In Defense of the Liberal Arts
The liberal arts face a perfect storm. The economy is struggling with obscenely high unemployment and is mired in massive federal and state deficits. Budget-cutting won’t spare education.
The public is already angry over fraud, waste and incompetence in our schools and universities. And in these tough times, taxpayers rightly question everything about traditional education – from teacher unions and faculty tenure to the secrecy of university admissions policies and which courses really need to be taught.
Opportunistic private trade schools have sprouted in every community, offering online certification in practical skills without the frills and costs of so-called liberal arts “electives.”
In response to these challenges, the therapeutic academic Left proved often incapable of defending the traditional liberal arts. After three decades of defining the study of literature and history as too often a melodrama of race, class and gender oppression, it managed to turn off much of the college audience and the general reading public. And cheek by jowl, the utilitarian Right succeeded in reclassifying business and finance not just as undergraduate university majors, but also core elements in general education requirements.
In such a climate, it is natural that once again we are hearing talk of cutting the “non-essentials” in our colleges such as Latin, Renaissance history, Shakespeare, Plato, Rembrandt and Chopin. Why do we cling to the arts and humanities in a high-tech world in which we have instant recall at our fingertips through a Google search and such studies do not guarantee sure 21st-century careers?
But the liberal arts train students to write, think and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge. Without that foundation, it is harder to make – or demand from others – logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.
Citizens – shocked and awed by technological change – become overwhelmed by the Internet, cable news, talk radio, video games and popular culture of the moment. Without links to our past heritage, we in ignorance begin to think our own modern challenges – the war in Afghanistan, gay marriage, cloning or massive deficits – are unique and don’t raise issues comparable to those dealt with and solved in the past.
And without citizens broadly informed by humanities, we descend into a pyramidal society. A tiny technocratic elite on top crafts everything from cell phones and search engines to foreign policy and economic strategy. A growing mass below lacks understanding of the present complexity and the basic skills to question what they are told.
During the 1960s and 1970s, committed liberals thought we could short-circuit the process of liberal education by creating advocacy classes with the suffix “studies.” Black studies, Chicano studies, community studies, environmental studies, leisure studies, peace studies, woman’s studies and hundreds more were designed to turn out more socially responsible youths. Instead, universities too often graduated zealous advocates who lacked the broadly educated means to achieve their predetermined politicized ends.
On the other hand, pragmatists argued that our future CEOs needed to learn spread sheets at 20 rather than why Homer’s Achilles does not receive the honors he deserved, or how civilization was lost in fifth-century Rome and 1930s Germany. Yet Latin or a course in rhetoric might better teach a would-be captain of industry how to dazzle his audience than a class in Microsoft PowerPoint.
The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern – communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for the ability to express themselves effectively and with dignity. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves.
Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way Twittering cannot. The latest anti-Christ video shown at the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian will fade when the Delphic Charioteer or Michelangelo’s David does not. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad.
America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art and music is not one of them.
© 2010 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.