When the COVID-19 emergency began, a strange thing happened in U.S. public opinion. For weeks, bizarrely, acknowledging the emergency’s existence meant taking sides on a partisan issue. But something else has divided public opinion, too.
Cutting across partisan differences is the ability to conceptualize the emergency. That means not only grasping some very basic medical science, but also understanding how it relates to our economic and legal systems, our demographics, our psychology, and our moral responsibilities.
The novel coronavirus has exploited and aggravated the fault lines in American society. Other than professional experts, the Americans who understand the crisis best—regardless of political ideology—are those who have a well-rounded imagination. They have not been limited to taking orders from political leaders, but have been able to act responsibly and creatively in the moment—making enormous sacrifices to do it.
The crisis, in other words, provides vivid lessons in the need for a comprehensive liberal arts education for ordinary citizens. By “liberal arts,” I mean not just training in certain disciplines, but rather a whole package of reasoning and imaginative skills. An integrated liberal arts education is important for citizens to live responsibly together during a crisis while maintaining their own personal freedom and respecting each other’s humanity.
Although it’s easy to forget this, the “liberal arts” are not limited to the humanities (i.e., fields like literature, composition, history, and philosophy). They also include other disciplines that expand a person’s understanding in general. They are literally the “free” arts—the arts of being a free person, and also the arts that apply freely to various aspects of life.
In a medieval European university, the seven liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—loosely speaking, different aspects of language and mathematics. In a college in the twenty-first century United States, the liberal arts may encompass the humanities, mathematics, science, and social science alike. These fields and disciplines are supposed to operate in tandem rather than separately as they increase our understanding of the world.
Despite common misuse of the term, there is no inherent opposition between a liberal arts education and a “STEM”-oriented education; a comprehensive liberal arts education already includes the M and the S.
During the present crisis, the aspects of a liberal arts education that help people respond appropriately include, but are not limited to:
- Mathematics (with the ability to conceptualize percentages and curves)
- Biology (including a basic grasp of how viruses actually work)
- History (especially knowledge of past epidemics, other public health concerns, and ways that large societies have been able to mobilize in emergencies)
- Economics (providing a clear-eyed assessment of the effects of staying home as well as the potential effects of millions of extraordinary deaths)
- Political science (including a good grasp of U.S. federalism and local police powers)
- Language (with the ability to understand the semantic range of a word like “flu,” for example, but also perhaps the empathy for others that can come from studying a foreign culture)
- Geography (which can provide insight into the specific challenges of different American and global communities, including poverty, structural racism, and other sources of particular vulnerability)
- Sociology (with its appreciation for societies as complex systems)
- Psychology (especially a working appreciation for the complex emotional needs of people in isolation), and
- Art and music (providing many ways to build community across distance).
I’m sure you can think of others. The point I want to stress is that all of these domains of knowledge and literacy are contributing to our ability, as individuals, families, and communities, to meet the challenges of this moment. And we aren’t calling on them separately; we’re calling on all of them at the same time. Often, we’re even calling on fields that we haven’t specifically studied, but to which we have been exposed in small amounts during the course of our lives.
Now I need to add something very important. When I talk about “a liberal arts education,” I’m not necessarily talking about what college students major in. Actually, I’m not necessarily talking about college at all. Everyone should have access to the basic elements of a liberal arts education by the time they finish high school.
But this does require talking about the accessibility of a liberal arts education at all levels of society. Access to the liberal arts in high school, as well as in college, requires a complex system to train teachers and administrators, political and business leaders, and writers and reporters. And ideally, an advanced liberal arts education—that is, a well-rounded college education—would be available to everyone in the United States, regardless of what major they choose to focus on.
A little over a year ago, the Atlantic published an essay warning that “the liberal arts may not survive the 21st century.” Pointing to ideologically motivated program cuts at the University of Wisconsin—one of the brightest jewels in the crown of American higher education since the 1870s—the staff writer Adam Harris argued that basic academic competencies there (in fields including geography, art, history, and languages) were being hollowed out in order to devote the state’s public university system to career training for a “tech-hungry economy.” If that could happen at Wisconsin, Harris implied, it would happen virtually everywhere.
Of course, that has already been happening for years. As economic inequality grows due to bad policy choices (including tax cuts that have sent the price of college tuition skyrocketing during the last decade alone), the rich in America still send their heirs to exclusive colleges known for their attention to the liberal arts, while the rest of us, deprived of the public funding that would allow us to take the same risks, are expected to educate ourselves exclusively for a lifetime of economic service to them.
Career-preparation education, though certainly valuable to many people, is brittle. It is highly sensitive to economic shocks and transformations. It obsolesces quickly unless students are able immediately to acquire and permanently to maintain the specific careers they expected to have when they started college.
And if there’s any general lesson the COVID-19 crisis should be teaching us, it is that we must pay attention to all the ways our society is brittle and unequal. It may be a matter of life and death—for rich and poor alike.
Image: Composite illustration by the author. Background: A college campus, photographed by the author in 2018. Foreground: Illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
 I was watching local social media (particularly the comments on local news stories) throughout the month of March. Again and again, commenters on Facebook and Twitter, echoing presidential rhetoric, called the crisis a “Democrat[ic] hoax,” an illness that had barely affected the United States and would soon disappear completely, which was “just the flu” or “the common cold” anyway. The president has changed his tune, and so have many, though not all, of the supporters I see on social media.
However, among my networks of friends and family members, many conservative Republicans and independents did take the emergency seriously from early on. For some, this may have been due to specific situational expertise. More than one conservative-leaning medical doctor I know put up a Facebook post that featured a statement like, “I don’t like making political posts, but this is not a political issue,” while engineers I know put up posts explaining the math to their skeptical family members, and some college friends circulated dire firsthand warnings written by one of our classmates who now lives in Italy.
In other cases, taking the crisis seriously seemed to flow directly from having a well-cultivated imagination, which gave my loved ones the ability to transcend partisan rhetoric, the ability to calculate potential risks for themselves, and the instinct and tools to question disinformation.