Sunday, April 30, 2017

Liberal Arts Education, R. I. P.

In a long and learned article in City Journal, classicist Victor Davis Hanson bemoans the end of liberal arts education. America’s universities have given up on teaching the classics, the foundation of a liberal arts education.

They no longer teach Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Sophocles. They do not teach that democracy began in ancient Greece and that republican government comes to us from the ancient romans.

Hanson does not mention it, but I suspect that precious few of today’s professors know enough to teach the classics, or to teach the history of Western philosophy or literature. They were trained to indoctrinate their students, not to teach them. Let’s not forget, many of today’s courses are taught by poorly paid adjuncts. Fewer and fewer tenured professors walk the halls of academia.

And how many of today’s college students would be capable of studying Plato and Aristotle, or reading Homer and Virgil. I suspect that few of them could. All of the carping about the hegemony of Western white males is probably just a cover for students who cannot do the work.

So, the academy is being dumbed down. And this is sad indeed. But, perhaps we overreached when we decided that everyone should have a liberal arts education. Some people do not need it and would not know how to profit from it. One hates to say it, but for some people vocational training is probably best. The egalitarian notion that everyone is the same and that all students can learn something from reading Shakespeare and Milton was far too optimistic.

In other words, even if today’s professors could teach the classics effectively, many of their students, the products of America’s secondary schools, would not be capable of studying them?

There is, in other words, enough blame to go around.

Some universities have turned into indoctrination mills, more concerned with teaching students the supposed therapeutic benefits of political correctness. Others are offering vocational training. And much of the educational slack is being picked up by online courses. After all, Hanson notes, these courses probably offer better instruction than you get in college. Taught by academic stars, they not only provide exposure to the material, but they sometimes offer interactive homework assignments, tailored to each student’s needs.

Hanson tracks the movement:

As the American workforce increasingly needs retraining and as higher-paying jobs demand ever more specialized skills, students are beginning to pay for their education on a class-by-class basis through distance learning. Online classes, which do not require campus residence or commuting, also eliminate the overhead of highly paid, tenured faculty, campus infrastructure, and such costly elements of undergraduate education as on-campus lectures and extracurricular activities.

And also:

Perhaps their unspoken premise is that if universities do not believe in the value of teaching Western civilization as part of a mandated general-education curriculum, then why not simply go to the heart of the matter and offer computer-programming skills or aeronautical-engineering know-how without the pretense of a broad education? And who is to say that paid-by-the-hour instructors at the online University of Phoenix are less responsible teachers than their traditional counterparts? After all, their market-driven employers must serve a paying constituency that, unlike traditional university students, often demands near-instant results for its fees.

Those who want to find a more classical liberal arts education are gravitating toward more religious schools, like Hillsdale College, St. John’s College, etc.

Hanson is himself a classicist, so he defends the classics eloquently:

Classical learning dedicated itself to turning out literate citizens who could read and write well, express themselves, and make sense of the confusion of the present by drawing on the wisdom of the past. Students grounded in the classics appreciated the history of their civilization and understood the rights and responsibilities of their unique citizenship. Universities, then, acted as cultural custodians, helping students understand our present values in the context of a 2,500-year tradition that began with the ancient Greeks.

He continues:

Study of Athenian democracy, Homeric epic, or Roman basilicas framed all exploration of subsequent eras, from the Middle Ages to modernity. An Aquinas, Dante, Michelangelo, or Montesquieu could be seen as reaffirming, adopting, modifying, or rejecting something that the Greeks or Romans had done first. One could no more build a liberal education without some grounding in the classics than one could construct a multistory house without a foundation.

But, classical liberal arts education has been supplanted by more practical subjects:

Over the last four decades, various philosophical and ideological strands united to contribute to the decline of classical education. A creeping vocationalism, for one, displaced much of the liberal arts curriculum in the crowded credit-hours of indebted students. Forfeiting classical learning in order to teach undergraduates a narrow skill (what the Greeks called a technê) was predicated on the shaky notion that undergraduate instruction in business or law would produce superior CEOs or lawyers—and would more successfully inculcate the arts of logic, reasoning, fact-based knowledge, and communication so necessary for professional success.

And, as I have often noted on this blog, universities have come to see their mission as therapeutic. They do not want students to learn; they want students to attain a specious version of mental health.

In Hanson’s words:

A therapeutic curriculum, which promised that counseling and proper social attitudes could mitigate such eternal obstacles to human happiness as racism, sexism, war, and poverty, likewise displaced more difficult classes in literature, language, philosophy, and political science. The therapeutic sensibility burdened the university with the task of ensuring that students felt adjusted and happy. And upon graduation, those students began to expect an equality of result rather than of opportunity from their society. Gone from university life was the larger tragic sense. Few students learned (or were reminded) that we come into this world with limitations that we must endure with dignity and courage rather than deal with easily through greater sensitivity, more laws, better technology, and sufficient capital.

The radical left has turned the academic into an indoctrination mill, where political correctness reigns supreme. Note well Hanson’s observation: political correctness does not involve learning or inquiring. It is not about knowing but believing.

It seeks to persuade, to convince, to indoctrinate students in dogmatic beliefs. To be fair, this practice has its roots in the Socratic dialogues. They are not designed to teach the art of inquiry. They were designed to seduce unwitting dupes into believing something:

Political correctness, meanwhile, turned upside-down the old standard of inductive reasoning, the linchpin of the liberal arts. Students now were to accept preordained general principles—such as the pernicious legacy of European colonialism and imperialism and the pathologies of capitalism, homophobia, and sexism—and then deductively to demonstrate how such crimes manifested themselves in history, literature, and science. The university viewed itself as nearly alone in its responsibility for formulating progressive remedies for society’s ills. Society at large, government, the family, and religion were hopelessly reactionary.

Is there still a value to going to America’s great universities? Surely, if you are going to study STEM subjects, the answer is Yes. Beyond that, these schools are becoming places for the elite to form friendships and social alliances. They provide status and prestige… and yes, an access to privilege. Will ironies never cease!

Hanson is not optimistic:

But their attractions—and especially the enticements of the Ivy League schools, Stanford, Berkeley, and such private four-year colleges as Amherst and Oberlin—will largely derive from the status that they convey, the career advantages that accrue from their brand-name diplomas, and the unspoken allure of networking and associating with others of a similarly affluent and privileged class. They are becoming social entities, private clubs for young people, certification and proof of career seriousness, but hardly centers for excellence in undergraduate education in the classical sense. For all the tens of thousands of dollars invested in yearly tuition, there will be no guarantee, or indeed, even a general expectation, that students will encounter singular faculty or receive a superior liberal arts education—let alone that they will know much more about their exceptional civilization than what they could find on the Internet, at religious schools, or on CDs and DVDs.


trigger warning said...

From the Letters section of the WSJ Editorial page:

"Many students view themselves principally as customers. The campus environment is a thing to be purchased and, like a purchase on Amazon, should meet the customer’s expectations or be sent away, instantly, with free return shipping and a full refund. We used to be participants and contributors; now we are customers and critics [...] [I]t originates in the cheap postwar, one-liner bits of philosophy we’ve chanted together, phrases like 'the customer is always right' and 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease.' If these are the big ideas in society, don’t be surprised when the customers start squeaking."
--- Karl T. Muth, Ph.D., (Northwestern University)

Seems about right to me. My last quarter of teaching, a student, in an email copied to the Administration, accused me of being too "strick" with my grading (statistics tests). Sigh. Another dissatisfied, squeaky customer.

Ares Olympus said...

When I was in college, I took history of science classes for some of my liberal arts credits, which of course went back to Plato and Aristotle, or actually started with Babylonians and the cuneiform tablets, as well as the Romans doctors like Galen.

I don't remember being indoctrinated on anything, except perhaps I might have gotten the impression that men did all the important stuff in history.

Or maybe not quite, like Hypatia of Alexandria did some great work until stupid men murdered her and eventually burned down the greatest library of the ancient world.

I guess I was indoctrinated to believe that intellectuals of any gender were good people, worthy to listen to emulate.

Knowledge is power, the pen is mightier than the sword, at least if you have an escape route planned, and your internet library properly backed up in Canada.

Madonaldo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James said...

"accused me of being too "strick"" I hope it wasn't spelling. I once had a conversation with a 28yr old bartender, who could not believe that Detroit was located in the US and could not tell me where Paris, France was. Upon further reflection perhaps he had a point about Detroit. By the way he was a "history major" at the University of Texas.
That's not a shot at you Ares after all not many know about Hypatia.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares, when did you graduate from college? Where did you graduate from?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

TW, thanks for the letter from Professor Muth. What he doesn't seem to be remembering in his metaphor is that Amazon actually has a 30-day return policy, which equates to a university's drop/add period. The worst part is that the snowflakes seem to have extracted an L.L. Bean guarantee, which is for the lifetime of the product. They might be alarmed to know that Mr. Bean is a dead white male from a Maine who likes to hunt animals for sport.

My students think I'm strick, too. One of them called me a "non-teacher" in last semester's eval, which was rather humorous, because I am indeed a teacher. I teach business entrepreneurship at an art college, with some of the highest ratings of any instructor. Whether he or she is a student in reality was unclear, given that the surveys are anonymous. I have many in the first couple weeks of my class that give brink the "student" moniker into question. They usually drop.

One thing I have noticed: young people are perpetually insecure because they have no shared understanding of how to act. They must be catered to because they've been catered to all their lives. I do not cater to them. I hold them to clear standards. At the beginning of the term, they are angry. By the end, they are confident, having earned their grade in a demanding course. It's a mark of achievement that feeds real self-worth and self-respect, not a trophy for showing up.

Maybe they will wake up from their pixelated stupor. That is, when they are able to look up from the Glowing Box in their hands, which they have become convinced is the soursce of all life.

James said...

All kidding aside, I have a lot of respect for you guys trying to teach these people. It must feel like trying to teach a rock to sing. I bet, that when you see the ones at the end of the term that seem to have got it you feel pretty darn good. If the mass of them would only realize that when you learn something, no one can really take that away from you, you can give it away, but it can't be taken away. Now I've blabbed enough, to the "stool of silence"!

Dennis said...

There comes a time when one matures enough to realize that they don't know what they don't know. I wonder whether many of these people will ever understand how little they actually know and what they know will not help them get a job or true understanding. I would suggest that a Liberal Arts education will become more important as more graduates realize how important it is understanding the difference between the rational and the emotional. Like many I graduated with a BS in Business with majors in Accounting and Management and an MBA. It is only now that I realize the importance of a Liberal Arts degree to the understanding of being a human being.
One of the good things is the many universities provide a large number of free courses. I just finished one on the "Constitution." Enjoyed it so much that I am taking "The Presidency and the Constitution," "The Federalist Papers" and "CS Lewis.
I believe as education becomes more oriented to the internet and various other forms of learning that the market will change the face of education. May be one of the best thing that could happen to education is to remove it from the educational system and the closed minds that run amok through it.

Walt said...

I haven't taught in about 12 years but in that last semester a very thick student who rarely completed any assignment for the entire semester and if so, did so shallowly and illiterately, copied verbatim an archived book review from Newsweek instead of writing her own critical paper (or doubtless, even reading the book) . The joke w/i the joke was that while Newsweek had talked about a "Yeats-quoting character" , she talked about a "yeast-quoting character." I gave her an F for plagiarism, but when she complained to the dept head, I was told to lighten up and pass her. That's the other thing that's happened to "higher" education.

Ares Olympus said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said... Ares, when did you graduate from college? Where did you graduate from?

University of Minnesota, Institute of Technology, Mathematics major, Physics/astronomy minor, class of 1992.

I know, relatively ancient history now. I'm not sure I would have survived college in 2017 given the unlimited easy distractions available these days.

I wasn't a great studier, but I did force myself to stay in a study area at least 4 hours per day, where my choices were studying or sleeping. I kept up 8 hour daily sleep pretty well, at least outside of midterm and finals weeks. And I hadn't discovered stimulants like coffee yet back then.

I did consider teaching after graduation, although I don't think I'd enjoy standing in front of kids or adults all day. Lecturing on various pet subjects in Toastmaster meetings was a good compromise, and I did leader an after school computer club in programming at a local elementary school for a few years.

If I was a teacher now a days, I imagine it would be a good idea to ban all smart phones and laptops in class, or be in a room with lead shielding against WiFi and phone service. Of course the kids might die without a constant ability to text and watch cat videos when they're bored, and I'm not sure I want to be responsible for such catastrophic deprivations.

Ares Olympus said...

Walt said... I gave her an F for plagiarism, but when she complained to the dept head, I was told to lighten up and pass her. That's the other thing that's happened to "higher" education.

Of course this sounds absolutely outrageous. I'm hoping no Minnesota school would ever do such a thing, but you never imagine such things until they happen. I'd resign before I'd back down in a case like that, even if easier said by someone without a family to support.

I've never been worked under anyone who ever asked me to be dishonest or neglect things that are clearly wrong.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Thanks, Ares. I figured we were in school around the same time...

Here's my question: Can you imagine what would've happened in the classroom, dorm room or on campus to any aggrieved person who wanted to stop anyone else from thinking, speaking or doing most anything they wanted to because that aggrieved person was "oppressed" or didn't like the things he/she was hearing? Just because?

I was at Boston University until 1994 as a liberal arts major. I know for a fact that linguine-spined silly snowflake people were openly laughed at and ridiculed for any hint of trying to shut down intellectual exchange and debate. There were the usual Latina and black student unions and other groups who had demonstrations and/or said they got the short end of the stick (partially funded by the student community service fee, of course), but no one tried to shut down the exchange of thought in the classroom or blocked access to speakers or anything like that.

I had right-wing and left-wing professors who were ideological, of course (read: Howard Zinn), but BU students were more libertarian than anything else. There are so many things to do in Boston, it's not like being in a small town with one blinking stoplight in the way Colgate is. To go to school in a more urban environment, you are wise to be more open and accepting because there are lots of outlets.

BU was a Top-20 undergrad program then (and still is, I believe), but I do remember being on my freshman dorm floor wondering why some of my peers were going to college. That's okay, they went to a range of different programs. But none of them ever tried to shut down intellectual exchange or stop people from speaking. I remember former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir spoke at an honorary function one year and there were protests, but no protozoan mind tried to stop/prevent Shamir from speaking.

The snowflake generation is learning the overt intimidation and passive-aggressive means will protect them from ideas they don't like. And most all the ideas they do not like are not Left-wing. They've also rarely been exposed to thinkers who point out that a great many Leftist ideas are NOT "nice" in practice or outcomes and are actually an affront to human dignity. Is anyone reading Solzhenitsyn? How about Bonhoeffer? How about Emerson?

When all this intimidation is not challenged at "selective" 4-year schools today, what high-end pools are we selecting from? We give them an academic environment costing $67,000 per year at many of these schools, and they cannot bear to hear someone like Charles Murray speak? That is insane. What are we paying for? We have a right to ask, because we're all funding this madness with federal grants and student loan programs. If you can't bear the idea that Charles Murray is appearing somewhere on your campus -- and no one told these snowflakes they had to go to the speech -- what on earth are they even doing in a higher education setting?

When we were in college, this kind of intimidation, rioting and thought control would not have been tolerated. It should not be tolerated today.

Ares Olympus said...

My first experience with modern left activism was attending a meeting at a local private university in St Paul in 2000 and heard the students had taken over the dean's building in protest against university apparel being made in Asia sweatshops.

I've long wondered about "assertiveness", what to do with youthful rebellion which is at best half-baked, and more than not wrong, simplifying the world to the degree that one evil is identified and replaced by a greater evil.

But anyway, if we imagine we want youth to challenge authority, then authority still has to decide whether to use kid gloves to fight back, or the real thing. So kid gloves means "talking" after your office has been illegally taken over, and the real thing is arresting the students for trespassing and expelling them from school.

I don't like the term "snowflake" and it seems once you start thinking that way you're part of the problem, no different than calling overt racists "deplorables". Either or both may be true, but it is still a way of condemning people who may still be capable of learning. Aggression of any sort is uncomfortable, and yet conformity can be worse, where differences just move underground where they work their evils in private.

Bernie Sanders has stood firm for free speech:
“Obviously Ann Coulter’s outrageous ― to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation… If you can’t ask Ann Coulter in a polite way questions which expose the weakness of her arguments, if all you can do is boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming, what does that tell the world?” He called this a “sign of intellectual weakness”.

And it does seem like schools, public and private are in their own predicaments with their high levels of debt, and their dependency on ever higher tuition blinds them to their responsibility to actually teach how adults should act.

So I'm with Jonathan Haidt's approach - that universities must clear their mission to truth or mission to social justice, and then students who need pampering can stay in their bubbles for 4 years in exchange for a lifetime of debt and confusion of other points of view.

Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson has a lecture on Solzhenitsyn. 2014 Personality Lecture 13: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Existentialism)

I do wonder if physical universities are already insolvent, and that online universities will replace modern lecture halls.

I live a few blocks from a Seminary that is looking to convert half its space to a charter elementary school to help cover their falling admissions. They're nondenominational and very liberal, into social justice, but how maybe people want to be $100k in debt for the privilege of being able to interact with like-minded people for 4 years or whatever. Be the Change: Preach a sermon. Spark a movement. Change the world. Whatever your calling, United will prepare you to become the dynamic leader the world needs now.

The problem I see the future demands we find ways of living in community without spending 10 times more than it costs to live alone in front of a social media screen, or in your parents basement. Without solving that predicament, everything must be reduced to unsustainable financialization of everything.

Ares Olympus said...

IAC, I looked further at my local Seminary I mentioned above, and it has tuition about $10k/year with 2-4 year for varied degrees, so that looks relatively cheap. I didn't see how much the dorms cost, but probably also less than $10k/year, so you really could still work part time and afford it without too much debt.

I think my primary reservation about do-gooder degrees is it is so easy for "wounded" people to create projective narratives on the world, dividing it between purely good and purely bad parts, being a mirror of dividing themselves between their acceptable and unacceptable parts of their nature. So I don't think people can really become leaders until they've integrated their own divisions to some level of consciousness, while perhaps most of us still have to fail in our leadership efforts before we can have a hint at what we don't allow ourselves to see.

C.S. Lewis's snarky quote applies. The problem isn't that such people are snowflakes - it's that they mob themselves together in blizzards of confusion and are unable to separate their own needs from those they claim to care about, and unwiling to see legitimacy in the needs of those they condemn.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”, from God in the Dock, 1948