Not too long after Bobby Jindal announced that Republicans need to stop being the "stupid party," a third Republican governor threw his support behind plans for higher education that base funding on the profitability of the different academic disciplines. Patrick McRory, North Carolina's governor, singled out the liberal arts—and specifically philosophy—as an example of the frivolities that did not merit state support.
This reflects a broader move among Republican governors. According to Inside Higher Ed: "McCrory’s comments on higher education echo statements made by a number of Republican governors – including those in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin—who have questioned the value of liberal arts instruction and humanities degrees at public colleges and universities."
It is perhaps difficult to avoid the self-inflicted label of the "stupid party" when one cannot come up with a good reason to support education apart from its profitability. Is there a reason to support literacy apart from the benefits an educated workforce provides? Is the ability to read and reflect something of great intrinsic worth or not? The trend on the right appears to be toward the latter.
Had McRory been competently educated, he would have been able to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic goods. An intrinsic good is something valuable for its own sake, while an extrinsic good is valuable for some further purpose. Money is an extrinsic good: it has value only because it secures further goods. Love is an intrinsic good: one seeks love for its own sake. Intrinsic goods are superior to extrinsic goods: a purely extrinsic goods is not valuable in its own right, but derives its value solely from its relation to some further good.
Education leads to a number of different goods. An education is valuable because it leads to a job. Jobs are usually extrinsic goods, valuable because they lead to an income (another extrinsic good.) Most jobs, unfortunately, are not valued in their own right: Were one not paid, one would not work.
But a liberal arts education also serves an intrinsic good: the intellectually fulfilled life. One who learns to reflect on human nature from the work of Homer and Shakespeare, or to pursue wisdom with Plato and Aquinas, or beauty with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci pursues these activities for their own sake. The intellectual life is perfect in the sense that it is its own primary purpose.
The public pursuit of intrinsic goods—truth, beauty, wisdom, the good, etc.—is central to Western civilization. It is very odd indeed to call a person "conservative" who struggles to find a reason to conserve our cultural heritage.
A civilization that only pursues material advantage, neglects the arts, and lacks intellectual vitality has nothing worthwhile to pass on to posterity. Those who have difficulty imagining why any great social energy ought to be expended on the higher things in life are simply barbarians. For what else is barbarism than the sort of cultural indolence that does not privilege intrinsic goods, chief among which stand the humanities?