Sorry, But It Just Ain’t So: A Response to Prof. James Davila on Liberal Arts

Next up on the defenders of the academic study of liberal arts is Prof. James Davila of the PaleoJudaica blog. Two posts, one which includes an article on the importance of Akkadian, and one which references Jonathan Rosenblum’s article on Talmud education, contain brief asides by Prof. Davila on the benefits of the humanities to students and the broader public.

This is my response.

Dear Prof. Davila,

As a former student of the humanities and an avid consumer of its products, my heart goes out to you. I agree with you that the liberal arts are an important part of our culture. Your argument for the funding of researchers and professors who continue the monumental work of interpreting and explaining the works of the past is convincing.

However, in my opinion, your attempt to justify getting a 3-year BA degree in the humanities falls completely flat. I will try to demonstrate this with a line-by-line rebuttal to your second aside:

A traditional liberal arts education (as opposed to, say, deconstruction-of-the-Justin-Bieber-canon studies) introduces students to the best thoughts and literature that humanity has produced.”

50 years ago, maybe. Today, “Great Books” style courses are scorned in favor of “deconstructing” great works in the name of various trendy ideologies such as feminism and post-colonialism. Most students in university would fail miserably if given a beginner level quiz on basic facts about humanity outside their specialized scope.

Furthermore, people interested in studying “the best humanity has to offer” can:

1)      Read most works online

2)      Purchase books which explain these works in a clear and concise manner

3)      Listen to lectures which also do so

There is no need for them to spend 3 years and tens of thousands of dollars for the admittedly important purpose of becoming an erudite and well-rounded individual. Which brings me to my next point:

“It also teaches them to think critically about those thoughts and writings and to write well-thought-out, well-organized, grammatical prose containing their own critical thoughts.”

You have got to be kidding me.

First of all, “critical thinking” is a skill one can develop in many venues, not just in the liberal arts. A lawyer must learn to think critically and see both sides of the story or he won’t be able to argue effectively. A scientist or mathematician must constantly evaluate and check his work, because often the lives of others depend on it. An engineer, for instance, must constantly be diligent, or his building will collapse on the people inside.

Nor is university the only place where one can develop arguing skills or hear both sides. Alongside reading online blogs and magazines with different points of view, there are many well-moderated forums where one can share thoughts and discuss issues. Unless you are hopelessly dogmatic, critical thinking will surely follow.

Regarding the idea that writing skills are a benefit of liberal arts:

Prof. Davila, here’s a challenge for you. Randomly pick three academic journals which you regularly read and give them to intelligent non-specialists. If they can make heads or tails of it without checking the dictionary every three seconds, I’ll buy you a drink (If you’re ever near Jerusalem).

Most academic writing – even of doctors and professors – is dense, overly wordy and horribly organized. You’d have a better chance of finding good, succinct writing or coherent arguments in fashion magazines. In fact, if I were paranoid, I’d say academics write as poorly as possible so that the “riff-raff” of non-academics can’t read it.

If this is the case with regard to the highest-level graduates of liberal arts, all the more so with regard to people who only do a BA. Most courses in liberal arts majors are dedicated to imparting information, not skills. There are few good systematic courses and seminars for writing, editing and presenting material. Students are expected to learn how to do all this on their own with no tools, instructions or guidelines. Kind of like another institution I could name.


“These are skills that employers are desperate to find.

I’d like to know where such employers can be found; in my opinion, they don’t exist. But you know what? Here’s another challenge: as a sociological experiment, pretend to be an unemployed academic or better yet just a doctor and send out your resume to several places of employment (outside of academia). Remove all awards and grants you received and papers you published. I’d be curious to know what the results are.

As Thomas H. Benton made clear, humanities departments have done a horrible disservice to graduate students by retaining far too many of them and letting them finish academic degrees. This is because their chances of getting a secure job in academia are very small and shrinking, and many have a hard time adjusting to the real world after nearly a decade on campus (see here for a complete list of issues). Jobs are theirs for the taking? I recently heard of a woman who did a doctorate in Yiddish and now works as a cashier at a supermarket. I doubt she’s exceptional.

Once again, if this is the case regarding the most advanced students of the humanities who ostensibly gained the most skills, all the more so regarding people who attained only a BA. Contrary to what you say, many of them have mostly accumulated skills which are useful  only if they continue to an MA, PhD and succeed in getting into a tenured academic position. Most liberal arts BA students would be better off just taking some online writing courses and getting a library card or a Kindle.

Prof. Davila, it is past time that humanities departments face facts and restructure themselves. All degree-level studies, BA included, should be restricted and be made far more rigorous and demanding so that only a much smaller cadre of the best and most devoted students remain. With the amount of competition greatly reduced, the “best and the brightest” will then advance towards an academic career, where they can truly contribute to research. Stop letting in students who come to get a humanities degree just because “it’s easy” – you’re helping neither yourself nor the students.

As for reaching out to the broader public or the student body, there are better ways to do it. Offer specialized classes that provide challenge and interest or prepare a true “core curriculum” of courses free of the trendy stuff that would be edifying for students getting professional degrees. Spend more time cultivating individual and group blogs, as well as youtube channels or online courses. Advertise not just to the fresh-faced youngsters but also to retirees or middle aged professionals who would love to learn more but aren’t necessarily interested in a full degree. You may be surprised how many people are interested.


Avi Woolf/AIWAC

BA, Land of Israel Studies, Bar-Ilan University, 2007


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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1 Response to Sorry, But It Just Ain’t So: A Response to Prof. James Davila on Liberal Arts

  1. S. says:

    Wow, you’re a tough customer. You’re right though. If you want a great humanities education you’re probably going to wind up getting one as an autodidact anyway, so why pay through the nose for it?

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