, at least formally, a lot of the older, culture war arguments about the academy being beset by leftists and the humanities being mis-taught. What’s changed somewhat is the punchline, which is now less about improving humanistic learning and more about creating programs that “pay off” for students, industry, and the corporate university.

    Though this raises a question for you, Andrew: ultimately how different do you think the goals of this generation of conservative critics of the university are from those of the ’80s generation? Have they become more hostile to the humanities? Or have they just discovered that they gain more political traction (and “liberal” allies) arguing dollars-and-cents than complaining about Rigoberta Menchu?

  3. Andrew:

    I appreciate you pointing out something that had slipped my notice despite (in retrospect) being almost blindingly obvious: that conservative ideology includes both a praise for the traditional humanities (when they are pitted against multiculturalism, postmodernism, etc.) and an almost mocking minimizing of them (when derided as impractical, eggheaded, effete, and, well “liberal”). That’s a really great point.

    Despite both these tropes fitting comfortably within contemporary conservatism as I understand it, this is such a contradiction that I wonder if it can truly stand. Put a different way, do the same conservatives make both these arguments, or are they different conservatives? I have no idea as to what the answer is, but I thought you might. If the latter, this issue might represent a very interesting (even if probably minor) fault line in the ideology of modern conservatism.

    But I also have a different reaction, which is to question the entire premise of the question of what exactly “killed” the liberal arts. Are we sure that they are dead? And, if so, what does that mean? There is no shortage of people who want to get a liberal arts Ph.D., for example. Is this decline merely anecdotal? Does it expand beyond intramural academic politics, involving majors, faculty lines, etc.? These things are very important but they might seem far more important to academics themselves. Are people reading less each year than at some point in the past, for example? (The inarguable fact that publishing and newspapers are dying appears to mean that people are doing their reading in other formats, but not necessarily that they have lost interest in reading itself.)

    As Strauss and Howe pointed out a long time ago in their book Generations, Americans are probably less likely to know who Pericles is anymore, but they are far more likely to be able to identify Harriet Tubman. Similarly, I’d imagine Americans know less Latin than they used to, for example, but they almost certainly speak more Spanish. (And I am not referring to the increase in the number of native speakers.) It might just be that the humanities look different than they used to. I still find it unfathomable that someone like John Dewey or Robert Frost enjoyed the level of fame and influence that they did, but I am hesitant to generalize from that phenomenon to a decline in the interest in the humanities themselves. There are many other things that could account for such changes.

    Having said all that, though, I would certainly admit that I share the anecdotal sense that our culture manifests little respect for the liberal arts. A genuine interest in learning is not as common as I might like it to be among the history students that I have taught, many whom resent being forced to take humanities courses. Snooki got paid more than Toni Morrison to speak to Rutgers students. Though there are many important exceptions, the web and popular media generally demand or foster little in the way of insight or reflection from the consumer. Politicians who cynically and knowingly repeat untrue talking points appear to be banking on the lack of critical thinking skills among the electorate. All of these things are true. But I don’t know what to judge that against. As someone with a humanities Ph.D., I am in the cultural 1%. The fact that the majority of people I spend time with also have liberal arts Ph.D.’s means that, on the subject of how much respect for the humanities is appropriate, my own anecdotal observations might just not be that valuable.

  4. Ben and Mike: In the 1980s and 1990s, the most prominent critics of the humanities–Allan Bloom, of course, but also less literary, more political types like Bennett, Roger Kimball, Lynne Cheney, and Dinesh D’Souza–argued in favor of the humanities but against the way they imagined the humanities were being taught, i.e., through the lenses of poststructuralism, deconstruction, and multiculturalism. None of them made sustained pro-vocational arguments. They were contradictory, of course. Sometimes they came across as elitist, such as when they complained about how literature professors blurred the lines between high and popular culture, how they taught Shakespeare and Archie Bunker as “texts” equal to the task of interpretation. Other times they came across as populist, such as in the debate about “PC,” which highlighted longstanding their attempts to differentiate themselves, as representative of “real” America, from an unscrupulous, anti-American, liberal elite. In this populist vein they might verge towards vocationalism, or anti-intellectualism, in making claims against theory. But I wouldn’t say their arguments were vocational in the dollars-and-cents way we’re used to hearing now.

    That was a long way of saying that we’re talking about two different types of conservatives. Of course, Im much more familiar with conservative critics of the academy circa 1991 than I am circa 2012. Perhaps someone like Bennett, who still has a platform, has changed his tune.

    • For 1980s/90s conservative thought re liberal arts vs. more contemporary conservative thought on same topic, I’d compare early Allan Bloom to more recent Charles Murray. Murry, for sure, advocates “dollars-and-cents” vocational education with the caveat that an elite 10% (talented tenth?) should be given liberal arts education at the college level.

    • Yes, good point James. In the context of the 80s/90s, as you know, Murray’s elitism was more remembered in discussions about race and welfare policy, particularly after he and Herrnstein wrote “The Bell Curve.” I don’t remember those arguments being couched in debates about the humanities and higher education until more recently.

      Bloom, of course, was elitist, and yet, his book was put to work, beyond his intentions, for a more populist, even anti-intellectual cause.

  5. Mike: Your second question is a good one and I don’t have a good answer. Have the liberal arts actually died? The argument that they are dying is specifically based on statistics that show steady decreases in the number of college students majoring in liberal arts. That’s the only definitive answer I can give you. To say that they are otherwise dying implies they used to be more alive, which is to veer into jeremiad. I, like you, wish more people were interested in historical and cultural study. But I doubt it’s any worse now than ever.

  6. As you might imagine, I have lots of thoughts on this topic, but most of them are going to land in my dissertation — if they survive the scrutiny that comes from further research. However, I don’t mind wading in just a few paces on this post.

    I think most of us — and I’d include you here, Andrew — are probably of the opinion that “conservatives killed the liberal arts” is a somewhat unnuanced and overly simplistic explanation. What kind of conservatives? When? How? Are the liberal arts really dead? All those questions that have arisen in discussion show both the value and the limitations of provocative statements.

    Social conservatives? Not directly, though they have in many ways tried to deligitimize the critical enterprise of the academy, and I think the author of the OP is strongest in this part of her argument.

    Fiscal conservatives? Are there any? Eviscerating public funding for higher education isn’t necessarily a sign of fiscal conservatism, since education could be seen and has been seen as an investment. And it’s not like the money isn’t being spent elsewhere.

    But I do think Prof. Lemisch’s wonderful invocation of “vocationalism” is quite apt, and I think it goes right along with Rodgers’s vision of the metaphor of “the market” having become the lens through which society sees everything. So if we’re looking for someone to blame for the sorry state of things, I suppose there’s always the Business School. And you’ll be in good company, since Veblen decried the vocationalist utitilitarian corporate cog-making mission of “the higher learning” way back in 1918. His screed is quite fresh in some places.

    Still, I don’t think the liberal arts are dead yet, either in academe or beyond it. On the question of # of liberal arts majors, I’m never clear on whether this is a percentage decline compared to the overall # of college degrees awarded, or if it is an absolute decline in total enrollment/graduations. And are we measuring this at the undergrad level or the PhD level?

    In any case, if the liberal arts aren’t yet dead, we sure seem eager sometimes to finish the job ourselves. I was probably too diplomatic in my post about the proposal to change the Stanford humanities PhD to make it more “relevant.” At the same time, reading Veblen, Reuben, Cremin, et. al. has helped me recognize that proving “relevance” (read: dollar value) to “captains of erudition” and the captains of industry who underwrite the whole enterprise is an old problem that tracks right along with industrialization and Taylorism in higher ed.

    Still, every time someone makes an eloquent apologetic justifying the pursuit of humanistic inquiry because it somehow makes people better employees for Facebook and Yelp, we just give the knife in our backs one more twist for good measure.

    At the same time, there’s something to be said for burying the pill in the wad of dog food…

  7. Well done Andrew—and well done to several comments above (esp. LD, Mike, & Ben). I especially like your characterization of Billotte’s article (hazy reductionism—Epstein’s article is actually better, I think) and two of your three points (i.e. 1 & 2).

    On #3, I think the point of contention is the one identified by Epstein: multiculturalism. How did professors teach it and conceptualize it? What content did they use to deliver it? On the latter, one could deliver multiculturalism using great books as much as by avoiding them. If postmodernism did anything to professors, it disheartened them on the possibility of teaching anything (i.e. the thing, the text, had nothing to communicate). From that point of view, “left” and “liberal” professors are as much to blame for the death of the liberal arts as any laments about content changes (e.g. from the West to Afro/Chicano/Asian/Gender studies).

    Otherwise, I agree with you, Andrew, that both the segments of the left and right championed the humanities in their own way. In my study, I call this the “Great Books Ideologue” approach. It’s one of many ways of the presenting the liberal arts while still staying “true” to the great books idea.

    I also disagree that the liberal arts are “dead” as much as they are misshapen and deformed. They are now peddled as “general education” and “core curricula”, and the death of the liberal arts should not be assessed by major counting (though the decline of those majors does symbolize something–i.e. the victory of vocationalism on the whole). The liberal arts exist in many curricula in watered down form. The business major is “introduced” to them, not immersed in them. – TL

  8. It is tempting to think that it is conservatives who killed the Liberal Arts at the very least for RIchard Hofstadter’s sort of reason: that anti-intellectualism in American life is friendly towards incurious and frankly reactionary religiosity on the one hand and collusion and implication with pro-business and market driven values on the other.

    And yet, the real truth is that both sides are to blame. Both sides argue for against the liberal arts from a position of utility and functionalism. The Left reads texts primarily as instruments of moral instruction, political critique or skeptically skewer classic texts for whether those confirm or deny Left wing values and world views and whether they are deemed relevant to the current times or to identities that are felt to be in need of empowerment. And the Right has a woefully narrow criteria for what counts as artistic value and take a naive view of texts whereby dramatic representation is seen as a wholly mimetic affair.

    The seemingly extravagant and unrealistic truth is that if there is to be a return for a genuine liberal arts program worthy of that taxonomy in higher education it will have to take up the case for the independent autonomy of the art object; this means a rethinking of Kant, among other figures. It will frankly have to take (for lack of a better word) an aesthetic approach. Under the rubric of aesthetics any kind of text is arguably valid for study. However much we feel the pull of having to justify what is taught, the simple matter remains that it is the notion of intrinsic value as opposed to utility value that must be upheld. The crisis of the Liberal Arts, if there is one, is caused by the encroachment of scientistic and utilitarian ways of understanding into the humanities. This is a development that knows no partisan boundaries politically.

  9. I don’t know if “it was everybody’s fault!” is really any more helpful (or accurate) than “the conservatives did it!” And I’m still not entirely clear on what has been done. Just as the job crisis in the humanities needs to be historicized, so too does the jeremiad about the demise of the liberal arts.

    Tim, I am surprised you are offering the “blame it on postmodernism” explanation, which is a page right out of some old debates, and puts you “in” them to a certain degree, rather than offering a vantage point on them.

    As to dandiacal’s comment — the Arnoldian tradition is alive and well.

    • LD: Your response to my comment is too general. I didn’t offer a “blame-it-on-postmodernism” explanation as a singular. Rather, it’s part of a spectrum of things that have allowed for a decline in enthusiasm for the liberal arts. I offer it, in part, because I’ve seen faculty members who have that theoretical leaning loose faith—on the ground in the classroom—in the ability of texts to be transformative. That’s what can happen when you, as an author, don’t believe in a text’s ability to communicate your true thoughts—that your symbols are circular and can’t hit being as it is. – TL

    • I will confess, however, to laying out “postmodernism” too generally in my comment. I should’ve said that some strains of postmodernism affected some professors such that they lost faith in the ability of a text to be really transformative on the ground. I wish I could back that up with more historical examples—examples that form the thrust of a group. I can’t think of a non-conservative book that does that. I can only offer my anecdotal evidence of listening to the rhetoric of professors who espoused that theoretical approach–as well as the arguments of some founders themselves (e.g. Derrida) who explicitly said that the text can’t communicate truth as it is—that we are caught in the prisonhouse of language. – TL

    • Tim Lacy: In Defense Of Humanism: Value in the Arts and Letters by Richard Etlin is one non-conservative and liberal defense of certain traditional scales of value. The Middle Mind by Curtis White is another. I’ve enjoyed your discussion very much. I think “scientism” is as much of a problem as certain strains of postmodernism because “scientism” tends to place reductionistic utility models at the center of discourse.

  10. Tim: The problem with your formulation is that the literary theorists and critics who held postmodernist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist, or new pragmatist understandings of texts believed that their approach made reading and the study of literature MORE exciting because it opened up a plurality of meanings and ways of reading texts, and it expanded the number of texts worth reading to infinity. You might or might not be right that such a way to interpret texts turned some people off. It certainly angered conservative critics who wanted a Western Civ canon. But the professors themselves believed the study of literature was never more exciting. Read some of the lit crit circa 1980s as I’ve been doing (Stanley FIsh, Frank Lentricchia, Fredric Jameson, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Jane Tompkins) and you can’t miss their tone of wonder and excitement about all the new possibilities.

    • I see what you’re saying in relation to Fish. I didn’t see that strain in the historical conversations I tracked in relation to the great books. Well, as I said in my second reply, we have a tension within postmodernism that is historical. We have to account for the slipperiness of meaning as well as its plurality. The latter might generate enthusiasm; the former might undermine it. – TL

  11. Any historical tension within postmodernist theory — postmodernist theory itself being a humanistic enterprise developed within the broad tradition of the liberal arts — is not, I think, “to blame” for “killing” the liberal arts. Yes, we may all be in the prison house of language, but that sure as heck never stopped anybody from talking, Derrida et al included. The clash of theory v. theory within the liberal arts can be seen as a sign of vitality. It can also be seen as a sign of misplaced priorities, and that was to some degree Todd Gitlin’s criticism re the whole “marching on the English department” thing.

    But the existential angst that postmodernism might provoke among some humanists is not, it seems to me, much of an explanatory factor in the “demise” of the liberal arts. It may explain why some from outside the humanities find them a waste of time/money, but I don’t think the decline in the liberal arts has to do with the notion that those who study and teach literature, history, etc, from whatever perspective, have lost faith in their value.

    • On LD’s last paragraph, I wish I could agree but my experience tells me otherwise. I was taught postmodern/poststructuralist theory by a person who was a disaffected liberal artist—someone who formerly taught a kind of feminist corrected intro to liberal arts course but who lost faith in the enterprise. It was as if the professor was only going through the motions—that the last thing left to be taught was how poststructuralist theory had killed her enthusiasm for the humanist enterprise. It was depressing, but it really happened to me. Perhaps my experience was singular. I don’t know. I’d love to hear stories to the contrary. It was as if she missed every bit of the enthusiasm from the authors Andrew listed above. – TL

    • Tim: Even Gerald Graff, who was influenced by postmodernism but often sought to split the difference with its critics, had this to say in the 1980s about the new modes of literary interpretation that had rendered the very idea of the canon outmoded: “It’s an issue that’s made literary studies suddenly vital and exciting.”

      This is not to deny your anecdotal evidence. Only to claim that most postmodernists, especially when it first really made its mark, were enthusiastic about the implications of their theories on the study of literature/humanities.

    • Are you aware of any histories of education that address teaching practice as it relates to postmodernism/poststructuralism? Do we have any evidence that the thoughts of the enthusiastic critics and theorists you cite above were translated, successfully or otherwise, to the classroom? And then, how long did it last in terms of teaching the liberal arts? – TL

  12. Tim, Gerald Graff is a good place to start. Professing Literature (get the 20th anniv edition), but also Beyond the Culture Wars/Teaching the Conflicts. PL is more historical, BCW more prescriptive, but both (of course) perspectival. What isn’t?

    • I’ve read *Professing Literature*, but it’s been a long time. My memory aside, I have two more thoughts: (1) I didn’t read it with Andrew’s question in mind; and, most importantly, (2) the year of the edition I read (1987) came in the middle of the period with which I’m concerned: the 1980s and 1990s—up to the early 2000s. You may have encountered postmodernism/poststructuralism in literary theory in the late 1980s, but I didn’t know of it, with any depth, until 1998-99. And the effects of that theory were still in play in some parts of academia at the time. So Graff can’t answer my question (though the 20th anniversary edition of his book may address the teaching issues I’m concerned with in this thread). – TL

  13. Andrew,
    I have really enjoyed this post and all the comments to it–a very rewarding response to a mostly unrewarding source!

    However, I think Billotte (maybe inadvertently) puts her finger on the key distinction between more traditionalist critics of liberal arts in the academy, and the more generalized assault on the humanistic project as such (what you have been calling vocationalism). She says, “This war on the liberal arts is born from the same desire that produces voter ID laws: a desire to limit democratic participation.” This is where, I think, Billotte most inaccurately conflates these two sides, but where we can see most starkly where they divide.

    The older wave of critiques–Kimball, D’Souza, Bloom, et al.–were actually obsessed with citizenship, with the production of good or virtuous citizens, and it was their fear that the values of the leftist academy was making the production of good citizens impossible.

    But Billotte is absolutely right, I think, in identifying a constriction of citizenship in the agenda of vocationalist control of the academy and the erosion of support for the liberal arts. Andrew, you are very right, I think, to cite Marc Bousquet above, and I think it is also worthwhile to interpolate the importance of student debt as a very key component of this conversation. The attack on the liberal arts is conjoint with a project that “prepares” students–or conditions them into–a super-fluid labor market in which they have very few options because, in many cases, of the immensity of student debt. There is almost no interest in the kind of citizens the academy produces, as the important matter is the kind of employee–casualized, tractable, isolated–it can turn out.

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