The "Greatest Generation" Did Not Fear Liberal Arts Education

Geoffrey Harpham, the president and director of the National Humanities Center, has made a strong and compelling argument for why the liberal arts are, and always have been, essential to democracy.  He reminds us, among other things, that the so-called “Greatest Generation,” those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, sought to build an educational system that prepared people for citizenship in a democracy.

Here is a taste:

At the request of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had gathered a group of distinguished citizens and asked them to recommend 10 actions “that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being.” A bipartisan request to form a group to engage in long-range planning about the nation’s intellectual well-being by focusing on the liberal arts — such an announcement not only seemed out of place in the newspapers that day, it seemed almost to come from another generation.

Had these people not heard that, as House Speaker John Boehner put it, “We’re broke”? Didn’t they — these misguidedly bipartisan legislators and anachronistic advocates of the liberal arts — realize that we were in a crisis that precluded long-term planning and collective action? How could they fail to see that education today must focus on job training and economic competitiveness? And what were they thinking in focusing on liberal arts?

It has indeed been hard in recent months to hear anything other than the voices of doom. But the language spoken by these voices represents its own form of crisis, for it is almost entirely economic, as if all relevant factors in our current situation could be captured on a spreadsheet or a ledger. The reduction of complex social and political issues to economics signifies a failure of imagination; and “fiscal responsibility,” while an excellent principle at all times, has come to serve as a proxy for our fears that we have lost our way in the world, that the future will not be as bright for our children as it was for us when we were young, that America is being outcompeted by countries that used to be “third world,” that the future has somehow gotten away from us.

Fear, whose radical form is terror, has temporarily crippled our national imagination. Many young people today can barely recall a time when we were not subject to the shadowy horrors of terror and terrorists. Today, 10 years after 9-11, terror is a fact of life, and fear makes all the sense in the world. How else to explain the emergence of what are in effect survivalist and vigilante attitudes among so many of our political leaders?

At this time, it is useful for those with longer memories to recall that “other generation” that the current effort to support the liberal arts so strongly evokes. This would be the generation that, having fought their way out of the Great Depression, went out and won World War II. That generation, like ours, had things to fear, but they conquered their fears by taking action, including creating a commission charged with long-term planning for the nation’s educational system, focusing on liberal education…

One thought on “The "Greatest Generation" Did Not Fear Liberal Arts Education

  1. It would be more compelling if the story had a happy ending: “And ever since the post-WWII expansion of state-financed liberal arts higher education, Americans have evidenced greater appreciation for the arts, an improved knowledge of the outside world, and shown themselves to be better citizens by voting in ever increasing numbers.” (-;

    I firmly believe that the liberal arts are vitally important to the maintenance of a democratic culture that enshrines liberty and equality. But, despite what Harpham implies, that desire is not synonymous with the belief that state-support is necessary for the liberal arts to flourish.

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