The modern university is dying.
But don’t take my word for it. Merely read the headlines. Every week, news breaks of another institution shutting down, selling assets, laying off faculty, or closing programs. It’s so common now that it’s no longer a surprise. It’s expected.
And none are immune. Private and public institutions, seminaries and universities, American and Non-American alike are experiencing decline.
- Several years ago Liberty University, a large private Christian institution in Virginia, decided to dissolve its philosophy program.
- Last year Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary sold its 102-acre main campus.
- More recently, West Texas A&M has indicated they will prohibit assigning resources that require a purchase to students to reduce cost.
- In September West Virginia University moved to cut several dozen programs, including laying off 143 faculty members.
- In an ongoing story Australian Catholic University disestablished the Medieval and Early Modern Studies program, laying off over 30 faculty.
Yet there are common threads. The commonality between these varied instances is not merely a shrinking market but the withering of the traditional liberal arts education.
The once shining purpose of educational institutions to train young men and women to read and think about a wide range of topics in a residential community is no longer seen as indispensable. Educational institutions are moving to digital formats while cutting traditional humanities programs. Due to declining enrollments, increasing costs, and expanding administrative departments, the future of the university is apparently purely vocational.
Some may think this development is good. Stop funding programs that offer no immediate job prospects. Go where the revenue is.
But such a view is wrong. Just look at any statistical analysis of earnings potential for college majors and you’ll find humanities majors among the top earners. While engineering majors and other STEM fields are naturally present, so too are Philosophy, Political Science, History, and English. But even if starting salaries for certain majors had a greater disparity, such data tells us nothing about lifetime earnings wherein humanities majors are well equipped to excel as they have highly sought after skills for C-suite level roles. All the more proof that we need those that have been taught to think critically about all things, including data analysis and reporting! But most fundamentally, such a view is toxic to wisdom and the life of the mind.
True. Vocational schools are necessary. They are beneficial. But they do not teach wisdom. Universities used to exist to educatethe whole person. They used to prize teaching them to seek and reflect on the good, the true, and the beautiful. They used to desire the things that are intrinsically good for their own sake and not just for the sake of a paycheck. Institutions of higher learning were once designed to seek the transcendental.
Such education created curious people with the skills necessary to understand our world. It taught people how to communicate ideas, how to understand and develop arguments, and how to appreciate life beyond a career. It taught them wisdom.
And we desperately need people like this. We need people that are curious, creative, and compelling. We need wise guides.
With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, it is not the wise who will become obsolete but those with skills that are limited to the harder sciences with repetitive and predictive work. Nothing can replace the imaginative rationality of the human person. And such training comes through the liberal arts and humanities departments.