For whom are the liberal arts?

That’s the question asked by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill in this blog post in Philanthropy Daily:

The late Earl Shorris had a radical answer to that question: the liberal arts are for those of all socioeconomic backgrounds, including those who are poor.

This is a quite radical assertion.

Traditionally, a liberal arts college education was a privilege of the economic elite, or at least of the upper middle class. In the United States, the GI Bill made liberal arts education the province of the middle and even working class—although accompanied by the expectation that a liberal arts education should lift graduates out of the working class at least into the middle class—that is, a liberal arts education is for those who come from, or aspire to, the upper socioeconomic classes.

In his posthumously published book (Shorris died last year), Shorris describes how he pitched the liberal arts course he designed for poor people to prospective students:

“You’ve been cheated,” I said. “Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one way to become political, and I don’t mean political in the sense of voting in an election but in the broad sense…

“Do all rich people, or people who are in the middle, know the humanities? Not a chance. But some do. And it helps. It helps to live better and enjoy life more. Will the humanities make you rich? Yes. Absolutely. But not in terms of money. In terms of life.”

This sounds like it could veer into the language of class conflict, but that’s not the direction Shorris takes it. He doesn’t argue for mass education of the poor but instead that a relatively small, “self-selected group of adults living in poverty” are ready to benefit from a liberal arts education.