Conservatives have long been critical of universities and the liberal arts. The intellectual roots of this outlook can be traced to the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who was famously critical of the overeducated philosophes who agitated for the French Revolution. In place of their clever but abstract speculations, he far prefers the good common sense and practicality of the everyday patriot and even the career politician. As he puts it in his classic Reflections on the Revolution in France:
A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.
Many contemporary conservatives made their names attacking the alleged or real biases students are exposed to in the course of a liberal arts degree. The intellectual founder of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley, published God and Man At Yale in 1951. In this text, Buckley draws on his personal experiences as an Ivy League undergraduate, to argue that elite universities suppress the expression of conservative positions and teach a curriculum heavily slanted towards supporting liberal permissiveness, critiques of religion and economic interventionism. Since then, a minor industry has grown up, peopled by many conservatives and classical liberals—including Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson—who make similar claims in various media. The culmination of this tendency is the recent claim that liberal arts degrees—and even the liberal arts and humanities as fields of study generally—are effectively useless. This accusation has been most prominently leveled by Ben Shapiro, who has variously described liberal arts degrees as unprofitable and dominated by Democrats. As a result, Shapiro has recently argued that non-STEM degrees are a “scam.”
There is something unusual in this recent tendency to regard the liberal arts as useless. It runs counter not simply to progressive arguments about their enduring value, but to the claims of many conservatives through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shapiro et al’s rhetorical dismissal of the liberal arts—even if it is simply the result of allegations of bias—goes against the history of conservatism, which has always been highly critical of instrumental rationality and its technical way of apprehending the world. Examining why can tell us a great deal about what distinguishes unreflective postmodern conservatism from its earlier iterations.
The Conservative Critique of Instrumental Rationality
Edmund Burke famously dismissed the Enlightenment philosophes for their dedication to abstract forms of reasoning. Burke was highly critical of their demand that all political and human questions be subject to rationalistic calculus about how best to maximize human happiness and economic prosperity. Against the tendency to emphasize pure facts over feelings, Burke argues that the influence of reason on human life is far slighter than many assume. As he puts it in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Beautiful and the Sublime:
I am afraid it is a practice much too common in inquiries of this nature to attribute the cause of feelings which merely arise from mechanical structures of our bodies, or from the natural frame and constitution of our minds, to certain conclusions of the reasoning faculty on the objects presented to us; for I should imagine that the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed.
This objection to unbridled rationalism by the father of modern conservatism had an immense impact on the conservative tradition. Many strands of conservatism framed themselves as emphasizing the affective and emotional attachments human beings make against the tyrannical power of what Max Weber called “instrumental rationality,” which was regarded by conservatives as a thoroughly modern and anti-traditionalist way of approaching the world. It essentially maintained that the world was little more than a collection of material objects interacting with one another according to scientific laws. The point of reason was to understand these laws, so the idle objects of the world could be manipulated and engineered to satisfy subjective human preferences. As Alasdair Macintyre puts it in After Virtue, instrumental rationality is a way of thinking about the most effective means of satisfying our desires. It remains neutral about the ends we choose to pursue, regarding all kinds of reasoning about which ends good human beings should pursue as embedded in superstitious traditionalism and religious pieties.
Many conservative figures came to attack instrumental rationality and the technically proficient but emotionally stunted societies they associated with it. British conservatives like Benjamin Disraeli reacted forcefully against both the hedonistic rationalism of utilitarianism and the myopic self-interestedness of free market capitalism. They regarded the argument that the sole point of politics was either to “maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” or to generate as much wealth and productivity as possible as philosophies for swine. These conservatives instead stressed the need to pay attention to the romantic and transcendent values in life, which could neither be fully apprehended through science or have their worth reduced to monetary quantification. Their critiques were so effective that, by the early twentieth century, even countercultural icon Aldous Huxley incorporated elements of them into the dystopian classic Brave New World, which depicts a society in which everyone learns how to master mechanical tasks, but the study of Shakespeare is forbidden.
Similar criticisms were also leveled in the United States and continental Europe. From John Adams to Russell Kirk, American conservatives have often voiced cautious admiration for capitalism, while condemning the moral vacuity of instrumental rationality and the unadulterated pursuit of self-interest. This outlook is nicely expressed in Allan Bloom’s classic book The Closing of the American Mind, which criticizes the easy, consumerist relativism of American students in the 1980s. Bloom observes that, as far as they were concerned, political and moral ideals were simply a matter of subjective preference, and could neither be criticized or espoused with any real passion. They therefore regarded the humanities and liberal arts as little more than passing interests: just as one might choose a seasonably fashionable outfit to wear, one could spend a few days as a Platonist or a Marxist if one wished. To Bloom’s mind, the idea that there were any ends to which one should commit one’s self was an obscure concept. These kinds of criticism were even sharper in Europe, sometimes reaching the level of shrill denunciation in the work of figures like Joseph de Maistre. De Maistre slams the Enlightenment’s scientifically minded skepticism and focus on individualism, demanding a return to throne-and-altar authoritarianism. Other figures, often inspired by Christian traditionalism, took the gentler approach of stressing how technological advances would need to be tempered by respect for tradition and a deep education in the humanities. This outlook was to inspire many of today’s European conservative movements and parties, from French Gaullism to Germany’s Christian Democratic Union.
The Conservative Argument Against the Liberal Arts
I highlight this position to show how unusual the current conservative reaction against the liberal arts and humanities happens to be. Defenders of these positions might say that this overstates the case, and that conservatives like Shapiro are chiefly angry about are two things. The first is the fiscal disadvantage getting a liberal arts or humanities degree imposes relative to a degree in STEM fields. This economic position is presented by Stephen Crowder in his article “Dear High School Students: Don’t Go to College. No Seriously”:
Don’t go to college. No seriously, don’t. Those essays college admissions want you to write about overcoming your greatest challenge? Don’t write them. Those SATs and ACTs? Don’t take them. All those hours your parents would spend filling out the FASFA form as you dream of what posters to plaster on your college dorm? Spare them. Think of college as an illicit drug and Just. Say. No. Also throw away that Justin Bieber poster. Set it on fire. College or no college, you should feel great shame. General exception clause: if you intend to be a doctor, lawyer, or some kind of scientist … man does it suck to be you. You have to go to college. There’s no getting around this massive problem of fat-feminist proportions. Here’s the obvious reason you should skip the four year degree: it’s a giant waste of money and time. Especially if you’re thinking of dabbling in: gender studies, feminist theory, philosophy, anthropology, fine arts, liberal arts, music, physical fitness and parks recreation, history, art history, communications, theatre/drama. Why? Because on the whole they’re useless degrees.
The second argument one frequently hears from conservatives is that they are not really opposed to people studying the liberal arts or humanities, or even trying to reinforce their value by increasing career options for those who go into those fields. Instead they are reacting against left-wing biases in the teaching of these subjects. This second position was articulated as far back as Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, and is regularly made by conservatives today.
But the question here is not whether a degree in the liberal arts can be financially helpful. There is evidence to suggest debate that the argument that there is no value to such degrees is overstated. Nonetheless, I am all for moving education out of a purely university setting and am often impressed at the growth of new educational media and formats. Nor am I going to tackle the claim that liberal arts and humanities are taught with a left-wing bias. Suffice it to say that even progressives should be doing more to engage with conservative viewpoints, as I have argued elsewhere. My point here is to highlight how the recent denigration of the liberal arts constitutes a radical break with the history of conservatism.
When Stephen Crowder talks about liberal arts and humanities as a “giant waste of money and time,” or Ben Shapiro claims that non-STEM disciples are a “giant scam,” they are—intentionally or not—reinforcing a cultural commitment to instrumental rationality. The implication is that it is better to specialize in a set of technical skills with little obvious connection to normative modes of analysis. This may seem like a harmless piece of advice. But this myopic dismissal of other forms of knowledge poses a danger earlier conservatives were well aware of. By implying that society has little need for individuals trained in the liberal arts and humanities, and that the primary occupations of value are purely technical, Shapiro et al reinforce the instrumentalist conceit that moral issues are purely a matter of opinion and partisan affiliation. If there is no value in learning about, say, how to reason through moral conundrums then we’re left with the conclusion that such questions are largely subjective. If learning about history is simply to be a profitless esoteric hobby, than can one be surprised when interest in the traditions and heritage of a given society bottoms out?
This also has implications for issues conservatives care about. Shapiro and others are well known for their crude arguments against the trans movement. But the argument that the only thing that matters is a purely scientific approach to the world inadvertently supports the position of transgender individuals (as it should). If all we care about are the facts of the world, and how they can be manipulated to service our ends, there is no intrinsic reason why the fact of our biological sex at birth cannot be manipulated if we so desire. Indeed, since, according to the instrumentalist position, there can be nothing inherently wrong with pursuing the end of transcending our initial biological sex, we should be applauding those scientists who are better able to satisfy the wishes of individuals by bringing individual biology closer to that of preferred sex. Shapiro may object that this is simply unscientific, because sex is determined at birth. But that is no real argument, since the facts about the world simply exist to be manipulated through scientific reason, which can reconfigure reality according to our wishes. Indeed, the more STEM fields advance, the fewer immediate barriers there will be to people doing just that. The only argument against this position is a (bad) moral one, and encouraging indifference to learning about moral argumentation can only entrench the belief that almost everything is a matter of opinion, bias and perspective.
One Dimensional Reason
The kind of argumentation deployed by Shapiro and others is characteristic of what the Frankfurt School’s Herbert Marcuse would call “one dimensional” instrumentalist reasoning. It takes itself to be a factual approach to the world, when really the content of its argumentation operates at only one level. This is why many conservatives have been insistent that the liberal arts and humanities must play a central role in everyone’s education. Without a deep understanding of different approaches to normative reasoning, and a robust sense of how those approaches developed historically, political discourse is reduced to little more than assertions of fact and opinion.
While there is something to these conservative critiques, they lack the bite of their left-wing counterparts. This is particularly true of cultural analyses of the Frankfurt School, which hold a special value in today’s partisan times. Marcuse, Horkheimer and Adorno are often attacked as “cultural Marxists,” determined to destroy Western civilization. In fact, they were very keen to save it from the threat of barbarism they saw in uninhibited instrumentalism and its one dimensionality. For the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, it was more essential than ever to embed oneself fully in the philosophical, religious and artistic history of Western civilization because new forms of technical media and culture industries were gradually stripping away our capacity to think critically and carefully about complex subject matters.
Take political discourse. Modern day technology has wonderfully advanced our capacity to research and analyze political topics. But it can also flatten our understanding, since new media must compete with one another to compress complex topics into a simple, entertaining and fast format, which can be easily digested by consumers. This can drive commentators to present dualistic narratives, which are easily understood and presented in a short period of time: one side is good, the other is bad, and the triumph of our partisans over theirs will solve all pressing political problems. The Frankfurt Schoolers were also very concerned that the emphasis on financial gain and profit would gradually encourage societies to abandon education in the liberal arts and humanities, in favor of purely technical fields, since the latter contribute to economic efficiency and growth, while the former incline individuals to critically analyze their society and demand change. Indeed, as Jürgen Habermas points out, this has been the duty of liberal arts and humanities since Socrates, who famously inaugurated Western philosophy by declaring that the abstract sciences were less interesting to him than questions about human nature and justice.
Today, these criticisms have an eerie relevance it would be unwise to ignore. Maybe universities are becoming outdated in some respects, do not return sufficient value for dollars and teach a biased curriculum. These are all issues that can and should be discussed across the political spectrum. But the claim that the only fields of value are technical and that we should simply stop incentivizing and committing resources to the study of the liberal arts and humanities is a strange one. It would have been very strange to any historical conservative, and it is even more vulgar when we consider the critiques of acute commentators like the members of the Frankfurt School.