The Liberal Arts Debate

by Katie Zwick

“There’s something severely wrong with postsecondary education in the United States.

That something might be liberal arts.”

Let’s talk about this statement for a minute. Matt Saccaro – the man behind these words – wrote this in an article published on Thought Catalog on February 19th. “The Case For Removing (Almost) All Liberal Arts From College” delves into Saccaro’s true feelings about how the Liberal Arts curriculum is the “easy way out” for students who can’t handle the “STEM” majors – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.

He claims that, “When intellectual cravens flee from STEM majors they often find refuge in “easy” liberal arts degrees. If those degrees were removed, those people would batten down their mental hatches and major in something useful, or they’d pursue building worthwhile skills outside of Academia; they’d become plumbers and electricians instead of miserable, cash-strapped, debt-laden retail workers.”

Oh, okay Matt. We’re all English majors because we failed biology. We decided, Hey, this English thing (or art thing/history thing/etc) is so much simpler. Why NOT be an English major?!?!

No. That’s not quite right.

I’m not going to go into the details of his argument which mostly seem to reiterate this idea that the Liberal Arts majors don’t belong in college. His article can be found here.

The day after Saccaro’s article was published on Thought Catalog, Chas Gillespie offered a response in an articled entitled “One Case Against Removing The Liberal Arts From Universities.” And thank goodness he did.

In his retort, Gillespie breaks down Saccaro’s articles into “Claims” and “Assumptions,” exposing the bits of Saccaro’s argument that are a bit too flimsy to hold up in reality. The result is a well-worded and well-informed explanation of why Liberal Arts are important to the university curriculum.

He also touches upon a major flaw in Saccaro’s claim: the inclusion of science and math as a part of the STEM degrees and in opposition of the Liberal Arts. He says, “This is very confusing to me because, in every academic circle I’m aware of today, Science and Math ARE liberal arts. Does he mean to say ‘humanities’ instead of ‘liberal arts’?”

Gillespie is correct. The Liberal Arts curriculum existed since Ancient Greece, when it was composed of seven core subjects divided into a Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic, while the Quadrivium consisted of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music & Harmonics, and Astronomy.

Maybe if Saccaro took a few more dreadful Liberal Arts classes, he would know this.

Gillespie later debunks Saccaro’s claim that everything an English or History major needs to know can be learned independently from a library book or the internet, without spending money on college. Saccaro thinks STEM majors absolutely cannot learn everything on their own and need college professors to explain the loftier, more complex elements of their subject to them.

I thought that after freshman year people were aware of the fact that every major is challenging in its own way, but I guess not. The following chunk of the article makes the most sense out of why the “this-major-is-more-difficult-than-that-one” statement isn’t very accurate at all:

I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but I’ve heard it from a number of people, none of whom provide evidence for it. I often hear it from students who take an intro lit class to satisfy a requirement, do half the reading, get B-’s on the essays, and somehow find a way to get a B+ in the class. Then they say, “Hey, lit classes are super easy.”

Yes, they are easy if 1) You do half the work. 2) You only take intro classes. 3) You grade grub to get a decent grade.

However, they are very difficult if 1) You do all the work and 2) Take advanced classes. A literature or philosophy or history or religion etc. seminar with five people, a professor who’s willing to embarrass you if you say something stupid or don’t do the reading, in which you have to read a book a week, write response essays, and write a final essay of 25 pages is not an easy class. In fact, it’s a very difficult class. And these types of classes are, quite often, the heart of many “liberal arts” majors.

Thank you, Chas. You just explained – quite eloquently and with only a hint of snark – what I wish I could say when people roll their eyes at my major/course load/homework/finals/etc.

In the end, Gillespie sums up his argument with the classical “Isn’t there a place for everyone in this world?” and says: “Those who wish to study the humanities, those who wish to study business, engineering, theoretical physics, (dare I even say that dreaded major?) art: is there not a place for all of us in our struggling Empire?”

First I laughed at art being deemed “that dreaded major,” then I thought about all of this in relation to my own college career.

I’ve seen history majors, English majors, and art majors find success after graduation. I’ve seen math majors and science majors working as cashiers at the supermarket a year after graduation. I’ve also seen the opposite.

I personally think that any person, regardless of their major, can find success and find a career in this crazy economy-obsessed world if they’re passionate about what they do.

Matt Saccaro and Chas Gillespie are regular Thought Catalog writers who also do other things with their lives. Their articles can be found here & here

“liberal arts”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2013
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/339020/liberal-arts>.

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