Writing for the Wall Street Journal, former president of St. John’s College John Agresto claims that the American higher educational system has moved in the direction of indoctrination, at the expense of liberal arts education. And this shift, he argues has been to the detriment of society. For while the liberal arts “do not by themselves make us ‘better people,'” Agresto writes, “they can open our eyes.”
Parents often still ask, “But what exactly does one do with a major in philosophy, classics, lyric poetry, women’s studies, or the literature of oppression and rebellion?” With jobs so scarce, students ask themselves the same questions.
Still, it’s not simply the high cost of higher education, or their supposed uselessness, that has buried today’s liberal arts. More important, professors in the liberal arts have over-promised, or promised wrongly. We have these lovely phrases, like making our students “well-rounded,” that are more or less just words. Are those who study medicine or nursing not “well-rounded”? Are those who major in film studies or contemporary “lit crit” more intellectually worthy than those who study economics and finance?
Often enough over the years I’ve heard my humanities confreres say that a liberal education makes us finer people, more sensitive, more concerned, more humane, even more human. Pretentious shibboleths such as these, expressed in our egalitarian age, are an excellent way to lose one’s audience. And that’s exactly where the liberal arts are today.
Liberal arts has not been killed by parental or student philistinism, or the cupidity of today’s educational institutions whose excessive costs have made the liberal arts into an unattainable luxury. In too many ways the liberal arts have died not by murder but by suicide.
To restore the liberal arts, those of us who teach should begin by thinking about students. Almost all of them have serious questions about major issues, and all of them are looking for answers. What is right? What is love? What do I owe others? What do others owe me? In too many places these are not questions for examination but issues for indoctrination. Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, we’d rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen.
But why would any student spend tens of thousands of dollars and, rather than see the world in all its aspects, instead spend his time being indoctrinated and immersed in the prejudices of the current culture and the opinions of his tendentious professors? The job of teachers is to liberate minds, not capture them.
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