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.”
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