By Shalyn Hopley
As an English major and soon-to-be college graduate, I have invested my time and money into the liberal arts, and as a typical college student, I spend plenty of time perusing the internet. Understandably then, any article that pronounces my path of studies to be “dead” flashes bright red on my radar screen. When I saw Joseph Epstein’s article “Who Killed the Liberal Arts? And Why We Should Care” in The Weekly Standard, I immediately bookmarked it.
Epstein’s article comprehensively approaches the decline of liberal education, through copious references to other works on the subject and his own personal experiences as a student and professor. Epstein’s impetus to write the article comes from his own weakening faith in how the liberal arts are practiced today. As the economy has driven students to seek degrees and vocations that promise a job and an ability to quickly pay off school debts, the liberal arts have suffered along with higher education in general. As the focus upon examinations has risen and college standards have lowered, the value of an education has dropped. College graduates lack even basic skills, such as writing, and are being outperformed by some of their less educated peers — although it still holds true that the graduates usually economically outperform said peers in the long run.
Epstein’s regrets over the decline in standards and value in the liberal arts turn into a meditation on his own time in higher education. He meditates on the value of his own liberal arts degree. He admits he would likely earn more money if he received another degree. Additionally, he recognizes that he does not fully remember what he read or learned in in his undergrad career. Rather than evaluating the utility of his degree in terms of money or the retention of pure knowledge, Epstein locates the worth of his degree in the excitement for education and learning, a passion which he could not have found as the management major he intended to be. Now working as an English professor at Northwestern University, he also considers what he hopes to convey to his students — a certain form of serious study that garners insight into the conditions of humanity. Rather than asserting that liberal education is dead, as his title declares, Epstein gives readers the impression that the arts are on life-support. Epstein believes that it is vital that we not allow the arts to perish. He ends his article with the following declaration: “The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman.” The liberal arts are the gate-keepers of intellect, seriousness, analysis, and taste; without them, we are left with facts and memorization, pure data without inquiry.
I am bombarded by dual messages regarding higher education. My family and friends question my choice to study English and worry for my ability to get a job and recoup the investment I have made in my degree. On the other hand, my college administration emphasizes the importance of critical thinking and effective transference of skills in the new job market, skills a liberal education hopes to cultivate. The time for me to get a job approaches, quicker than I would like to admit. And I have placed my bets that the liberal arts still have some value and fighting spirit left. Like Epstein, Phi Beta Kappa, and my professors, I know that a liberal education is not dead yet; it will be the generation of scholars who choose to endure the jokes about joblessness and pursue their passions who will ultimately kill or resuscitate the liberal arts.
Shalyn Hopley is a junior at Clark University majoring in English. Clark University is home to the Lambda of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.