This week in The Weekly Standard the essayist Joseph Epstein asks what has become a sadly common question: "Who killed the liberal arts?" As a perennially overeager student, I can't help but be delighted when I know the answer to a question, even if it is posed rhetorically. From my days as my high school's valedictorian through the completion of a Ph.D. thesis on contemporary productions of Greek tragedy in Latin America, I've always gotten a thrill from knowing the right answer. So here it is: The conservative movement killed the liberal arts — Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, William F. Buckley and their latter-day heirs.
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. The decline of student enrollment in university and college liberal arts programs is a well-documented phenomenon. These declining student numbers, along with the receding place of the humanities in the general secondary and post-secondary curriculum, does seem to spell doom for the liberal arts.
Nearly everyone, regardless of their politics, agrees that the decline of the liberal arts is at least in part a matter of economics. The rising cost of college education has made a liberal arts education simply out of reach for students from working-class and lower-middle-class families. These students are compelled to pursue vocationally oriented educations out of necessity.
Epstein notes economics in his article, but fails to cite the reasons for the rising cost of a university education. Instead he focuses on an alleged decline in the rigor and content of a liberal arts education, harrumphing that much less is expected from students who receive much more attention and support than their predecessors. More interestingly, he blames the decline of standards in the humanities on teaching and research that is increasingly concerned with theoretical analysis and multicultural topics. (More on that later.)