When Zena Hitz explains the Catherine Project (a series of online and in-person seminars) or when Nathan Beacom describes a revival of the Lyceum movement for adults, the reader is left to wonder whether the liberal arts need to be tied to our universities at all. This is no idle concern — the average annual cost of tuition at a liberal-arts college is $24,000 a year. If one can engage in liberating learning for a small donation to the Catherine Project, doesn’t it make more sense to learn in one’s leisure time rather than bother with an expensive four-year degree? Even if such study is liberatory, is it worth the student debt, especially when its own practitioners agree that it can be pursued just as profitably on the side for a pittance? In Ms. Hitz’s own words, “universities are wonderful, but they are not necessary for human flourishing.”
If liberal learning does not need the university, we might ask whether the university needs liberal learning. One might worry that, in trying to prove that the liberal arts are not elitist, we have only shown that we can uncouple them from universities and be no worse off for it. If liberal learning is for everyone and can be pursued anywhere — in prison, in elementary schools, by people in poverty — why would anyone pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for it? Is it because, as Don Eben argues, a habit of learning and analysis makes students better future white-collar workers? Or, as Rachel Griffis argues, because a liberal-arts education complements professional training, thus becoming a good financial investment? Is the only good argument for liberal learning in universities, ultimately, instrumental?
Jennifer Frey is the dean of an Honors College at a private university; I teach in an Honors College at a private university. You could say that we both have an investment in keeping that flame burning. But I think even we ought to be asking the questions Frey asks here. As I have often written, these are good times for the humanities; they’re just not good times for humanities programs in universities. This is why I keep thinking about Emily St. John Mandel’s Traveling Symphony. Even as we try to keep the humanities-in-the-university afloat, I think we need to spend a lot of time imagining the humanities without the university.