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A Critical Balance

By Jon D. Wisman, Professor of Economics

Jon Wisman

The liberal arts are essential to a university community because they are of such critical importance to how we think about and live our lives. And arguably, never have the liberal arts been more important than today. Humanity faces its greatest challenge ever. Mounting evidence suggests we are participating in the rapid destruction of our habitat. The liberal arts are fundamental to the enlightenment needed to avoid catastrophe.

Our predicament is ironic because it results from our extraordinary success in the primordial struggle with nature to overcome dire material privation. Population has exploded from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.8 billion today and is expected to peak at about 9.3 billion by 2050. A rising number of humans come of age without fear of starvation and live in unprecedented abundance. But increasing population and greater affluence are placing unsustainable burdens on our environment.

It is only in the last few centuries that sustainable economic growth has been recognized as possible, generating what might be called a material progress vision. Central to this vision is the presumption that economic growth will make possible the good and just society. Therefore, society should consider economic growth as its highest priority. This has promoted a somewhat exclusive preoccupation with material progress as the key to improved human welfare at the expense of pursuing creative and fulfilling work, greater equality in opportunity and income, more supportive communities, and more time for family, friends, and reflection. For the sake of maximum economic growth, capitalism’s creative destruction must be fully unleashed, even if this results in ever more intense competition, insecurity, and stress.

A substantial body of work in psychology finds that above a fairly low threshold, subjective well-being does not correlate with higher incomes and levels of consumption. Bigger houses, status cars, exclusive clubs, and more expensive clothes do not translate into greater happiness.

The world’s poor urgently need the fruits of material progress. However, the material progress vision, and the social institutions that support it and are legitimated by it, have locked the privileged into a pursuit of ever greater material output that not only appears to yield no further increases in happiness but threatens humanity’s very future.

It is this predicament that makes the liberal arts more important than ever before. They are wedges for opening minds to nonmaterial values and cultivating the intellectual capacities for pursuing them. The liberal arts serve as a counterweight to the presumption that all must be sacrificed at the altar of maximum efficiency and growth. They help arm us in what must be a concerted struggle by all of humanity to maintain an environment in which future generations may lead healthy and fulfilling lives. No university could be a responsible part of the knowledge industry if it failed to promote and nurture the central importance of the liberal arts.