Since the Great Recession, the perennial debate about the value of the liberal arts has taken on a certain urgency. While the economy has since improved, the sentiment that a liberal arts degree is simply not worth the time and money seems only to have intensified, doubtless exacerbated by crushing loans. For elite universities and colleges, whose enrollments and endowments are higher than ever, this means adapting to a new technocratic reality; less well-off institutions may simply not survive.
Now, as college campuses have become battlegrounds over free speech and identity politics, questions about the nature and purpose of the liberal arts have taken on renewed importance, albeit in a very different light. Should a liberal arts education promote the free exchange of ideas or foster a community in which allegedly hateful ideas are disallowed? Is the pursuit of philosophical, theological, literary, historical or scientific questions worthwhile in its own right — or only in relation to our current social and political circumstances?
In this context, I was surprised to learn that the largest share of readers of the magazine I help edit, Big Questions Online — which features essays by leading scholars on such “big” and overtly non-utilitarian topics as free will, virtue ethics, philosophy of perception, theoretical physics and theology — are members of my generation: the much-maligned Millennials. The second largest? Generation Z, readers in high school or college.