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.