Virginia Tech® home

Liberal Learning meets the Politics of Fear and Neo-liberalism



Authors as Published

The MacArthur Foundation has honored 918 exceptionally innovative individuals with its Fellowships since 1981. MacArthur has provided each honoree an average sum of $625,000 without strings to continue their important work or to explore fresh ideas. Famously, those selected are unaware they might be tapped until they receive a telephone call informing them of their award. The Foundation recently released an analysis of the educational backgrounds of its Fellows and, perhaps more importantly, of the character of the education each had received.[1] Its findings merit analysis in light of the continuing belief among a cadre of lawmakers and many individuals in the broader public that traditional curricula in the humanities and social sciences represent an inadequate preparation for “success” in today’s world. Indeed, enrollments and majors are down in these fields at colleges and universities across the nation on the basis of this widespread erroneous critique and assumption. The Foundation’s findings concerning its Fellows, tracking the conclusions of many other recent closely reasoned reports, including an analysis by the British Council I note below, suggest just how misguided those are who claim the liberal arts are irrelevant or worse. Indeed, it seems clear that completely counter to its proponents’ assertions, this critical view of liberal learning runs the risk of robbing the nation of a significant share of its creative and analytic wherewithal and leadership. The MacArthur Foundation’s analysis of its honorees’ educational pedigrees noted that while the largest number have graduated from Harvard University, “one in five fellows graduated from institutions with acceptance rates of over 50 percent.” [2] In all, the grant winners attended a diverse group of 315 higher education institutions, including historically black colleges and universities and community and tribal colleges. Since their higher educational institutional backgrounds were not uniform, the Foundation delved more deeply to inquire into whether its Fellows shared any other experience. What the analysis found belies the view that the liberal arts and a liberal education are now insufficient to prepare individuals for creative and productive lives. In fact, the MacArthur study found that a disproportionate share of the Foundation’s Fellows, broadly recognized as among the most creative and productive thinkers in America, irrespective of their occupations or fields, had enjoyed the opportunity to gain a liberal education. The Report went further to contend that it is precisely that curriculum, with its intense focus on developing high level analytical thinking (especially analogical reasoning) and writing capabilities, that encouraged the remarkable creativity that Fellows have evidenced:

The prerequisites for the exceptional creativity that characterize MacArthur Fellows align closely with the definition of a liberal education. Creativity requires basic competency in a broad array of disciplines, advanced competency in one or more fields, and the ability to make connections across fields so as to pose new questions or formulate new answers. It requires exposure to diverse perspectives, methodologies, and concepts of evidence. A liberal education equips individuals with the ability to deal with complexity and change. A high priority is placed on the development of critical thinking skills and the abilities to distinguish opinions from facts and to discern good ideas from bad. Ellen Browning Scripps, for whom Scripps College is named, may have best summed up the goals of a liberal education: ‘The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.’[3]

While only 2 percent of this nation’s students graduate from traditional liberal arts colleges each year, many institutions of all stripes have long embraced liberal arts curricula and its aspiration and foundation view that being analytically curious and seeking to traverse boundaries, disciplinary or otherwise, are always worthwhile. Those who have adopted this perspective believe that such efforts yield unforeseen insights and open new pathways for possible change in prevailing ways of thinking and knowing. But this orientation has been enervating in many colleges and universities in recent years as a result of continuing critiques that such a preparation is insufficiently market-oriented or too broad in disciplinary terms. Here is how the Foundation analysis put this point:

At larger universities, it can be tricky to take courses outside one’s college or school and there may be little flexibility in the courses that satisfy general education requirements. Liberal arts colleges actively encourage coursework outside the major … while universities tend to segregate students by domain, even in required courses, so that, for example, science majors take a writing class designed for, and only with, other science majors. … Though most colleges and universities impose requirements on the distribution of courses taken, liberal arts colleges offer students considerable leeway in the selection of specific courses and activities. This freedom can help students develop the capacity to recognize and exploit situations in which their content knowledge or cognitive style differs from the norm in a field or discipline. An individual with an unusual skill set for a specific domain might be in the best position to come up with a truly new idea.[4]

All of this, while consonant with other reports and many past analyses, has received little popular or legislative attention. The public conversation has instead been guided by pervasive and continuing employment-related insecurity and an ideological animus to government support of higher education. That antagonism is born of a worldview, neoliberalism, characterized foremost by a zealous dedication to the market as ideal social organizing agent. These twin social forces have caused alarm among millions of parents that college must ensure that their children are current “workforce ready.” Meanwhile, public fiscal support for higher education continues to fall in real terms, passing ever more of the cost of even state-supported college attendance to individuals and their families. This shift has been supported strongly by advocates of the neoliberal worldview who have just as vigorously argued that the humanities and social sciences and what they signify as integral elements of a liberal education are somehow now passé.

This ongoing assault on traditional understanding of a liberal education as foundational to higher learning has occurred under the aegis of strong legislative and political support for the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines as the principal relevant forms of inquiry necessary for a market-driven society. The advocates of this movement have gone still further in recent years by repeated attempts to slash or eliminate National Science Foundation (NSF) research support for the social sciences. The Republican Party majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, recently pressed and passed a bill calling for a 45 percent reduction in authorized funds available to NSF to support social science inquiry. And those supporting this action make no secret of their desire to eliminate such assistance altogether. The rationale for such a step, in this view, is that such inquiry does not often enough support the market as advocates narrowly frame that evaluative yardstick.

The MacArthur Foundation report reveals just how wrong-headed and strangely pernicious this view is. Again, the Foundation’s analysis concluded that what joins its Fellows was their experience of liberal arts curricula and the ability each possessed as a result to think critically, deeply and by analogy. That set of capacities in turn has allowed the honorees to make remarkable contributions in a wide array of fields. Meanwhile, the neoliberal view is that such inquiry and capacity is somehow “impractical” and insufficiently oriented to specific workforce positions of the moment. This vision seems destined to ensure that the nation will not nurture the creative thinking it most requires, since it attacks the very approach that has for so long provided it just such individuals. Meanwhile, that same worldview is also criticizing public support of inquiry into human behavior and cultures as somehow unnecessary as well.

This is occurring despite the release of an international survey by the British Council this week,

… suggesting that leaders of a range of (public and private) organizations internationally (including the United States) are most likely to have a degree in the social sciences, with 44 percent of leaders holding such a credential. And with another 11 percent reporting that they studied the humanities, a solid majority of 55 percent have degrees in traditional liberal arts fields. (And that doesn't count smaller numbers who studied liberal arts majors in the physical and biological sciences.). … The survey collected information from 1,709 leaders in 30 countries. [5]

The Council’s findings, paired with those of the MacArthur Foundation, represent but the latest in a long string of reports that have suggested the continuing relevance and power of liberal education for the individuals who receive it, for our nation’s potential to produce economic innovation and effective leaders and for the democratic health of our polity. Nonetheless, economic uncertainty and change, and a neoliberal worldview are now combining to cause millions of Americans to question the value of liberal learning. This sadly narrow and perverse result of economic processes and a self-imposed imaginary looks set to continue. While the populace’s fears may be understandable, one may hope that liberal education’s critics will pause to consider this new round of findings in their rush to discard the proverbial education baby with the bath water.


[1] Conrad, Cecilia, 2015. “Creativity: The Benefits of a Liberal Education,” The MacArthur Foundation. May 27. Website., Accessed May 28, 2015.

[2] Conrad, “Creativity”

[3] Conrad, “Creativity”

[4] Conrad, “Creativity”

[5] Jaschik, Scott, 2015. “Social Sciences Produce Leaders,” Inside Higher Ed. June 1. Website., Accessed June 1, 2015

Publication Date

June 7, 2015