Some might wonder, is it a bad thing if liberal arts are on their way out? Are they worth reviving or even discussing?

classic learning testIn November 2018, The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced its plan to discontinue six liberal arts majors. The move garnered national attention and gave rise to a plethora of varying theories as to the “why” behind the drop.

Journalist Adam Harris, in an article published by The Atlantic, attributes the drastic shift to state budget cuts in public higher education. The article states that diminished funding necessitated some reprioritization, and due to increasing lack of student enrollment, disciplines such as history, art, and geography were the first to be abandoned.

Author Victor Davis Hanson, in a response to Mr. Harris published in National Review, takes the line of questioning one step further: Why the decrease in enrollment? He suggests that student choices and university policies prompted the decline, something that would exist regardless of budget cuts. In other words, changes in educational values—such as an emphasis on career readiness in higher education—have (allegedly) led to a rise in practical studies as opposed to liberal arts disciplines.

Mr. Hanson’s theory is certainly plausible, but the shift in educational values has an additional underlying impetus. There is a single standard that inevitably drives student choices as well as academic content from elementary to college curricula: the college admissions test. Regardless of the values of students, school faculty, or state legislators, the tests required by college admissions dictate what is studied in the classroom. They set the bar.

For this reason, educator Jeremy Tate and entrepreneur David Wagner created the Classic Learning Test (CLT). From its inception, the CLT has sought to redirect curricula by setting comprehension of classical texts and traditional sciences as an object of study. The content of the CLT, drawn from time-tested thinkers and writers, prompts students to delve into the great works of Western Civilization, unifying rather than isolating college preparation and quality education. The demonstrable fact that schools will teach to the test has been acknowledged not only by CLT but by David Coleman, CEO of College Board and architect of Common Core, as well as Rebecca Kantar, the mind behind Imbellus Assessment. Yet what sets CLT apart is its mission to provide a test worth teaching for — a test that students prepare for by studying great thinkers, reading engaging literature, and participating in lively discussion, all inside and outside of the classroom.

Allying a reverence for tradition with a healthy appreciation for modernity’s advancements, the CLT reaps the benefits of western civilization’s intellectual heritage while employing technology to enhance students’ experience. Administered online, the two-hour exam is accompanied by same-day test results and the ability to send test scores to colleges at any time, free of charge. The CLT dispels the idea that a high-caliber academic culture is mutually exclusive from efficiency and accessibility.  Part of the mission behind the CLT is to restore education to its rightful place at the heart of culture, exalted as a vehicle of the search for truth rather than diminished as a stepping-stone to professional success.

Some might wonder, is it a bad thing if liberal arts are on their way out? Are they worth reviving or even discussing? A 2013 survey from Hart Research Associates indicates that the majority of employers (95%) look for innovative abilities in their potential employees before a specific undergraduate major.[*] Almost all employers surveyed (93%) stated that a job candidate’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as their ethical evaluation and integrity, bear much more weight than their type of undergraduate degree when it comes to hiring. More than 70% of employers, when presented with a description of a contemporary liberal arts curriculum, would recommend such a program to a young adult as the most effective way to find success in our modern global economy.

That’s one facet of the case for the liberal arts. But the value of the liberal arts goes beyond just economic benefit.

So how will we know when it’s time to set the liberal arts aside? If in our day we have reached a pinnacle of such achievement and security that we no longer need hearken back to our heritage and historical patterns of human nature, then perhaps the study of history is indeed obsolete. If man’s innate craving to understand the world around him has been blunted, perhaps philosophy should make way for more practical sciences. If the stories of old no longer move and thrill us with their descriptions of honor, heroism, beauty, love and death, perhaps literature no longer deserves a place in our busy agendas. If we no longer value the ability to think critically about the world, the implications of our actions, the structure of society, and the significance of culture, there is no need to strenuously refine this ability. If we are no longer in need of responsible, well-informed, clear-headed thinkers in the family, the workplace, and the government—throughout all culture—perhaps higher education is headed in the right direction.

It’s a question worth discussing.

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It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (April 10, 2013).

Editor’s note: The featured image is “Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia” by Laurentius de Voltolina, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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