Whither, or wither, the liberal arts?

A friend this weekend remarked on the “closing down” of the liberal arts at the local university. I did some checking and found that this hasn’t occurred but that there has been a consolidation, following a contentious process with faculty and students from these disciplines. I cannot fully discern the impact of these decisions from what online research I did and so I am keeping the school “anonymous” but the drift seemed clear–de-emphasizing the liberal arts and enhanced focus on STEM disciplines. From all that I am hearing in the world of higher education, this reflects a broader trend.

I am currently reading Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of LifeI will be reviewing this in the near future. In this post, I want to reflect on the value of the liberal arts courses I took during my own collegiate experience. I did not attend an elite school, but I feel I was blessed by the opportunity to take courses with a number of faculty who helped me think deeply about the human story–where we’ve come from, what it means to be human and to live well, and why we are here. College didn’t lead, for me, to abandoning my faith but rather deepening my understanding of that faith and its relevance to these perennial questions.

I think of my freshman philosophy course, that introduced me to questions such as how we know what we know, and whether we can root ethics in sources other than the transcendent. We discussed and debated, and I learned how to think more carefully in the process.  I think of history courses that weren’t just lists of dates and events but explorations of how we have gotten to where we are. I think of courses in literature including one in the Romantic period (that I took with my English major girlfriend, now my wife) that opened up my mind to the wonders of poetry, and helped me understand the Romantic reaction to Rationalism and its efforts to find meaning and the transcendent in the natural world. I discovered T.S. Eliot and both the despair of The Wasteland and the wonderful recovery of hope in The Four Quartets. The same professor hosted Lenten conversations one year on the works of C.S. Lewis that contributed to my lifelong love of this author. A course in the philosophy of history introduced me to the writing of Reinhold Neibuhr (the result of a professor’s recommendation for a paper I was writing) that not only helped me think about the meaning of history but also began to challenge me to think of how Christians engage in society.

During my sophomore year I participated in an interdisciplinary honors seminar on war and peace. Coming at the end of the Vietnam War era, this course introduced me to literary, political, and sociological writing about war and peace-making that helped me think and act critically as a citizen during the various foreign policy to’s and fro’s of political administrations since that time. My own research was on the idea of “images” in conflict resolution–how our image of adversaries shapes our response to them, and how our own actions can change the “image” our adversary has of us. As you can see, I’ve never forgotten that work, and it has been important in many interpersonal interactions over the years.

In one sense, these courses offered little that relate to the practical realities of my day to day work. Much of that I’ve learned along the way. Yet these courses helped me to think about what a life well-lived looked like, and what was going to matter whatever I ended up doing. And these courses taught me how to learn, to research, to inquire, to think carefully, to adapt to the rapidly changing scene, to have an intellectual flexibility that connect the new and the old, the timeless, and the changing.

Kronman’s book contends that these courses no longer do these things, but have become exercises in politically correct discourse. From friends in higher education, I know this is not always the case, although the trend and pressure is real. And because these courses are not producing either a tangible good (and I find many students balk at the stultifying propagandizing of many political correctness approaches) or a tangible skill, the arguments for reducing or eliminating them is growing stronger. What is most troubling to me is that it seems we may be reducing the college experience to one of training soulless automatons to be cogs in the military-economic-technological machine.

I’m saddened by this–my experience was coming from a working class neighborhood to a working class university that opened my mind in ways that have enriched my life. This wasn’t elitist education! I’m also troubled by the concern of what will happen when the “cogs” wake up to the fact that they have been short-changed in being offered a life that will make them well off without thinking about what makes up a life well-lived.

One thought on “Whither, or wither, the liberal arts?

  1. Pingback: Review: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life « Bob on Books

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