Randall Balmer Defends the Liberal Arts

92f8e-balmerAs many of you know, Marco Rubio has been spending a lot of time bashing the humanities and, more broadly, the liberal arts.  Ever since he got some traction with his conservative supporters when he disparaged philosophers majors in a GOP debate, it seems like he has been really running with this anti-liberal arts message.

In his regular column at The Valley News, Balmer welcomes Rubio to New Hampshire (Balmer teaches at Dartmouth) and then proceeds to teach him a lesson about the importance of the liberal arts.  Here is a taste:

My guess is that is a facile attempt to link liberalism with liberal arts. That’s cute, but it’s also inaccurate. The liberal arts trace their history to the medieval study of the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of general grammar, formal logic and classical rhetoric; quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Together, these comprised the seven liberal arts taught in medieval monasteries, cathedral schools and universities.

Knowledge tends to be cumulative, adapting to changing times and circumstances. Today, the liberal arts encompass, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “areas of study (such as history, language, and literature) that are intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession.”

I don’t deny for a moment that America needs welders — along with carpenters, plumbers, midwives, technicians and many other kinds of skilled workers. Those are all good and important, even noble, vocations. But do you seriously want to live in a nation of citizens lacking in “general knowledge,” who have no education in logic or no experience of critical thinking?

A liberal arts education provides a broader perspective. The study of history, to take one example, allows us to learn from the past — the perils of isolationism, for example, or the dangers of demagoguery. Learning a foreign language helps us to understand and to appreciate cultures other than our own. Music, literature and the arts not only have the capacity to elevate the human spirit and shed light on the human condition, they also provide a window into different societies, personalities and historical periods. And the philosophers you denigrate? They prompt us to ask the big questions — what is good or true or ethical — and they call us to account when our logic is faulty.

And Balmer can’t resist making stinging (and accurate) critique of David Barton.

Read it here.