Monday, June 3, 2013

The Decline of the Liberal Arts

Everyone knows that today’s college students should major in science, technology, engineering and math.

It’s where the jobs are.

Male students especially also seem to realize that courses in STEM subjects are the only place where their work will be judged objectively.

All students should know by now that humanities and social science programs have become indoctrination mills.

The purveyors of liberal arts education no longer even seem to know what it is. For this reason, primarily, students are missing something of great value.

STEM subjects will surely enhance your career prospects, but they will not teach you very much about people. When all is said and done, if you want to lead a good life, to have good relationships with others, and even want to be a great executive, you will need to have a basic understanding of people. You will need to know what they are, how they function, the right and wrong ways to relate to them, even the best ways manage them.

Recently, Professor Donald Kagan offered a lecture on the decline of the liberal arts education. He offered these words as his valedictory to Yale University on the occasion of his retirement.

In the past a liberal arts education aimed to help students build character. It was taught students how to develop the character traits that would make them effective and happy citizens of the nation.

The liberal arts taught values. They taught ethical principles. They provided students with a base of knowledge about history, so they could see where their lives fit in the world. It taught students how to get along with other people and how to hold intelligent conversations about something other than their personal feelings. It taught them how to connect without having to hookup. It taught them how to exercise imagination, not merely the kind that you need to produce art, but the kind that you need when you are analyzing the possible outcomes of a proposed policy.

Kagan suggests that those days are long gone. Today’s students are radically disconnected and detached, from their communities, from their nation and from tradition. They do not feel like they belong to anything other than themselves. They have been taught to mock the notion of citizenship and have been persuaded that their nation is a criminal conspiracy in which they should not take any pride.

Doubtless, their teachers believe that their new way of educating is more therapeutic than the old model.

Students who have been trained to find fault with America cannot feel good about any of their personal achievements. They don’t know how to build anything, but they are skilled in tearing down what others have built.

In Kagan’s words:

Whatever the formal religious attachments of our students may be, I find that a firm belief in the traditional values and the ability to understand and the willingness to defend them are rare. Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values. The admirable, even the uniquely good elements are taken for granted as if they were universally available, had always existed, and required no special effort to preserve. All shortcomings, however, are quickly noticed and harshly condemned. Our society is judged not against the experience of human societies in other times and places, but against the Kingdom of Heaven. There is great danger in this, because our society, no less than others now and in the past, requires the allegiance and devotion of its members if it is to defend itself and make progress toward a better life.

Today’s students are suffering from anomie. It’s a form of radical individualism, the result of a mania about autonomy and independence. Its more clinically recognizable form is depression. Kagan calls it a nihilistic disconnection.

Pride is never just a function of individual achievement. Pride is also a group emotion. Deprive students of their pride in citizenship and their place in history and you have put them on the road to Prozac.

Kagan said:

Traditional beliefs, however, are not replaced by a different set of values resting on different traditions. Instead, I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness, as though not only the students but also the world was born yesterday, a feeling that they are attached to the society in which they live only incidentally and accidentally. Having little or no sense of the human experience through the ages, of what has been tried, of what has succeeded and what has failed, of what is the price of cherishing some values as opposed to others, or of how values relate to one another, they leap from acting as though anything is possible, without cost, to despairing that nothing is possible. They are inclined to see other people’s values as mere prejudices, one no better than another, while viewing their own as entirely valid, for they see themselves as autonomous entities entitled to be free from interference by society and from obligation to it.

He continued:

… today’s liberal arts students come to college, it seems to me, bearing a sort of relativism verging on nihilism, a kind of individualism that is really isolation from community. The education they receive in college these days, I believe, is more likely to reinforce this condition than to change it. In this way, too, it fails in its liberating function, in its responsibility to shape free men and women. Earlier generations who came to college with traditional beliefs rooted in the past had them challenged by hard questioning and the requirement to consider alternatives and were thereby unnerved, and thereby liberated, by the need to make reasoned choices. The students of today and tomorrow deserve the same opportunity. They, too, must be freed from the tyranny that comes from the accident of being born at a particular time in a particular place, but that liberation can only come from a return to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past. The challenge to the relativism, nihilism, and privatism of the present can best be presented by a careful and respectful examination of earlier ideas, ideas that have not been rejected by the current generation but are simply unknown to them. When they have been allowed to consider the alternatives, they, too, can enjoy the freedom of making an informed and reasoned choice.

In the absence of a solid liberal arts education students are, Kagan said, deprived of the freedom to make “an informed and reasoned choice.”

If only one point of view is presented as valid, students will either accept it or be ostracized. Universities increasingly stifle freedom of expression in the name of political correctness. It is not just the fault of the professors. Administrators often collude with those who would stifle free expression. When only one point of is presented, there is no freedom to choose:

Aristotle rightly observed that, in matters other than scientific, people learn best not by precept but by example. Let me conclude, therefore, by making it clear that the colleges who claim to offer a liberal education today and tomorrow must make their commitment to freedom clear by their actions. To a university, even more than to other institutions in a free society, the right of free speech, the free exchange of ideas, the presentation of a variety of opinions, especially of unpopular points of view, the freedom to move about and make use of public facilities without interference, are vital. Discussion, argument, and persuasion are the devices appropriate to the life of the mind, not selective exclusion, suppression, obstruction, and intimidation. Yet in my time our colleges and universities have often seen speakers shouted down or prevented from speaking, buildings forcibly occupied and access to them denied, different modes of intimidation employed with much success. Most of the time the perpetrators have gone unpunished in any significant way. These assaults typically have come from just one section of opinion, and they have been very successful. Over the years few advocates of views that challenge the campus consensus have been invited, and fewer still, sometimes victims of such behavior, have come. Colleges and universities that permit such attacks on freedom and take no firm and effective action to deter and punish those who carry them out sabotage the most basic educational freedoms. Yet to defend those freedoms is the first obligation of anyone who claims to engage in liberal education


Anonymous said...

Stuart -
Several ideas being expressed by Kagan
were expressed earlier by Alan Bloom in his book,'Closing of the American Mind'.

I imagine you may already have read it.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, shoe... yes, I did read it when it came out... and, as you know Kagan quotes Bloom... but I can't recall it very well right now.

Personally, I found Bloom to be very persuasive... though it does not seem to have changed the universities for the better.

Bobbye said...

Kagan suggests that those days are long gone
His speech at his retirement evidences the end. Kagan offers no reasonning as to why nihilism reigns, or why 'traditional values' disappeared. He isn't free enough to even list traditional values. I wonder what he thinks they are? Traditional marriage, traditional family, traditional courting/dating? He did not survive at Yale by allowing any such ideas to come out of his mouth. Universities have been an institution of the Federal government since Federal student aid purchased them. Even religious universities. Unless someone starts connecting the dots as to why things are the way they are, I will not esteem them either brave or useful.

JP said...

"Earlier generations who came to college with traditional beliefs rooted in the past had them challenged by hard questioning and the requirement to consider alternatives and were thereby unnerved, and thereby liberated, by the need to make reasoned choices."

Well, all the traditional beliefs have been ground to dust.

So, everybody's been properly liberated and are now free to wander around aimlessly in the dust storm.

Anonymous said...

Over the years, I've often thought about a Monty Python skit. The magician "El Mystico" creates apartment buildings out of thin air. But they only stay up "as long as people believe in them".

When doubts occur, the buildings shudder and quake.

They Pythons were v intelligent & educated semi-Tories. You see it all the time in their work. The contemporary outrage of the Major Blimps notwithstanding.

I often wanted to write a speech about the American dollar bill. Ostensibly, a worthless piece of paper. But it signifies every aspect of the American Experiment to the present day - THAT provides its worth. A matter of Belief, if you will.

Thru History, you see armies, corporations, and countries that have lost Belief in themselves. They shudder & quake, and don't last long.

I'm aware this thesis has a long and rocky pedigree. But I can't find a way to refute it. -- Rich Lara