Every week we have a new article or book bemoaning the fate of the liberal arts. Schools keep canceling liberal arts programs. People keep being skeptical about them. Not enough people even know what they are. People who love the liberal arts sigh, complain, and attempt to convince. Enough already.

If we believe that the liberal arts are great, we should act like it. A first step would be to stop trying to sell them as if they were a fast-food hamburger or some cheap and disposable consumer product. Every day you are marketed all kinds of items, often against your will. What does effective advertising look like? Does it look like desperate pleas to purchase the product? Browbeating? Has anyone sold you a truck by begging? “Please buy this truck because no one is buying it.” “No one appreciates these shoes enough, please wear them.” Everything about our posture suggests that we have our own doubts about the liberal arts. 

If we want to make the liberal arts desirable, we should take our cues from highly sought-after goods. Consider the Birkin bag. It costs thousands of dollars, and seemingly everyone who knows about them wants one. Hermès chooses to sell them very selectively. They don’t make that many. They aren’t just on the shelf. You might not get one, even if they are in stock. If you do get one, you are rarely given a choice of color–yet this is an insanely desirable bag. There is a whole science to trying to buy a Birkin bag; Planet Money did a podcast episode on it. People have been so unhappy about their inability to secure one that there is a lawsuit in California accusing Hermès of violating antitrust laws because of how they sell these bags, with their “unique desirability, incredible demand and low supply.” No one has begged you to buy a Birkin; you have to beg to buy one. Hermès knows what it has.

If we take this approach, many of the accusations and complaints leveled against the liberal arts can be turned into strengths. People accuse the liberal arts of not being for everyone. Ok. Maybe they aren’t. Ferraris aren’t for everyone. The liberal arts are accused of being elitist–we might as well lean into that and use it to our advantage. Ferraris are elitist, enough so that people will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them. They will pay that even when Ferrari is picky about who they sell to and controls your ability to resell once you own one of their cars. That doesn’t make everyone hate the product. And other brands, whose goods are easier to acquire, are paying people to artificially produce the reputation of inaccessibility that the liberal arts already have.

People accuse the liberal arts of being too traditional. So be it. What else is traditional? Louis Vuitton. People still buy it. The royal family is traditional, and people follow their every move. Some people claim the reason they dislike Meghan Markle is because she isn’t traditional enough. Chanel No.5 is traditional. You can still smell it out and about. Woolrich, L.L. Bean, Filson–all heritage brands. People buy their goods. People will pay more to eat food made from heritage grains and heritage breeds. People are paying up for heritage pigs. Traditional can be a selling point.

People say that the liberal arts aren’t practical. All the better. We shouldn’t waste our breath trying to make them more practical than they are. People don’t watch television or go to movies for practical purposes. People don’t take vacations for the ways they enhance careers. Nothing you buy solely for the purpose of utility is all that exciting. Toilet paper is practical. Socks are practical. Gas is practical, and people hate paying for that. People want to pay for something exciting and enriching; they want to buy experiences rather than products. We have an incredible experience to offer.

We are told that the liberal arts don’t connect directly to careers. That isn’t all true, but, even if it were, it isn’t all bad. Most people don’t want to be defined by their career. Some people don’t even want to be at work half the time. How many songs are there about living for the weekend? How many people want to retire at 40? The liberal arts are for the you that doesn’t work for your boss. That is appealing.

Some people say the problem is that people don’t understand what the liberal arts are. Well, IYKYK, as the kids text. Everyone actually wants to be an “insider” and have knowledge not readily available to the general public. Some products don’t have to be pushed once people know about them. Do you see a lot of advertisements for Neosporin? They know what they have. Krispy Kreme doesn’t try to woo you, they know you want their doughnuts. Trader Joe’s doesn’t advertise, and it’s always crowded. Fisherman’s Friend sells great cough drops and does not drop ads all the time. Once you’ve had one, you’ll go for them again. The liberal arts actually has evidence for greatness and plenty of positive legacy. People who know, know.

Many complaints about the liberal arts make it seem like a liberal arts education is a luxury. Well, luxury goods sell. And we could do a lot worse than to make the liberal arts aspirational. “All the best schools” have the liberal arts. Some universities should be bragging that “those who can” study the liberal arts. Not everyone can afford it? Not everyone’s parents appreciate it? Not every politician thinks it’s a good idea? These things don’t have to work against us at all. These ideas can burnish the liberal arts’ reputation with the next generation.

Some of the “fear and trembling” crowd has also forgotten that not everyone has to “get it” for the liberal arts to succeed. You don’t have to corner the entire student market to have enough. Anime doesn’t have to appeal to everyone to keep on going. Recreational fishing is an industry that adds up to billions of dollars, and many people never fish at all. Some people hate sports; it hasn’t harmed the NFL that much. We may not all end up employed in the liberal arts, but the employment failures of some people are hardly the same thing as the “fate of the liberal arts.” Not everyone has to be into them for them to exist and thrive.

If you look around, you will see that plenty of unsolicited advertising already exists. We should reference them. Who reads all the time? Warren Buffett, LeBron James, Bill Gates… Who cares about poetry and painting? Wealthy people. Who cares about philosophy? Professional sports teams. Who values rhetoric? The company selling you your heart’s desire on Instagram. Ask older people what they are interested in now—it isn’t accounting. Let’s point to the wiser and the well off and ask people if they want what those people have–often they do. Many times, those people have a love for the liberal arts.

If we want the liberal arts to succeed, we need to show some confidence. The truth is, we do have a Birkin bag on our hands. This is the education of “free people” that helps produce citizens capable of critical inquiry and leadership. We read books that not all politicians appreciate. We learn enough math to be able to make wise home purchases. We ask really annoying questions at Thanksgiving and at election time. We have connections to the past. We have tools to better understand ourselves and the world. What we’re selling is great. Let’s act like it.

Image Credit: John Fulleylove, “Clare College and Bridge over the Cam with King’s College in the background” (1889) via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. What a delightfu essay! I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s comments to the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London, 30 April 1953: “The arts are essential to any complete national life. . . . Without tradition art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation it is a corpse.” And from Miyamoto Musashi, whose credentials as a person of action and a swordsman are unquestioned, yet whose love for (and practice of) artistic expression demonstrated his belief that to a healthy mind, the practical and the beautiful are not as different as w might think: “A man cannot understand the art he is studying if he only looks for the end result without taking the time to delve deeply into the reasoning of the study.” Your essay got me thinking in these tangential directions, and I had a good time while considering your many excellent points. Thank you!

  2. Thank You,
    You said “ask “old People” about now. Well as an ” old person” I would like to say a few works about the Liberal Arts.
    To begin, I have an MLA (masters in liberal arts!) from Johns Hopkins Univ. (evening college) on top of a BA in history (ancient) with a minor in humanities. Maybe that could be the CV of a liberal arts student.
    The world sees me as a sad, lonely old man struggling with his hearing aids, glasses, oxygen generator, and walker. I see myself as a person who has lived a full and successful life, in fact the life I chose to live and was successful in it.
    I spent my life in a variety of “do gooder” projects like civil rights, antiwar, and work with handicapped children.
    Now that I am way beyond my due date, I look back and say the life I had was the life I had to have had.
    I would suggest an intro to liberal arts class for all freshmen. Maybe each session taught by a different professor from one of the acceptable paths of study. I notice watching Youtube that a number of scholars from the STEM programs are closet liberal arts scholars, they read what I read, often knowing more and better that I do and still are well versed in their fields.
    The right fly dropped into a pool behind a rock or riffle may just bring up a young fish hiding there because they don’t belong where the are taught to go. As the old song says– ” each day I do some golden deed, by helping those who are in need” my life on earth is but a span, and so I do the best I can”.


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