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Column: Dear Marco Rubio, The Liberal Arts Have a Proud History; Here’s an Introduction

Sunday, January 10, 2016
Dear Marco Rubio:

Welcome to New Hampshire. It’s a bit colder here than Miami, but I expect you’ll find a warm welcome, even in January.

It’s come to my attention that you’ve been assailing the liberal arts on the campaign trail. During one of the Republican debates, you declared — falsely, it appears — that welders earned more than philosophers. “We need more welders and less philosophers,” you said, although I suspect you meant to say “fewer philosophers” (a good liberal arts education helps with grammar, too).

Since then, you’ve ramped up the rhetoric. According to The New York Times, you’re telling voters that colleges and universities are “indoctrination camps” defended by political leftists “because all their friends work there.”

My guess is that is a facile attempt to link liberalism with liberal arts. That’s cute, but it’s also inaccurate. The liberal arts trace their history to the medieval study of the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of general grammar, formal logic and classical rhetoric; quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Together, these comprised the seven liberal arts taught in medieval monasteries, cathedral schools and universities.

Knowledge tends to be cumulative, adapting to changing times and circumstances. Today, the liberal arts encompass, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “areas of study (such as history, language, and literature) that are intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession.”

I don’t deny for a moment that America needs welders — along with carpenters, plumbers, midwives, technicians and many other kinds of skilled workers. Those are all good and important, even noble, vocations. But do you seriously want to live in a nation of citizens lacking in “general knowledge,” who have no education in logic or no experience of critical thinking?

A liberal arts education provides a broader perspective. The study of history, to take one example, allows us to learn from the past — the perils of isolationism, for example, or the dangers of demagoguery. Learning a foreign language helps us to understand and to appreciate cultures other than our own. Music, literature and the arts not only have the capacity to elevate the human spirit and shed light on the human condition, they also provide a window into different societies, personalities and historical periods. And the philosophers you denigrate? They prompt us to ask the big questions — what is good or true or ethical — and they call us to account when our logic is faulty.

As for the “indoctrination camps” you mention, any liberal arts student worthy of the name learns to challenge assumptions and presuppositions. Contrary to your own supposition, that happens frequently on campus — in term papers, in the course of lively discussions in the classroom and also outside of class. Even more important, those critical skills, once acquired, tend to be exercised and honed over the course of a lifetime. That’s the beauty, and the importance, of a liberal arts education.

The other thing you should know about colleges and universities — and this may surprise you — is that educational institutions are among the most conservative in American society. Let me explain. In order to secure a place in the academy, a scholar must demonstrate her professional skills through a process called peer review. This means that everything a professor has written is vetted and scrutinized to ensure that the highest standards of scholarship have been observed. Those peers may, and often do, disagree with a scholar’s conclusions, but as long as the canons of academic inquiry have been followed, the scholar is entitled to tenure. That’s a very conservative process, because it provides a safeguard against rogue or irresponsible scholarship.

Let me provide a counter example, one that you know well. Your friend David Barton, the man who runs an organization called WallBuilders and who endorsed your run for the Senate in 2010, asserts that the United States is a Christian nation, that the Constitution is based on the Bible, that the separation of church and state is a myth and (bizarrely) that Jesus opposed the minimum wage. Barton, who holds a baccalaureate degree from Oral Roberts University, claims that he is a historian. Some members of the Downstream Media, especially Glenn Beck, even refer to him as “Professor Barton.”

But David Barton is not a professor, nor will he ever become one at any reputable school — and it has nothing to do with his political leanings. Aside from the incontrovertible fact that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation — see the Treaty of Tripoli and the Constitution itself, among many other sources — peer review would very quickly reveal that Barton is not a responsible scholar. He has a disturbing habit of fabricating quotations and attributing them to the founders in order to “substantiate” his claims, and a group of historians designated Barton’s 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies, “the least credible history book in print.” As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of your predecessors in the Senate, used to say, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” Having David Barton teach a history course would be like asking a bartender to fly a 747 or a welder to do a root canal.

And now, finally, allow me to address your attack on liberals and liberalism. I grant you that the term liberal has fallen out of fashion, in large measure because of your friends in the aforementioned Downstream Media; even your Senate colleague Bernie Sanders takes pains to call himself a progressive, not a liberal. But any such blanket condemnation of liberalism is myopic. The United States itself would not exist were it not for liberal ideals. The assertion of natural rights to life, liberty and property is a liberal idea. The notion of equality is a liberal idea, as is the conviction, inscribed in our charter documents, that the rights of minorities must be protected.

That is not to say that liberals themselves are perfect — Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, after all — or that liberalism has never overreached; consider the New Deal-era dams that pockmark the American West. But Social Security was a liberal idea, and I think that most Americans, including some of your constituents in Florida, believe that the principle of providing a safety net for the disabled and the elderly is a pretty sound idea. Equality for women was a liberal idea. The Civil Rights movement was animated by liberalism, this radical notion that every citizen — every citizen — should enjoy the protections of citizenship.

Once again, welcome to New Hampshire. I’m sure you’ll find a few voters here who will cheer your excoriations of the liberal arts; anti-intellectualism, after all, has a long and storied history in the United States. But you’ll find others — many, many more, I hope — who believe that critical thinking is not such a bad thing, that it might even be crucial to the future of a democratic society.

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. His latest book is an edited volume, Mormonism and American Politics.

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