The Liberal Arts Are in Trouble–Should We Celebrate?: Part 2

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Today’s respondents to our symposium question, “Should we be unhappy that the liberal arts are going down?,” are Patrick Deneen, Peter Wood, and Peter Lawler.

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.Patrick DeneenNotre Dame

We should be unhappy that the liberal arts are “going down” in theory but not in fact.  Because the liberal arts, of course, have already “gone down;” indeed, the remnant of what was once called “the liberal arts” on most of today’s college campuses hardly deserves that name.

On most campuses there is barely any semblance of a curriculum shaped around a coherent understanding of the liberal arts, and most of the focal disciplines responsible for trusteeship of the liberal arts long ago gave up their role to serve as conservators of a fragile tradition.  Instead, faculty in those fields became hostile in general to the thing they taught – the Western tradition – and used the tools of their disciplines to undermine the legitimacy of what they taught.  Most books were either understood to be repositories of backwards thinking – sexism, classism, colonialism, racism, heteronormativity, ableism – or tools for their defeat.  In other words, the works from which it had been once widely understood were read because every generation was entitled to learn anew from them – Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and so on – could no longer “teach” us anything that we didn’t already know.  Such authors and their books were simply props for confirming our progressed views.  No wonder people on both sides of the lectern lost an interest in reading and teaching classic works, increasingly substituting them for “cultural studies” that confirmed prevailing orthodoxies.

Those who today most loudly denounce the decline of the liberal arts – rightly recognizing that higher education is coming under pressure to conform both to market as well as bureaucratic “assessment” pressures – largely have themselves to blame for the inability to mount a persuasive defense of the liberal arts.  They claim that they have a special ability to teach “critical thinking,” but there is no reason whatsoever to think that such a goal is particularly the domain of “the liberal arts.”  If all one aims to teach is “critical thinking,” the conclusion many tuition-paying “customers” have reached is that students may as well learn a marketable skill while purportedly picking up such an amorphous skill.

Both amusingly and pathetically, there have even been laments for the shortage of “conservative” voices like that of Allan Bloom aimed at criticizing the displacement of the liberal arts for more marketable disciplines.

Such laments conveniently overlook the vicious attacks that Bloom sustained at the time of the publication of The Closing of the American Mind from most scholars in the liberal arts, and that the composition of faculty in the liberal arts disciplines has been significantly remade in order to ensure than no-one like Bloom is among them.  The people who once might have been counted on to defend the liberal arts as constituting the heart of a coherent humanist curriculum (not a potpourri of options) largely ceased to be hired on most campuses years ago.

Instead, the remaining conservative and liberal critiques of the liberal arts are likely to stress their irrelevancy and promote more practical disciplines and overall reduction of the study of politicized disciplines (recall that not just economic libertarian “conservatives,” but President Obama has questioned the value of disciplines like Art History).  While I don’t agree with these aims, I can’t disagree with their dismissiveness of much of what passes for the liberal arts on today’s campuses.  I will defend to my last breath the liberal arts, but not what passes for the liberal arts on most campuses today.  Efforts to “reform” them have failed, and having betrayed the essence of the liberal arts – an education in ordered liberty – thereby assured their own demise.

A renascence is and will continue to happen outside the mainstream universities, which on the whole will continue to become more focused on STEM and career-preparation.  That renewal is happening mostly in institutions with religious affiliations, either new ones that have arisen with the decline of religious commitment of the Protestant and elite Catholic (especially Jesuit) traditions (e.g., Thomas Aquinas College), ones that have maintained their religious tradition (e.g., University of Dallas, Grove City College), or well-established institutions that are reviving their religious commitments (e.g., Providence College).  The vast majority of American parents, shaped by a utilitarian culture and fearful about a winner-take-all economy, today want to ensure that their children receive a practical education, free from political indoctrination, in return for exorbitant tuition dollars – and who can blame them?  But at least a remnant of parents are committed to the ongoing humanistic formation of their children – understanding that to be fully human, one must avoid reducing the end of education to narrowly economic goals, and that the complete life is finally one in which one is liberally educated, i.e., free in the fullest sense of being liberated from a disordered soul.

These parents and students will constitute the “market” for the ongoing renewal of the liberal arts, off the beaten track of the mainstream of higher education.   Like the monasteries of old they will be the life rafts in which Western civilization will be preserved by a small creative minority until the current Dark Ages pass.

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Peter WoodNational Association of Scholars

The liberal arts today are a broad, snow-covered hillside–a splendid place for tobogganing, but not so good as a venue for reading Plato.

Let’s not underestimate the thrill of a fast ride down the mountain, whizzing past boulders and ice-bejeweled aspens.  The exuberance of the contemporary take-anything-you-want curriculum is a force to be reckoned with.  Take “Cultural Difference and Crime Film” this semester, or maybe “Modern Western Prostitutes.” Next semester comes “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Eastern Europe.”  By senior year, you might work in “Advanced Topics in Environmental Philosophy.”

Those course titles come from my deep mine of examples, Bowdoin College.  I cite Bowdoin because it is always better to have concrete evidence.  But if “all is whirl” at Bowdoin, it is because all is whirl in liberal arts education at large.

Since the 1960s, broad courses and courses with prerequisites at Bowdoin have declined precipitously.  In their place came an explosion of narrow and often colorfully-named “topics” courses.  The college now offers an abundance of semi-specialized studies minus any governing context.

The liberal arts, once centered on Western civilization, have been successfully “de-centered.” Their unified purpose these days is the need to alienate students from American ideals.  As a New York Times columnist enthusiastically put it, “Education means enlightening our children’s minds with the uncensored scientific and artistic truth of the world.  If that means making our own sons and daughters strangers to us, then so be it.”

The making of strangers–estrangement–requires more than a gleeful toboggan run down the slippery slope of a postmodern curriculum.  It also requires shaping students’ social attitudes, behavior, and ethics–in a word, their character.  Liberal arts education used to embrace character formation as a way of preparing students to be leaders in American civic life.  This meant fostering self-restraint, commitment to national ideals, hard work, a willingness to sacrifice, and nobility of spirit.  The effort sometimes failed, but the liberal arts played an outsized role in preparing many generations of Americans to rise to the challenge of making our instruments of self-government work.

All of this has become excess baggage for today’s liberal arts college.  The emphasis on “estrangement” is in play in this context as well.  Bowdoin, though it has no required academic courses, requires new students to sit through a 45-minute play that propagandizes in favor of sexual experimentation governed by only one consideration:  mutual consent.  The college favors becoming a “citizen of the world” over consideration of American citizenship. Multiculturalism, verging on worship of the exotic, saturates extracurricular life. Freedom of expression bows down to political correctness. The campus is hostile to traditional religion. Bowdoin students are overscheduled with activities but spend roughly half the time studying outside class–sixteen hours per week on average–than students did forty years ago.

The loss of the older liberal arts tradition is grievous.  That loss deprives students, even if they don’t know it, of the better part of their education, and deprives the nation of a class of men and women suited by knowledge and temper to lead our country.

The growing disaffection of Americans with what is now (falsely) called liberal arts education, however, should be welcomed and encouraged.  Let the snow melt away from that toboggan slope. In its decline lies the possibility of a renaissance of real learning. The marketplace will supply practical training; and after a painful transition, colleges will rediscover the real terrain of the liberal arts.

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Peter Lawler, Berry College

If liberal education has been defeated, it’s because capitalism has won.  And if that’s true, we conservatives have to come to realize that capitalism unbounded can be as unfriendly to the truth about human liberty and dignity as collectivism was.  We’re going to have to become more aggressive about thinking outside the individualism vs. collectivism box.

According to the libertarian/capitalist critique (see Glenn Reynolds and Tyler Cowen), the arguments for liberal education are founded in aristocratic prejudices.  From this view, liberal education favored manners over the productivity of individuals.  To these critics, education must now be all about acquiring and marketing flexible skills to a dynamic market.

There’s a downside, Cowen admits.  A free and cosmopolitan people–one that has properly absorbed the relativistic degradation of liberal education–will care about consuming, not producing, culture. Despite all our money and technology, we’re stuck with just enjoying Gothic cathedrals or pyramids.  We’re stuck with being unable to generate such outstanding cultural artifacts for ourselves.  We don’t live in any particular culture; we’re producers and consumers–and so we’re tourists–deep down.

If you think about it, what the destruction of liberal education presupposes is that everything we are as persons can be expressed in terms of production and commodification.  We’re not really citizens or creatures or even parents or children; we’re not really part of a particular people with customs and conventions inhabiting a particular part of the world.

The way back for liberal education is to begin by saying loudly and proudly that the capitalist or libertarian argument that outs liberal education as an illusion is itself based upon the illusion that free and relational persons born to love and die could possibly flourish in a post-political, post-cultural, post-religious, post-familial, and even post-biological environment.

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4 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts Are in Trouble–Should We Celebrate?: Part 2

  1. Alas, Jonathan, students vote with their feet only in a limited way. There are those pesky graduation requirements. Typically set by those who never had to meet a payroll.
    Restriction of competition is not indicated by number of firms in a market, but by entry conditions.

  2. Dismalist — I can understand how someone who frequents this website might be reluctant to blame it on the capitalist/market system, and would like to blame it on state regulation/government intervention/funding — but I think there is at least a large kernel of truth in what Lawler says. The students have been voting with their feet — in the academic marketplace — for what some of us think are the degradations in the humanities. It is not as if the faculty have been going off in one direction and the students in another. Sure, the humanities may be suffering a decline in enrollment — actually, I think this is greatly exaggerated, often by administrators with their own agendas — but that doesn’t mean that if the school started going back to traditional humanistic students, that they’d get a big re-influx of students. I think they’d be even worse off.
    As for the universities being or not being in a competitive market — I think with thousands of colleges, they are more competitive than most private industries. And a lot of those private industries, associated with profit-making corporations, are at least as dependent on the federal government as is higher education.

  3. The last comment about capitalism seems the opposite of the truth: The humanities have become a sewer precisely at universities, which are shielded from new competition by state regulation and are the recipients of direct and indirect federal money.

  4. I guess we’ll just have to make do with the Hubble Space Telescope pictures and stuff like the recent BICEP2 experiment — you know, the one where they detected the gravitational wave tsunami from the inflationary epoch of the Big Bang (as observed by its signature on the polarization of the microwave background radiation) — even if we don’t have a clue what it’s really all about!

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