The best way to improve the standing of the liberal arts is to stop defending them. Or so says the director of the newly created Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College. Losing students everywhere, threatened by the rise of for-profit colleges, in danger of being severely cut back even at research universities, the liberal arts don’t need explanation and defense. They need rethinking. “I believe that liberal arts education needs to rethink its scope and definition for the 21st century,” Mary Crane argues. The possibility that the gran ripensamento of the last forty years might actually be behind the liberal arts’ decline never darkens her mind.
A Shakespeare scholar appointed to “foster innovative programs in the liberal arts” at the Jesuit school, Crane wants more and more of what students are already in flight from. After all, why should the humanities be central to a liberal arts education? “As fields like cultural studies and area studies blur the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences,” she says, “the center of gravity may have shifted in productive ways that we need to acknowledge.” Because, you know, the demand for cultural studies remains “innovative” after four decades.
On Crane’s own evidence—she quotes Louis Menand as saying so—the decline in liberal arts enrollments began in 1970. This was the same year that the term cultural studies was first introduced to the Modern Language Association. The critic Benjamin DeMott reported on a conference he had attended at Richard Hoggart’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Hoggart, of course, had coined the term six years earlier in founding the center. His was the best paper at the conference, DeMott said:
When Crane warns, then, that the humanities should not be treated as a synonym for the liberal arts—that they should not be “conflated with a Western intellectual tradition”—she is fostering innovation along deeply rutted paths. Since the early ’seventies, “we” have tried to save the liberal arts by abandoning them. Perhaps it is time to take a different path.
And perhaps the advice of someone else who taught in the Boston area some years ago might be more likely to reverse the decline, and even to attract students who are tired of calls to “rethink” their intellectual heritage. In 1907, after resigning his professorship at Harvard, William James returned to Cambridge to address alumnae of Radcliffe College. “Of what use is a college training?” he asked the women who had already gone through it. His answer was succinct. It should, he said, emphasizing every word, “help you to know a good man when you see him.”
Not even someone of his distinction could get away with saying something like that today. But James, who introduced real innovations into American culture and did not merely talk about fostering them, felt no pressure to call into question the Western intellectual tradition in order to establish his fides as an academic reformer. The teacher of the liberal arts, he said, must give his students a “sense of human superiority.”
To accomplish this much, his curriculum “not only consists of masterpieces, but is largely about masterpieces.” Not just literary criticism’s famous “close reading” or the “close and small-scale cultural reading” that Hoggart urged as its replacement, the method of the liberal arts is what James called the “sifting of human creations”—that is, the study of “human efforts and conquests” as “so many quests of perfection on the part of men. . . .” James explained:
Such an education might even prove useful in what Mary Crane calls “our era of globalization,” in which we still prefer a good plumber to a bungler and an honest president to a liar. She imagines a liberal arts education “freed from the burden of defense,” and released into dwindling significance. William James understood that the liberal arts might lead to a different sort of freedom—the freedom to accept the burden of human judgment.
 Benjamin DeMott, “Cultural Studies,” PMLA 85 (March 1970): 308.
 William James, “The Social Value of the College-Bred,” in Writings, 1902–1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York: Library of America, 1987), p. 1242–49. Originally published in McClure’s Magazine in February 1908.