THE Relevance of the Humanities
"The Importance of the Liberal Arts to Education: An Historian's perspective."

[Created September 22, 1989]
[Updated June 12, 2011]



Friday 22 September 1989
Common Room, University House
Australian National University


David M. Hart
Department of History
University of Adelaide


  • Introduction: the Attack on the Liberal Arts
  • The Liberal Arts Degree and the Needs of Business and Industry
  • General Skills Learnt from a Liberal Arts Degree
  • The Liberal Arts Degree and the Needs of Students and Society
    • The Individualising Function
    • The Civilising /Humanising Function
    • The Democratising/Liberalising Function
    • The Criticising Function
  • Improving the Effectiveness of a Liberal Arts Degree


Many of us who teach in the area of study broadly known as "the humanities" (or as I prefer to call it "the liberal arts") feel under threat. The threat is very real and comes from several directions at once - from a hostile government intent on making reforms in the name of economic efficiency and the "national economic interest"; from business, industry and the general public whose reactions range from complete indifference to incomprehension of the issues involved; from the rapid aging or greying of departments denied the benefit of the infusion of new blood and new ideas because of caps on spending and a rigid career structure.

We all have anecdotal evidence of the seriousness of the changes taking place in our universities. In my own department the number of full-time teaching staff is being cut from 22 (when I arrived three years ago) to 15, in spite of the fact that we continue to attract a large and increasingly large number of students to our courses. When I was appointed to a limited term contract in 1986 I was the first new appointment since 1977. When my contract expires at the end of this year and I am obliged to leave the department the average age of the department will rise, with little prospect of any reversal for some years to come. Like the dog which didn't bark in the Hound of the Baskervilles I am a member of entire generation of young acedemics who have been either denied any place in the universities whatsoever or at best granted one or two limited term contracts before being forced to seek employment outside of academia.

Thus it is not surprising that many of my colleagues feel dispirited. They are accused of being too costly, unproductive, inefficient, of being limited use or no use whatsoever to the education of young people. They face the grim prospect of heavier teaching loads, seeing the same academic faces every day as they grow old together as they approach retirement, and working in buildings which are poorly maintained, poorly cleaned, and downright shabby.

Those who teach in other much smaller departments such as French, German and Classics face a somewhat different, though no less dangerous threat. They have come to realise that their very existence as independent departments or even as subjects taught at university level are under threat. As the juggernaut of restructuring sweeps through the university they will be forced to give up their status as separate departments by merging into a mega-department of modern language and literature or may be even forced to close down altogether, with those subjects no longer offered.

But before we come to the conclusion that the only solution, at least for those without tenured positions, is to retire to the staff club and cry into our beer and pretzels, I would like to take this opportunity to reassess the purpose of a liberal arts education and to offer some reasons why it is perhaps the most useful and employable degree to have and to offer some proposals for making it even better.


The universities have traditionally provided two different forms of education - job-specific training for the professions such as law, medicine, engineering, accounting, and science; and non job-specific general education such as a liberal arts degree. The general thrust of the reforms and cuts we are being forced to accept appears to assume the following: that the non job-specific education provided by arts is no longer useful (if it ever was!) and therefore not in the "national economic interest"; and that some job-specific training is better than others, in other words that the government would rather see more qualified biotechnologists and computer engineers than doctors and lawyers. I will ignore the latter assumption (the problem of whether planners and bureaucrats in Canberra could ever know what kind of training was in the national economic interest is not even discussed) and concentrate on the former assumption: that non job-specific education such as an arts degree is not "useful" in some sense.

It is unfortunate that many people do not recognise the practical aspects of a broadly based arts education which make it an eminently "employable" degree to have. The debate too often assumes that arts graduates lack some important skills and are thus at a disadvantage in the search for jobs when compared to accountants, computer programers, lawyers, and so forth who do have job-specific training. What is even more regrettable is that teachers and researchers in the arts appear to have lost sight of the very great contribution they are already making to the employment prospects of their students. Perhaps they have lost the vision of what an arts education is all about. Perhaps they have become so preoccupied with their own special areas that the broader educating function they serve has been forgotten.

One of business and industry's greatest needs is for people who are capable and creative thinkers, perceptive planners, good communicators, problem solvers and decision-makers and it should come as no surprise that at least one major high technology corporation believes that graduates with liberal arts degrees make the best administrators, leaders, and middle management.

In 1981 Robert E. Beck analysed the career patterns within the giant American company AT&T, comparing employees with liberal arts, business and engineering degrees. Overall he found that arts graduates had superior administrative skills such as organising, planning, making decisions, and being creative, than business or engineering graduates. Arts graduates also showed better interpersonal skills such as leadership, oral communication, and the impact of their personality. Finally, he concluded that 46% of arts graduates showed they had the potential for middle management positions, whereas only 31% of business and 26% of engineersing graduates showed similar potential. [Robert E. Beck, "Career Patterns: The Liberal Arts in Bell System Management," 1981 quoted in Gary A. Woditsch, et al. "The Skillful Baccalaureate: Doing What Liberal Education Does Best," Change , November/December, 1987, p.50.] It would be very interesting to examine some large Australian companies, especially high technology companies, in order to compare their experience in employing arts graduates with the American case I have just cited. I'm confident that any such study of Australian business would come to a similar conclusion.

When we analyse what makes a good leader, adminstrator, organiser, planner or problem solver we come up with a list of skills and attributes which an arts education can be very good at providing - skills such as analytical thinking, cause and effect reasoning, conceptualisation, intellectual and emotional empathy (seeing other sides to a problem), communicating ideas to others, and maturity of judgement. Unfortunately not all arts subjects in all arts faculties are taught in such a way as to develop these skills in students, but it does happen and perhaps more often than we think. Our task is to improve the way in which we do teach these important skills and I have some general proposals to achieve this at the conclusion of my paper.


The difference between a liberal arts educator and other educators is that other educators too often treat their subject as a body of received doctrine which must be imparted to the student who acts as a passive recipient (this is particularly true of law as so many of my arts-law students complain). Competency in the subject and thus "success" is achieved when the student is able to pass an exam, get a degree or diploma and enter the profession - all quantifiable data. On the other hand a liberal educator (of whatever liberal arts subject) aims to develop in the student a particular way of thinking which is both intelligent and critical and where the student takes an active role in his/her education. The liberal educator's task is to turn students with rudimentary or only potential thinking skills into someone who is capable of intelligent and critical thinking, speaking, and writing.

One of the reasons why liberal arts education has been under attack is that this important function of arts education, that of producing good, intelligent and critical thinkers has been hidden, ignored or forgotten. Educators in the arts themselves have lost sight of their broader goal. We need to very clear in our own minds about what we are doing, to improve the efficiency of liberal arts study to achieve these goals, and to make it known to others that this is what we are doing and that it is one of the most useful and important things that is done in our society.

We, as teachers and researchers, as well as our students need to be conscious of the skills to be got from an arts degree. Many students gain these skills unconsciously, just as we too often impart these skills unconsciously. Our overriding goal should be to assist our students to become intelligent and critical thinkers who will be able to apply their thinking skills to whatever they or their employer choose to do throughout their lives. This is particularly important in an economy in which job skills are changing as rapidly as they are at the moment. In some respects arts students are better off than many students who do job-specific courses since arts graduates should learn skills which are universally applicable and they should be able to teach themselves to do almost anything they choose to do.

The following are a list of skills which I think a broadly based arts degree can provide:

  • general literacy
  • information gathering
  • thinking skills
  • writing skills

General literacy.

This includes basic language skills such as grammar, spelling and the correct use of words. Students also learn how to present their thoughts both orally and in written form in a coherent, logical and comprehensible manner. This used to be the task of the secondary schools to provide the most elementary literacy skills which makes a course of study in liberal arts possible. There is a perception at the moment that this is no longer the case but whether this is due to the decline of our high schools or the result of the democratisation of the universities (which are no longer the preserve of the educated and economic elite) is a matter of dispute. Whatever the reasons, the arts faculties have had to take up the teaching of some of these basic literacy skills.

Information gathering.

Liberal arts students learn how to use the library, in particular the catalogues and basic reference works so that they know where to find information in order to answer a specific question. Students also learn critical reading and listening skills in preparing for tutorials and attending lectures. They learn how to assimilate information, how to select what is important from what is less important, how to take notes and summarise material, how to skim read.

Thinking skills.

Students learn how to recognise what comprises an argument (reasons and conclusions). They learn the more difficult task of how to criticise an argument (truth, validity, fallacies). Finally how to develop their own arguments by organising and analysing the information they have found. They also learn to be sceptical of the sources they use and to recognise their fallibity.

Writing skills.

Most of the tasks which students are asked to complete involve writing. Students learn how to write papers to a deadline and within a given word limit. They learn how to distill what is essential and relevant from a mass of detail and to present their arguments with clarity, concision and some demonstration of intelligence. At higher levels (honours and above) they are required to demonstrate quite sophisticated writing skills in a dissertation or thesis.

Every job will require some "job specific" training suited for that particular industry or company and this is how it should be. Our task as educators in the liberal arts is to provide a broad framework of skills which will make this on the job training in business and industry possible.

What is interesting about these skills imparted by the study of the arts (general literacy, information gathering, thinking and writing skills) is that they are definitely not content-specific. It does not matter whether the student is studying classics, philosophy, French literature or history the process of attending lectures, using the library, discussions in class, writing papers, is much the same and the skills learnt are common to all arts subjects. Each time students write a tutorial paper and present their ideas in class and every time we correct a tutorial paper we are improving the general literacy and writing skills of our students. Each time we set a research essay which requires students to find their own material in the library we are improving their information gathering skills. Each time we crtiticise a weak argument, expose an error in thinking, or show the ideological origins of a theoretical dispute, we are teaching our students to think critically.

These skills are imparted whether the subject under discussion is history, politics, philosophy or Latin. Whatever the intrinsic value of an arts subject may be, what they all have in common is the capacity to teach these essential skills. In defending the humanites from attack this function of the study of arts must be made explicit and defended with vigour. Where we do not teach these skills adequately we need to change our pratices so that they are done so.


If the above four general skills were the only things a liberal arts degree taught it would still be providing an essential service to business, industry and society. However a liberal arts degree does far, far more than just teach these skills to tens of thousands of students every year. I said earlier that these essential skills are taught irrespective of the content of the subject being studied. By this I did not mean to imply that the content of arts subjects is unimportant, only that these skills can be taught independently of the content of that subject. In this sense then the study of motherhood in ancient Rome or Renaissance French poetry are just as important and can contribute to the development of these skills as well as any other "mainstream" or traditional arts subject such as history or English literature.

Before turning to a discussion of what I believe a coherent and comprehensive liberal arts degree should contain we need to ask ourselves what general functions should a liberal arts training fulfil. I have broken down the functions into four categories:

  • The Individualising Function
  • The Civilising/Humanising Function
  • The Democratising/Liberalising Function
  • The Criticising Function

a. The Individualising Function of a Liberal Arts Degree

The traditional reason for a student choosing to do an arts degree was that by reading literature, philosophy, political theory and history they could some how "find themselves." The exposure to these subjects was a way in which students could find out about the society in which they lived, how it came about, what the great minds of the past had thought on a vast range of issues, and most importantly, to discover their own attitude to these issues by testing themselves against these great works of the past by reading them, discussing them, and writing about them.

Another aspect of the individualising function of liberal arts follows on from this "finding of the self" and concerns the idea of self-fulfillment or perfecting the self. By trying a variety of subjects not taught at high school a student can discover interests and abilities in new areas and "perfect" or develop their interests to a much greater extent in subjects in which they already have some knowledge. This ideal of arts education is known as "Bildung" and its best exponent is the German philosopher and educationalist Wilhelm von Humbnoldt, who was instrumental in establishing the modern German university system in the early years of the 19th century. Humboldt's ideas about the importance of the individual and the need for an education system which encouraged individual self-development were very influential, especially upon John Stuart Mill, who incorporated many of Humboldt's ideas from The Limits of State Action in On Liberty (1859).

An important byproduct of the search for intellectual self-development at university is the related phenomenon of social experimentation. It is not without reason that university campuses sprout an extraordinary range of lifestyles, attitudes, behaviour and other activities (of a social, religious or political nature). The years students spend at university are a time a considerable freedom, perhaps the first time they have spent away from the close confines of their family. The first experience of freedom and the exposure to new and different ideas results in a desire to experiment with different forms of dress, new relationships with other people, the experimental use of alcohol and other drugs, and so on. I would suggest that this is an integral and important part of what a liberal arts degree has to offer and is part of the process of self-discovery.

b. The Civilising/Humanising Function of a Liberal Arts Degree

The function of an arts education however is not purely to enable the individual's fullest potential to be discovered and the realisation of this potential to begin. It also has several social functions, one of which is the civilising or humanising of students. I don't mean to use civilising in the sense of turning barbarians into civilised creatures, but the more general meaning of introducing students to the great ideas, traditions and cultural artifacts of humanity. Courses in art and literature, politics and history, anthropoloy and archeology expose students to the great diversity of ways of life, attitudes and belief, and attempts to create meaning in the form of works of art, science, religion, and literature that human beings have developed over the millenia.

Some defenders of the humanities, such as Alan Bloom, have argued that a return to the study of the "great books of western civilisation" is called for after the cultural relativism and diversity introduced during the 1960s. The assumption behind this is that there is a core set of ideas , expressed in a limited number of "great books" (such as Plato's Republic, Machiavelli's The Prince and Rousseau's Social Contrat) which make up the "western tradition". It is further argued that all literate members of that tradition should be away of their past and their continuing indebtedness to these ideas contained in the "great books". Some of these ideas which are thought to define the western tradition, and which Bloom argues must be taught if universities are to retain their "civilising" function, include the importance of the individual, the idea that the world operates according to fixed and rational natural laws, that societies can be reformed through political activity, and that individual creativity and genius can be expressed in art.

I have many reservations about Bloom's ahistorical treatment of the "great books" program and the conservative political and cultural hidden agenda of his criticisms, however he is correct to argue that arts faculties have been neglecting this aspect, the civilising function of arts education, and that it is important to return to it at least in some form. What Bloom does not realise is that the list of great works is not and never was a fixed and unchanging canon of texts. How and why certain texts became such an integral part of the western tradition, and thus became "great," should be a vital part of the discussion of these texts. As the writers of the American Council of Learned Societies put it in their report published early this year:

The humanities have always given a central place to the study of written texts and created artifacts in which men and women have sought to reflect upon, to reformulate, and to provide new aspirations for the human condition. Hence the humanities have always given, and should continue to give, major - though not exclusive - attention to those works that reflect a culture's most enduring values, its most memorable uses of language and image. But of necessity, the humanities have also studied the skills of reading and interpretation, including their changes over time. They have worked toward an understanding not of the great books alone, but also of the conditions that define "greatness," of how readers and societies define the creation of meaning and significance. >["Text of 'Speaking for the Humanities,' a Report From the American Council of Learned Societies," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 11, 1989, pp. A14-A16.]

In addition to exposing students to the great works of our (and other) cultures there is the "humanising" function of liberal arts study. By "humanising" function I mean that certain values of the western intellectual tradition, such as respect for ideas and the life of the mind, the spirit of inquiry, toleration of diversity, in other words the ideals represented by the Humanists of the Reformation and Renaissance, in particular Desiderius Erasmus, are passed onto students in some manner.

There is a certain tension, perhaps even contradiction, here between treating the western intellectual tradition and its values as received doctrine which must be passed on to students and the other function of arts education to encourage independent and critical thinking which challenges all received doctrine because it is received doctrine. We need to tread a fine line between respecting tradition and the "great works" of our culture and encouraging criticism and doubt of this same tradition. We would like our students to see the value of these traditions and attitudes without them being imposed in a heavy handed fashion. Ideally the study of the liberal arts would present these ideals to the students in such a way that they would be persuaded to adopt them as their own. I suggest this is best done by demonstrating to our students by our own behaviour as individuals and professional academics the value and importance of these ideals and traditions.

c. The Democratising/Liberalising Function of a Liberal Arts Degree

An issue which is seldom discussed in relation to the functions of a university is the transmission of certain political values. Many people are reluctant to admit that this takes place in the universities since the ideal of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge has been adopted as the norm. But I would argue that there is a very strong underlying political worldview which is implicity espoused by our universities. It is the view that a diversity of ideas can be expressed and explored in relative freedom, that pluralism is better than an official line (this is what makes our universities different from similar institutions in Eastern Europe or China), and that the way in which departments and other bodies in the university are (or should be) run, either democratically or in a collegiate manner, are a model for other institutions.

At a more explicit level I believe the study of politics and history can show students how the civil and individual rights we now enjoy were won, often through revolution, and against considerable odds. In a course I teach on Liberal Europe and Social Change in the 19th Century students expressed surprise that it took many European states until the mid or even late 19th century to win the right of freedom of expression and that the struggle for a constitution to limit the arbitrary power of the monarch was a long drawn-out affair. Late last year, as I was telling my students about the struggle of French liberals to create a limited constitutional monarchy in 1815 and the Belgians who in 1830 were doing much the same, our own constitutional referenda were being discussed. It seemed logical to relate our own constitutional debate to that of the 19th century liberals but I soon found that none of my students had ever read the Australian constitution and most had only a hazy understanding of how our political system functioned. I had handed out and discussed the Belgian constitution of 1830 only to find that my students now knew more about the Belgian constiutution than the constitution which regulated their lives and defined their freedoms and obligations to the Australian state.

If we value our democratic and liberal freedoms we should take the opportunity which a study of the liberal arts provides to make sure that students are at least aware of the slow and lengthy struggles to win these rights which has taken place over the past three centuries, beginning with the English Revolution in the 17th century and reaching a peak with the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. They may dispute and ultimately reject some of these rights, but at least they should be aware of the historical processes which produced them and the major arguments which were used to support them. I would suggest that a study of history and politics is the only way in which citizens can inform themselves about these important issues.

d. The Criticising Function of a Liberal Arts Degree

As you might have gathered from my preceding remarks, I expect that some of the values I hold dear will be challenged by my colleauges and my students. And this is how it should be at a university. The final vital function of an arts degree is to challenge all received doctrines, to be sceptical of all socalled wisdom whatever its source may be. The healthy aspect of this scepticism and criticism is that each generation challenges the prevailing orthodoxy and only accepts that part of it which passes the test. The past is reinterpreted in the light of this partial acceptance of tradition and the great texts are subjected to scutiny and re-evaluation accordingly.

Each generation has its own list of injustices which must be exposed, removed, and explained. In our own time it has been the civil rights movement in the USA and the women's movement which has galvanised the humanities over the past 30 years and which has provided it with refreshing, new insights into the past as well its fair share of conflict and exaggeration. We should welcome this as another of the many transformations of the humanities which has occured since the foundation of the universities in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries claimed they were rediscovering the ancient Greek and Roman classics but in fact their linguistic, historical and theological reinterpretations of the classic texts was as revoltuionary in its impact as anything the feminists have been doing today. It is all part of the same process of intellectual inquiry and reinterpretation which is essential to the liberal arts. Once again I would like to quote from the report of the American Council of Learned Societies:

The original "humanists" of the European tradition - the humanists of the Renaissance - were enganged in a similar enterprise, unearthing the past of classical antiquity in a search to know it for itself and for what it could mean for the present. The enduring works of the Renaissance humanists are not the slavish reproductions of Greek and Latin works that they sometimes produced, but rather their "imitations" in an innovative spirit: their attempts to rework the lessons of the past masters in new vernacular languages for a new audience in new socio-historical contexts, in a situation of changed beliefs. Innovation and tradition together are needed if the past is to be made a living force within the present. [ibid., p. A16.]

I think this last remark provides the key to the purpose of any study of the liberal arts: to combine innovation and tradition in a continuing re-evaluation of the great texts, fundamental institutions and ideas of the western tradition. Our task as researchers and teachers is make this task attractive to each new generation of students and to explain to the uncomprehending public (and government) why this is an important task that must continue indefinetely if the ideas and institutions of our culture are to remain healthy and vigorous.

Fortunately, not all of what the liberal arts does is destructive and critical. Part of the task of the liberal arts scholar is to build up as well as to tear down - to provide new visions of the future when the old visions have become stale and inadequate. This can take many forms - from the political utopias of the French socialist Fourier, who thought that when the socialist revolution occured the seas would turn to lemonade and the lambs lie down with the lions, to the liberal utopias of Gustave de Molinari, who thought that all government services could be provided by private companies competing on the open market, including police and national defense. Without a vision of what a more perfect and presumably happier society might be like, whether socialist or liberal, there is little to give direction or purpose to any political movement for reform.

And just as visions of a utopia provide a goal to be striven for, visions of a distopia provide visions of what must be avoided. Where else but in liberal arts course on political theory, literature, and history could one study such visions of the opposite of the good life - the distopias of Eugen Richter's Picture of a Socialist Future , predicting the shortages of a centrally planned economy and social engineering of social democracy, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We , predicting the Stalinist future, and the most famous of them all George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four predicting the terror of perpetual war and thought control.

Without such visions of what to strive for and what to avoid our culture is to some extent impoverished and without direction. I would suggest to you that only a liberal arts degree will expose students to these fundamental questions and provide them with the skills to reach some rational assessment of them.


The task before us as teachers and researchers in the humanities is threefold:

  • to be clear in our own minds what the purpose and benefits of an arts degree should be
  • to provide courses in the arts which satisfy these purposes
  • to promote the benefits of an arts education to the government, business and industry, the public, as well as students

As I said earlier the specific content of a liberal arts degree is extremely important and comprises perhaps the most important reasons for studying for an arts degree. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years educators have lost sight of what it is that an arts degree should provide to students. You might say that we have lost sight of the "vision" of what an arts degree should be. With the following remarks I will attempt to portray what a coherent program of study in arts should be, based on the assumption that only by having a clear conception of what a liberal arts degree is trying to achieve and by having a coherent program to achieve this, can the liberal arts be better defended against its detractors.

There are several ways in which this can be done:

  • a system of compulsory core courses in which students would be required to complete a certain spread of courses in addition to their major.
  • the "great books" program in which all liberal arts students would be required to complete a course or series of courses on a selected group of great texts as part of their degree.
  • a system of advice and social pressure in which students would be encouraged to take a selection of courses from a broad range of choices within the arts faculty.

Core Course Program

A core course program might take the form of the following: arts graduate should have studied at least one course from each of the following fields of knowledge:

  • Social Theory such as economics, law, political philosophy
  • History and Politics
  • Language and Literature
  • Culture
  • Science and Technology

Social Theory

A student should have studied a discipline which provides them with some theoretical understanding of how individuals and society behave. These disciplines include economics, anthropology, law, social and political philosophy, psychology, political theory.

History and Politics

Students should have some knowledge of how our society has evolved historically and how it functions today. They should also have studied at least one other civilisation from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific or America. Important if arts students are to graduate in an area study.

Language and Literature

Students should be competent in their own language and have some familiarity with English, American and Australian literature. As with "History and Politics" they should also be required to have studied at least one foreign language and literature probably in coordination with their intersts in "History and Politics" or area study.


As well as providing students with courses which one might describe as "useful" we should also make sure that students expand their intellectual horizons in some way. Our aim should be to help them become more knowledgeable, civilised, tolerant, and interesting individuals. An important component of their study should be a cultural one. Students should be encouraged to take at least one course in the areas of art, music, literature, religion, philosophy.

Science and Technology

It is obvious that all arts graduates will have to come to terms with the explosion of science and technology which we are experiencing and will continue to experience for the foreseeable future. To help them cope with this social revolution we should require that they have some knowledge of a science or technology subject. We will need the cooperation of the science, engineering and computing departments to provide courses suitable for arts students. I envisage courses in the history of science and technology, non-mathematical courses on astronomy and theoretical physics, the ethics of medecine and biology, introductory computing and so on.

A "Great Books Program

A "great books" program much like that used ar St John's College, Maryland based upon the program devised by Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago and simlar to that envisaged by Alan Bloom.

"Guided" Free Choice of Subjects

A modification of our present system in which course advisors and individual academics strongly recommend that arts students take a broad range of courses in the humanities (in particular foreign languages), but based on a an explicit program of arts study advocated by bodies such as the Academy of Humanities and other bodies.


However we go about improving the effectiveness of arts education we should always keep in mind that a degree in the liberal arts is an extremely useful degree to have. An arts degree provides students with essential thinking skills required by business and industry and, perhaps most importantly, with the knowledge of and respect for our culture to make our society a stimulating, creative and interesting place in which to live.