Wednesday, May 11, 2005

On why liberal arts programs are being eroded

At our academic institution, like many across the country, liberal arts programs are under the gun. They are seen as unproductive, often under-enrolled by students, in contrast to the "professional" programs like business, occupational therapy, nursing, and such, which are popular money-makers.

One of my colleagues recently suggested that the problem is over-specialization among the various liberal arts disciplines. Among other things, he also suggested that many liberal arts disciplines are seen as having little value. He said, "nothing so irritates Science and the Market as history, philosophy and religion. (I would add literature)." E.F. Schumacher in his Guide for the Perplexed, when talking about the "maps of life" furnished to students by most universities these days, writes:
The maps produced by modern materialistic Scientism (I would add Business Programs) leave all the questions that really matter unanswered; more than that, they deny the validity of the questions .... Questions like "What should I do?" or "What must I do to be saved?" are strange questions because they relate to ends, not simply to means. No technical answer will do, such as "Tell me precisely what you want and I shall tell you how to get it." The whole point is that I do not know what I want. Maybe all I want is to be happy. But the answer "Tell me what you need for happiness, and I shall then be able to advise you what to do"--this answer, again, will not do, because I do not know what I need for happiness.
Specialization may be part of the problem, but I'm not sure that's really the worst culprit. It seems to me that we're witnessing a significant shift towards the technical (the "how" questions) that represents an abdication of the reflective (the "why" questions). To put it in more Chestertonian terms, there is a thought that stops thought, and that is the only thought that ought to be stopped. As Chesterton puts it in his essay, "The Suicide of Thought" (Chapter 3 of Orthodoxy):
... what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambigion. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself.... For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.
In other words, the assumption has settled into the philistine mind that questions of the sort raised in liberal arts classes can't be answered and are therefore not worth asking. As the philistine student, Peter Pragma (in Peter Kreeft's book The Best Things in Life), responded when faced with Aristotle's distinction between three kinds of knowledge (productive, practical, and theoretical) and asked what each of them improves: "Productive knowledge improves things in the world, practical knowledge improves our practice, and theoretical knowledge (knowledge for the sake of knowledge, such as we find in the liberal arts) improves nothing."

Whether it's a matter of specialization, excessive focus on technical know-how, or loss of confidence that anything really meaningful can be actually known, I do agree that it's a problem reflected in academe. I see it not only in the drift towards "professional" programs and majors, but even in the growing gap between administration and faculty. It used to be that college and university presidents were members of the faculty and taught one or two courses as part of their annual contract. That's all been lost as they've increasingly adopted CEO models of administration (reinforced by their corporate board members), along with "perfect professional distance" from members of their faculty, whom they seem inclined to treat increasingly as "employees." None of this helps, of course.

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