In the Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein reviews the latest eulogy for and defense of the liberal arts: College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco.
The book covers some familiar ground: professors’ emphasis on research over teaching, the domination of science over the humanities, the unseemly connections between college presidents and corporate boards, the eye-popping sums spent on athletic programs. Epstein adds that professors themselves contributed to the current crisis:
In their hunger for relevance and their penchant for self-indulgence, [professors] began teaching books for reasons external to their intrinsic beauty or importance, and attempted to explain history before discovering what actually happened. They politicized psychology and sociology, and allowed African-American studies an even higher standing than Greek and Roman classics. They decided that the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture. They put popular culture on the same intellectual footing as high culture (Conrad or graphic novels, three hours credit either way). And, finally, they determined that race, gender, and social class were at the heart of all humanities and most social science subjects.
His review also includes reflections on his years as a student and a professor, like these gems: “Great teachers, like great lovers, can sometimes be overrated.” ”Serious intellectual effort requires slow, usually painstaking thought, often with wrong roads taken along the way to the right destination, if one is lucky enough to arrive there.” “Teaching remains a mysterious, magical art. Anyone who claims he knows how it works is a liar.”
Epstein provides a valuable perspective on the many problems afflicting higher education today, but I think he underestimates the current state of the liberal arts. (He says the few remaining liberal arts programs have “the distinct feel of rearguard actions.”) I don’t think the liberal arts will recover the privileged status they once enjoyed, but there are more signs of a revival than Epstein lets on.
First, several small but notable Christian colleges (unmentioned by Epstein) still promote the liberal arts through their rigorous core curriculums: Thomas Aquinas College (which offers one degree: B.A. in the liberal arts), the University of Dallas, and Calvin College all deserve mentions.
Second, classical schools are multiplying at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Some, like the Great Hearts Academies network of schools in Phoenix, are charter schools; others are private Christian schools. Dozens of homeschooling curriculums allow parents to replicate such programs in areas where classical schools are unavailable. The students at these levels may not master the finer points of Aristotelian philosophy, but they at least gain an introduction to the history and greatest books of western civilization—which is to say, they’re receiving a better liberal arts education than most of today’s college students.
Finally, outside the school system, technology has made a liberal education cheaper and more accessible than ever before—witness, for example, the wild success of the Great Courses, usefully profiled by Heather Mac Donald in the City Journal.
Sure, the liberal arts remain a minority pursuit, and they no longer dominate the college scene. But the evidence shows they’re not exactly dying.