The Future of Liberal Arts and the Humanities

Arts and Media June 2024 PREMIUM

Liberal arts education, despite the misconception that it fosters political liberalism, is essential for developing critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and a well-rounded understanding of various disciplines. This education, which is rooted in ancient Greco-Roman traditions and is crucial for preparing individuals for diverse roles in society, should be integrated with STEM education to address future challenges and maintain our essence of humanity.

The “Liberal” in arts has long been associated with the cultural malaise affecting national politics. A standard, misguided belief contends that a liberal education produces liberals, not conservatives. Gallup polls have recommended that higher education drop the offensive term “Liberal” to attract conservative-minded students.

But this is not what a “Liberal Education” is about. The term has etymological roots in the Greco-Roman Empire. “Liberal Arts” is derived from the Latin “Artes Liberales." Roman scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero, in his De Inventione, recommended education and training of the mind (grammar, logic, geometry, etc.) for the ruling elites, separate from the subservient classes who were skilled and vocationally trained. The ancient Greco-Roman world needed an informed, critical-thinking citizenry vital for democracy. 

Liberal Arts and the Examined Life

Given its liberating focus, a liberal arts education provides all students with a purpose for living independently, with lifelong knowledge to liberate the mind. Contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum asserts that colleges and universities “should not measure the impact of the humanities simply by counting majors.” She says, “The whole design of the liberal arts system is that courses in the humanities are required of all students, no matter their major... Students can major in computer science or engineering, but in such a system, they must also take general liberal arts courses in history, philosophy, and literature. This system has striking advantages, preparing students for their multiple future roles in a much more adequate way than a narrow single-subject system.”

A liberal arts education can supplement students in STEM, bioengineering, and even medicine as more medical schools add “Humanities” into their core for medical training. Instead of asking how to make a living, the liberal arts ask about the purpose of living: of ethics, of a morally good life rather than one where the unexamined life is not worth living.

Rescuing Socrates

Roosevelt Montás’ Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation describes his journey from the rural town of Cambita Garabitos in the Dominican Republic to the heart of New York City. With a passable knowledge of English, Montás’ arrival in Queens was both a struggle and a joy. He narrates with clarity, humility, and willingness how a liberal education heightened his ability to observe and change the world. His formal entry into Columbia University after high school graduation challenged his perceptions. It was like living in a dark cave and seeing the light. All Columbia undergraduates begin the core curriculum by studying the Great Books, where students follow a prescribed curriculum from antiquity through the Renaissance and into the present. 

What makes liberal arts so unique is the eye-opening interrogative readings that move students away from the “long tradition of steering working-class students toward an education of servitude, an education in obedience and docility, an education in not asking questions.” Montás believes liberal education should not be only for the privileged elite but also for the working class,which has traditionally been denied the tools of “political agency.” His book follows the narrative arguments of Socrates, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Fredrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Mahatma Gandhi, all catapulting Montás to become the Center for Core Curriculum Director at Columbia University. 

Liberal Arts and Artificial Intelligence

At Palo Alto College in San Antonio, the core courses for all majors include English 1301 and 1302, which consist of a rhetoric program of expository writing with an eye toward critical analysis (pathos, ethos, logos) and a recommended literature component with diverse readings. Students are exposed to Greek literature in translation, probing how the ancients questioned the unexamined life and dealt with issues of tyranny, rampant skepticism, extreme hedonism, and stoicism, not any different from what is occurring in the present. 

The advent of AI (Artificial Intelligence) has disrupted all levels of education. Schools banned specific AI tools for mathematics, writing, research, and knowledge production. Having a solid background in liberal arts allows one to understand the ethos of knowledge and how ideas are manufactured, synthesized, and centered. Hollywood films like Ex-Machina (2014), AI (2001), and I-Robot (2004) are making us ponder critical questions about human nature. Only disciplines like history, law, psychology, philosophy, and politics can aid us in re-centering the humanities. 

What happens when AI and automation take jobs away from computer programmers and the service industry, displace medical personnel, and make teachers obsolete? The humanities and liberal arts can help students understand the dynamics of human capital and the socioeconomics of UBI (Universal Basic Income) as a remedy for displaced workers. The future hinges on how fast AI will make specific majors obsolete. Liberal arts and humanities degrees have plummeted in the United States by 25 percent since 2012; the time is now to replenish the disciplines. 

Still, a movement toward making them a relevant core with STEM disciplines is central to future AI development. In 2023, NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) launched a research project to understand and address AI’s ethical, legal, and societal implications. Questions about the humanities and AI’s future must include ethics, law, history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, digital humanities, and media studies, all essential to guide the development of AI, set boundaries, and provide firewalls for AI overreach.

Whatever the case, a curricular adjustment must be considered because our ability to prepare future professionals will require interdisciplinary knowledge of liberal arts and the humanities. 

To deny the humanities and liberal arts is to deny our humanity. 

About the author

Rafael C. Castillo, Ph.D., a professor of English and Humanities at Palo Alto College, is the author of Dostoevsky on Guadalupe Street (Peter Lang International), Aurora (Floricanto Press), Distant Journeys (Bilingual Review Press) and scholarly articles in Oxford Bibliographies, English Journal, Arizona Quarterly, Frank (Paris), New Mexico Humanities Review, CC-Humanities Review with fiction anthologized in Lone Star Literature (Norton), Under the Pomegranate Tree (Washington Square Press) and New Growth (Corona Press). He is the former editor of ViAztlan: International Journal of Arts and Ideas and serves as Co-Editor of CTN: A Journal of Pedagogy and Creativity (New Haven, CT), the official journal of Catch the Next, Inc. (a college-readiness program).



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