Doing Themselves In?

If the liberal arts are dying, who's to blame? Speakers at conference say advocates of a broad education need to look inward.

October 20, 2014
 
St. John's College

SANTA FE – Part celebration, part intervention, a conference on the future of the liberal arts at St. John’s College last week offered high praise and harsh advice for an embattled tradition. Speakers on Friday said that while the future of the democracy depends on a broadly educated public, advocates need to return to a less politicized, more siloed vision of the liberal arts for them to survive.

The biggest wake-up call came from John Agresto, past president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. (St. John's in Santa Fe, which celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting the “What Is a Liberal Education For?” conference, has an older campus in Annapolis, Md.) Quoting worrisome statistics about the humanities today – English, long a go-to concentration, now accounts for just 3 percent of majors nationwide, for example – Agresto said the liberal arts are “dying.”

But, he said, taking a different tone from speakers earlier in the conference – many of whom focused on defending the humanities to detractors – the death may be “less a murder than a suicide.”

‘More Critical Than Thoughtful’

Agresto said that much humanities instruction has been co-opted by hyperspecialization and especially by critical theory. He said overly-critical approaches at once demean the subject matter and limit students’ free inquiry. For example, he said, when professors portray the founding fathers as mere “white racists,” no student or parent “in their right mind” would pay $50,000 a year to study them.

To save the humanities, professors must value opening up students’ minds over “preaching and converting," he said. That means returning to an older mode of instruction, and instilling critical thinking skills. It means getting students to ask questions and helping them see the “variety” of answers – not leading them to a specific point of view, he added.

In the past and at their best, the liberal arts were a “gift” given to everyone, Agresto said. “It didn’t matter that Dante and Homer were dead white males,” and keeping Shakespeare alive wasn’t an “ethnocentric act.”

Eva Brann, St. John’s longest-serving faculty member, or “tutor,” also criticized what she called a “premasticated” mode of instruction. She said the most important feature of a true liberal arts education is “immediacy.” She defined that in multiple ways, including an unmediated mode of instruction in which students approach texts as they are. That’s the pedagogical approach at St. John’s, which follows a Great Books curriculum and is by design largely free of critical theory. Students graduate with liberal arts degrees only.

“I do think, tiny as we are, we’re helping to repair a more global loss,” of classic liberal arts instruction, Brann said, in which “a cat may look at a king.”

It wasn’t just St. John’s scholars who criticized the turn many humanities programs have taken in recent decades. In a speech called “Does Liberal Education Have a Future?,” Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, said that humanities departments need to be less concerned about staking a piece of any core curriculum and about numbers of majors than about whether, say, engineering students are still exposed to the humanities in meaningful ways.

“The issue is not whether they’re concentrating in [the liberal arts],” he said. “It’s whether they’re reading books and having productive conversations and looking at the world.”

Delbanco also criticized efforts to defend the liberal arts that perpetuate a sense that they are the domain of the elite. Still, Delbanco said, “You cannot explain the value of a liberal education to those who have not had one.”

Several audience members took issue with that statement. Victoria Mora, vice president of advancement at St. John’s in Santa Fe, asked whether Delbanco really wanted to “stand by” the idea that the value of the liberal arts can’t be effectively argued. And S. Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, asked how the value and lessons of the liberal arts could be missed by so many legislators who have traditionally received liberal educations.

Delbanco said those who had liberal educations but did not reap the benefits were probably just “going through the motions” and “didn’t really get it.” And the only true defense of such an education is to “bear witness” to its value, including through personal and professional success, he said.

Praise for the Liberal Arts

While speakers prescribed strong medicine for the liberal arts Friday, they offered at least an equal dosage of praise. One panel in particular focused on a common defense of the liberal arts: that they’re essential to democracy.

Wilfred McClay, G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma and a St. John’s alum, said that the mark of genuine liberal education is that it aims to “instill a pair of paradoxical qualities”: the capacities for both “inquiry” and “membership.”

He drew on Plato’s allegory of the cave to show how liberal education can reveal that the shadows of reality are in fact shadows. But while in Plato’s vision those who had seen the light could never return to the cave for fear of being killed, McClay said, “reality is never so extreme as that.”

A liberal education isn’t just about the “pain” of discovery, McClay, continued, but also about what the historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan called “the vindication of tradition," or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of heritage as a “task.” So a liberal education helps members of a society see where they want to go based on where they have been.

McClay said it was ironic that at the most prosperous moment in human history, in which the average citizen enjoys a standard of living that would have been the “envy of kings and queens in ages past,” there are so many calls to abandon “the highest and best kind of education,” because we can no longer afford it.

“Can we hear how absurd it sounds for us to be saying such things?” he asked.

Delbanco agreed that the liberal arts play an important role in shaping a democracy, saying that the discourse on such important issues as gun control, abortion and health care is currently “low.”

Daniel Cullen, associate professor of political philosophy and humanities and co-director of the Project for the Study of Liberal Democracy at Rhodes College, took a different route to the same point. He adopted a more de Tocqueville-like argument, saying that liberal education might best serve democracy “indirectly,” by protecting against some of its more homogenizing “tendencies” -- namely materialism and utilitarianism.

The “spirit” of liberal education is “countercultural," Cullen said. That's especially true in a “hyperutilitarian society like our own,” where the value of things is measured by how they may be bent to “immediate use," he added.

David Carl, director St. John’s Graduate Institute, said midcareer professionals, such as high school teachers, are returning to study the liberal arts at St. John’s because they feel they’ve missed out on a deeper educational experience. While they may have initially sought undergraduate training for their “first job,” he said these post-graduate students feel they’ve missed out on a formative experience, and want to study in a way that trains them for “a career.”

St. John’s recently announced that it will offer a short, Great Books-inspired science education program for post-graduates. Peter Pesic, another faculty member at St. John’s in Santa Fe who is a physicist, historian and musician, said the liberal arts aren’t just about the humanities. Other speakers pointed this out over the course of the conference, with some suggesting that taking a more liberal arts-centered approach to science instruction would free scientists to pursue more creative, meaningful work.

Quoting Baudelaire, Pesic said that “genius is childhood recovered at will.” He said that many students are drawn to study the natural world by “wonder” but grow disenchanted with science and math in particular as early as elementary school because they sense the material's “deep philosophic origins," which are largely ignored. 

Those subjects are difficult, he said. But what a good liberal education seeks to do is draw students in with wonder while giving them the courage to “pay the price” of discovery, withstanding the difficulty.

In that sense, Pesic said he hoped St. John’s has achieved “a school of genius.”

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