Is a university a university without the liberal arts? Marymount University seems to think so. The institution’s trustees voted unanimously in February to eliminate majors in mathematics, art, English, history and philosophy, among other fields.
It is the latest in a very long line of defeats for the liberal arts. From 2013 to 2016, across the United States, 651 foreign language programs were closed, and majors in classics, the arts and religion have frequently been eliminated or, at larger schools, shrunk. The trend extends from small private schools like Marymount, in Arlington, Va., to the Ivy League and major public universities and shows no sign of stopping.
The steady disinvestment in the liberal arts risks turning America’s universities into vocational schools narrowly focused on professional training. Increasingly, they have robust programs in subjects like business, nursing and computer science but less and less funding for and focus on departments of history, literature, philosophy, mathematics and theology.
America’s higher education system was founded on the liberal arts and the widespread understanding that mass access to art, culture, language and science was essential if America was to thrive. But a bipartisan coalition of politicians and university administrators is now hard at work attacking it — and its essential role in public life — by slashing funding, cutting back on tenure protections, ending faculty governance and imposing narrow ideological limits on what can and can’t be taught.
Students do not select majors and courses in a vacuum. Their choices are downstream of a cultural and political discourse that actively discourages engagement with the humanities. For decades — and particularly since the 2008 recession — politicians in both parties have mounted a strident campaign against government funding for the liberal arts. They express a growing disdain for any courses not explicitly tailored to the job market and outright contempt for the role the liberal-arts-focused university has played in American society.
Conservative assaults on higher education and the liberal arts often grab headlines, but cutting education funding — or selectively investing only in vocationally inclined departments — is a bipartisan disease.