The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education – Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and David Henreckson (Editors)

The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, David Henreckson, Nathan Beacom, Joseph Clair, Margarita Mooney Clayton, Lydia Dugdale, Brad East, Don Eben, Becky L. Eggimann, Rachel Griffis, David Hsu, Zena Hitz, Brandon McCoy, Peter Mommsen, Angel Adams Parham, Steve Prince, John Mark Reynolds, Erin Shaw, Anne Snyder, Sean Sword, Noah Toly, Emily Auerbach
Also by this author: The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, Reading for the Love of God
Published by Plough Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology, Work, Writing
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A new generation of teachers envisions a liberal arts education that is good for everyone.

Why would anyone study the liberal arts? It’s no secret that the liberal arts have fallen out of favor and are struggling to prove their relevance. The cost of college pushes students to majors and degrees with more obvious career outcomes.

A new cohort of educators isn’t taking this lying down. They realize they need to reimagine and rearticulate what a liberal arts education is for, and what it might look like in today’s world. In this book, they make an honest reckoning with the history and current state of the liberal arts.

You may have heard – or asked – some of these questions yourself:

Aren’t the liberal arts a waste of time? How will reading old books and discussing abstract ideas help us feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed and reverse climate change? Actually, we first need to understand what we mean by truth, the good life, and justice.

Aren’t the liberal arts racist? The “great books” are mostly by privileged dead white males. Despite these objections, for centuries the liberal arts have been a resource for those working for a better world. Here’s how we can benefit from ancient voices while expanding the conversation.

Aren’t the liberal arts liberal? Aren’t humanities professors mostly progressive ideologues who indoctrinate students? In fact, the liberal arts are an age-old tradition of moral formation, teaching people to think for themselves and learn from other perspectives.

Aren’t the liberal arts elitist? Hasn’t humanities education too often excluded poor people and minorities? While that has sometime been the case, these educators map out well-proven ways to include people of all social and educational backgrounds.

Aren’t the liberal arts a bad career investment? I really just want to get a well-paying job and not end up as an overeducated barista. The numbers – and the people hiring – tell a different story.

In this book, educators mount a vigorous defense of the humanist tradition, but also chart a path forward, building on their tradition’s strengths and addressing its failures. In each chapter, dispatches from innovators describe concrete ways this is being put into practice, showing that the liberal arts are not only viable today, but vital to our future.


Contributors include Emily Auerbach, Nathan Beacom, Jeffrey Bilbro, Joseph Clair, Margarita Mooney Clayton, Lydia Dugdale, Brad East, Don Eben, Becky L. Eggimann, Rachel Griffis, David Henreckson, Zena Hitz, David Hsu, L. Gregory Jones, Brandon McCoy, Peter Mommsen, Angel Adams Parham, Steve Prince, John Mark Reynolds, Erin Shaw, Anne Snyder, Sean Sword, Noah Toly, Jonathan Tran, and Jessica Hooten Wilson

Many people criticize the liberal arts for being elitist, outdated, unmarketable, and a waste of time. In this refreshing book, a number of different academics reflect on how the humanities liberate people to know their history, think deeply, use logic, explore literature, and have a broader sense of the world, building a rich store of ideas and associations that can help them in whatever career they choose. There are ten sections in this book, with each one sharing rebuttals to common myths about liberal arts education. This includes both general objections, such as the cost of a liberal arts degree, and more politically charged ideas, such as the perception that the humanities are either too politically liberal or irredeemably entrenched in racism and colonialism.

The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education came out of the pandemic, as many of the contributors grappled with seismic cultural changes and considered how they could both re-imagine their work and defend their work in a changing world. They received a grant to focus on this project, and Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and David Henreckson served as editors. The book conveys various points of view, exploring both traditional meanings and changing applications for liberal arts education, with contributors expressing different points of agreement and contention. The majority of the contributors are Christians, and their writings flow from this faith and its core philosophical presuppositions, but the editors hope that people from different belief backgrounds can also benefit from the book.

Like with most essay collections, I really appreciated some of the essays, and thought that others were too similar to each other, were too niche, or didn’t build a strong argument. For the most part, I greatly enjoyed the ones about the general value of a liberal arts education, and had more critiques for the ones that were specifically about studying the liberal arts in a university setting. I felt that the contributors were constrained by their positions within academia, shoring up the system without fully recognizing how little practical sense it makes for many people to spend a huge amount of money and go into debt to obtain a liberal arts education that doesn’t immediately, obviously open doors to well-paid employment.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m against liberal art degrees, or that I think they can’t be lucrative. In fact, one of my favorite essays was the one about ways that a liberal arts degree prepares people for a variety of different careers and career changes throughout their lives, in contrast to a tech-focused degree that may quickly become outdated. In that essay, Rachel B. Griffis clearly explains why the skills you gain when studying the humanities are helpful in any field, explores data about the long-term earning potential of liberal arts majors, and shares examples from real people. I appreciated her engagement with practical details and decision factors for students, instead of mainly philosophizing.

I also wished that more essays explored what liberal arts education can look like outside of traditional institutions. There are some essays that address this topic, and they were some of my favorites in the book, but I felt that the overall focus was too narrow. Again, I can see how it might be a conflict of interest, since these academics are writing this book in part to defend their own work, but there are all kinds of ways that ordinary people can explore the liberating arts without going into debt for a four-year degree or even learning in a classroom setting. I think that this book would be more practical and would resonate more broadly if the authors had explored alternative approaches and experiences more.

The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education is a thoughtful essay collection that explores a variety of different themes, explaining why the liberal arts are valuable in spite of the ways that people tend to misunderstand and mischaracterize them. The essays are short and quite readable, and I appreciated the range of different perspectives. I found many of the essays inspiring and thoughtful, and although the book’s format means that it doesn’t have a clear, consistent line of argumentation, it provides a variety  of short form perspectives that many people will find refreshing and thought-provoking. However, because this book focuses so much on academia, I would mainly just recommend it to educators and students. Although a handful of essays apply more broadly than that, this is mainly for people who are currently working in academic systems.