On the Decline and Fall of the Liberal Arts

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    See Randall Smith, “Bureaucratic Bloat in Higher Education: Getting Rid of the Middle Men,” Public Discourse, January 15, 2015, http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/01/14235/, and Benjamin Ginsberg, “Universities Weaken under the Weight of Their Own Bureaucracies,” Boston Globe, September 12, 2011, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/09/12/universities_weakened_under_weight_of_bureaucracy.

  2. 2.

    Patrick J. Deneen, “After the Interregnum,” Academic Questions 27, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 368. All further references to this work will be cited parenthetically within the text.

  3. 3.

    The templates include (1) the present state of the academy that pits the liberal arts against the PC movement on one side and STEM programs on the other side; (2) a triad of competing periods of higher education in America: the “age of piety,” the “age of secular humanism,” the “age of the research ideal”; (3) two visions of liberty; and (4) ancients and moderns.

  4. 4.

    Anthony T. Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Are Giving Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

  5. 5.

    Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England, 2 vols. (Hartford, CT: Silus Andrus & Son, 1853), 2:21.

  6. 6.

    Benjamin Rand, “Philosophical Instruction in Harvard University from 1636 to 1900,” Harvard Graduates’ Magazine 37 (September 1928), 35–36.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., 36.

  8. 8.

    For a discussion of John Adams’s education at Harvard, see my John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999).

  9. 9.

    C. Bradley Thompson, with Yaron Brook, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010).

  10. 10.

    It should also be noted that Kant paved the way for what we might call social subjectivism—the view that a mental structure common to humanity, not individuals, is what creates reality. Today’s multiculturalism and our contemporary ideas of class, race, and gender identities have their philosophical roots in Kant.

  11. 11.

    Quoted in Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 337.

  12. 12.

    Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2003), 29.

  13. 13.

    See Benjamin Rand, “Philosophical Instruction in Harvard University from 1636 to 1906, II,” Harvard Graduates’ Magazine 37 (December 1928), 188–200, and “Philosophical Instruction in Harvard University from 1636 to 1906, III,” Harvard Graduates’ Magazine 37 (March 1929), 296–311.

  14. 14.

    Thomas Jefferson, letter to Henry Lee, Monticello, May 8, 1825, text available at https://online.hillsdale.edu/document.doc?id=210.

  15. 15.

    In full disclosure, readers should know that a few years ago Patrick Deneen and I engaged in a hard-edged public exchange about neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, America, the Enlightenment, and related topics: “The Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism,” Cato Unbound: A Journal of Debate (March 2011), http://www.cato-unbound.org/2011/03/07/c-bradley-thompson/neoconservatism-unmasked.

  16. 16.

    To be clear, I would include the core theological texts of Western civilization as an important part of a proper liberal arts curriculum.

  17. 17.

    Richard John Neuhaus, “Encountered by the Truth,” First Things (October 1998): 82. This might explain why the leading postmodernist philosopher, Michel Foucault, became enraptured at the end of his life with the Iranian Revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

  18. 18.

    Patrick J. Deneen, “Response to Brad Thompson,” Cato Unbound (March 25, 2011), http://www.cato-unbound.org/2011/03/25/patrick-j-deneen/response-brad-thompson.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. Bradley Thompson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Thompson, C.B. On the Decline and Fall of the Liberal Arts. Acad. Quest. 28, 417–427 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12129-015-9530-z

Download citation


  • American High Education
  • Secular Humanism
  • Modern Enlightenment
  • Great Book Curriculum
  • Enlightenment Liberalism