The Global Liberal Arts Challenge

Ethics and International Affairs 36 (3):283-301 (2022)
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The democratic backsliding that has accelerated across the globe over the past decade has included a rollback of liberal arts and sciences (LAS) as a system of university education. This essay explores the origins and goals of the global LAS education reform movement. I argue that while the movement is under threat largely due to its principled value of educating democratic citizens, it still has powerful potential and global impact; in part because LAS education is primarily an indigenous phenomenon adapting to local circumstances. I also argue that U.S. universities could contribute more constructively to the movement if they conceived of their role as global civic actors that conduct themselves in the spirit of mutuality and reciprocity, not as multinational corporations that channel neoliberal tendencies to maximize revenue. U.S. critics of the global LAS movement should also pay heed to the United States’ own history. Specifically, they can learn from historically Black colleges and universities how, operating under the extreme authoritarianism of the Jim Crow era, they managed to produce leaders who shaped a more democratic country. Liberal arts education produces short term benefits for students and alumni, but in the democratic context it is a long-term wager.



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