What Is It About The Liberal Arts?

Imagine for a moment that you are a senior professor at an elite college with a proud 200-year tradition in liberal arts education. You attend a monthly faculty meeting in the fall 2007 and find yourself for the first time in a quarter century surrounded by seventy or so undergraduate activists who are staging a demonstration for social justice. Several incidents that in all likelihood have little or no connection to the behavior of members of the community precipitate the protest. Faculty sympathizers move to allow one of the student leaders to speak. She issues demands that the college “must make a stronger commitment to diversity in … structure, institution, and most importantly curriculum.” The small college of 200 faculty and 1700 undergraduates, claim the students, needs to do more to promote diversity, although the campus already boasts a Diversity and Social Justice Project, Social Justice Initiative, Associate Dean for Diversity Initiatives, and Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Accessibility, along with a host of well-funded multicultural groups, with access, in aggregate, to hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual funding.

The lengthy student wish-list includes a place of their own, a “Cultural Education Center” that will educate the benighted in “systems of privilege and oppression” and provide a “safe space” in which to “privilege the experiences of non-dominant individuals.” The faculty applauds the student initiative like trained seals. The discomfited president and dean of the faculty commend the protesting students for their “powerful and respectful demonstration.” The dean, poor chap, who unwittingly doubles as a syndicated columnist for higher learning’s lexicon of loonery, endorses diversity as the great “hedge against obsolescence,” dismisses talk of political activism in the classroom, and speaks approvingly in the campus newspaper of the idea of “parallel safe spaces”—whatever the hell that means– for the allegedly marginalized. The senior professor asks him point blank if he is concerned about the lack of intellectual diversity at the college, given that it hosted not one—that’s right, not one—conservative speaker on campus during 2007-2008 academic year. In a word, he replies, “No.” A few weeks after the faculty meeting, a breathless president, alluding to unnamed threats to inclusiveness, publishes a list of all the benefactions the college is providing and will provide in the name of diversity, a word that she, like her immediate predecessors, refuses to define with so much as a modicum of intellectual clarity. The activist students demand and receive a meeting with the board of trustees, a self-congratulatory, ostrich-like group, whose favored measures of judging the college’s well-being revolve around the size of the endowment and the college’s rankings in the annual educational issue of US News and World Report. One trustee comes to the rescue and antes up 4 million dollars to renovate an existing building for a new student center to serve as a kind of multicultural “hub” for “expanded collaboration among all student groups.” Whether the renovated building will contain sacred spaces for the secret rituals of the diversity cartel remains to be seen, but don’t bet against it. The building sits next to an impressive village of yellow buildings previously dedicated to student activities. Diversity, the president insists, “is not a problem to be solved, but “a fact and an ideal.” Yes, a non-scholarly ideal, on which, it appears, you shower as much money as necessary to buy political peace and garner favorable headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The college, the president proudly proclaims, will become more diverse under her leadership, and to evidence the point, she has the decency to hand a smoking gun to higher education critics by publicly acknowledging that the recent abolition of merit scholarships at the college was effected–at least in part–to free up additional resources for diversity initiatives. The public relations department at the college touts this move as a sign of her bold leadership. SAT, scores, says one applauding journalist, continue to rise at the college. Yet, in a decision related to diversity pressures in the recruitment of students, the college went SAT-optional several years before, and, according to statistics provided by CollegeBoard, the percentage of admitted students now submitting their SAT scores has dropped to less than sixty percent. A fair-minded person charting the betterment of the college might want to know what the average scores would like if they included those of the forty percent of admitted students who refused to submit them.

Students involved in the Social Justice Initiative persist in lobbying the administration and faculty for the “integration of tolerance and diversity into the Hamilton curriculum.” But, ironically, the powers that be at the college have already betrayed the ethos of a liberal arts education by doing away with any mandatory core requirements. The “student centered” open curriculum now stands as “the centerpiece” of the college’s “unique [sic] curriculum” and as the “defining characteristic” of its “national and international identity.” No matter that precisely because the open curriculum is not unique and is alluring more and more schools into its treacherous embrace as the quick-fix to get better students, the law of diminishing returns will inevitably apply. No matter that increasing numbers of the best and brightest are graduating from the college with manicured transcripts that avoid humanities or avoid sciences depending on the student’s perception of his or her own strengths. No matter that the overwhelming majority of the Phi Beta Kappas graduate without a single American history course to their credit. No matter that masses of students are graduating with a staggering illiteracy in Western culture. The consumer-oriented dean, who cannot distinguish a principle from a poke, will “work closely,” according to the student newspaper, with the student activists “to achieve the objectives they have outlined,” including, it seems, the integration of “diversity awareness material into … the curriculum.”

“What plagues and portents! What mutiny!” With apologies to Shakespeare, whose verse most of the recent graduates at my institution, Hamilton College, no longer study, the wisdom of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida beckons: The “enterprise is sick.”


2 thoughts on “What Is It About The Liberal Arts?

  1. A Follow-Up on my essay:
    In “What Is It about Liberal Arts,” (Minding the Campus, 26 September), I recounted the “incidentism” that is driving the powers that be at Hamilton College to the creation of a Cultural Education Center at the behest of social justice activists. Trustees meetings have just concluded; a faculty meeting occurred yesterday. What have we found out from the powers that be?
    President Joan Hinde Stewart on 6 October: “As Trustees arrived at Buttrick Hall for the Saturday meeting, student members of the Social Justice Initiative presented them with copies of a petition with 371 signatures. The key point was a proposal for a cultural education center. Chairman A.G. Lafley told the students that he is strongly committed to inclusiveness and that their ideas will be considered as the strategic planning process moves forward. Board members commented on the politeness and demeanor of the students.”
    From the Hamilton College Website, 6 October:
    “Members of the Social Justice Initiative, a Hamilton College student organization formed in 2007, presented copies of a petition with approximately 370 signatures to members of the college’s Board of Trustees as they arrived for their quarterly meeting on campus Saturday, Oct. 4. The key point was the students’ proposal of a cultural education center.
    The chairman and vice chairman of the Board, as well as the president and other Board members, spoke briefly with the students prior to the meeting in Buttrick Hall. Chairman A.G. Lafley told the students that he is strongly committed to inclusiveness and that their ideas will be part of the consideration set as the strategic planning process moves forward. Board members commented on the politeness and demeanor of the students. Lafley also held an open hour with students on Thursday, Oct. 2, and several members of the SJI talked with him then about a cultural education center.
    It was the second recent Board weekend when the students had direct conversations with trustees about their sense of what is needed on campus. In March, members of the Social Justice Initiative were invited to meet with the Board’s Committee on Student Affairs.”
    From the results of yesterday’s faculty meeting:
    In the midst of the worst economic crisis in our lifetime, both the president and the dean announce that one of the most “salient” issues for Hamilton’s board of trustees is the establishment of the Social Justice Initiative’s Cultural Education Center.
    As one of my distinguished colleagues put it, It’s as if “our colleagues are [content] rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

  2. I used to worry that as an engineer, that I wasn’t getting a well-rounded education in the liberal arts. Today, given the blatant mis-education in the liberal arts, I now see that not as lack of education, but as having avoided harm.

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