Sunday, October 03, 2004

Axing liberal arts courses in a market driven curriculum

Well, about every five or ten years it always seems to come back around to what can be cut from the liberal arts core at these private, church-related liberal arts institutions. Funny isn't it, how the liberal arts is nearly always one of the central components nestled securely in their mission statements. Yet the liberal arts courses are usually the first to fall under the axe. Usually something like art. Or philosophy. Or history. Or religion. Why? The problem, apparently, is that they seem the least defensible in a market-driven economy.

Aristotle gave us our distinctin between theory and practice. He also had a third category: production. These were his division for the sciences (from the Latin term scientia, meaning "knowledge"), which where not sharply distinguished from philosophy. These three categories corresponded to 'knowing', 'doing', and 'making'. Productive science improves things in the world. Practical science improves our practice. But what does theoretical science (knowledge for the sake of knowledge improve? The philistine mind might well answer: nothing.

This, you see, is what we're up against. The usefulness of subjects like "computer science," or "industrial arts," or "auto mechanics" is immediately apparent. They are practical. If you know auto mechanics you're not worthless. You can fix cars. You can get a job. You can make money. Auto mechanics thus provides the clear means towards attaining the desired practical end: gainful employment. Thus one becomes a productive citizen. But to what end are liberal arts courses like history, philosophy, literature, and religion directed? What are they good for? Again, the philistine answer would seem to be: nothing.

Why "philistine"? Because the liberal arts are the core of a what the accumulated wisdom of the Western tradition has long regarded as a genuine education. Productive science may improve things in the world. Practical science may improve our practice. But theoretical science -- or "knowledge for the sake of knowledge," which is what the liberal arts represent -- which seems so "useless" to the philistine, actually improves the most important thing of all: the self, one's self-understanding and depth of understanding of human experience as such. People who lack an education in the liberal arts lack depth perception, glimpsing only the surface of things. They themselves are flat, like cardboard cutouts. Yet demonstrating this is next-to-impossible in an ethos that has been effectively eviscerated of this depth dimension of understanding. Socrates said "know thyself," and "the unexamined life is not worth living." People today seem to frightened of self-knowldege and to suppose that the effort required in examining life makes the only life worth living the unexamined one.

The Lenoir-Rhyne College administration is floating a proposal that would mean the diminution of the liberal arts core of its curriculum by a little over 20%, and a reduction by approximately 25% in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. From the vantage point of someone educated in the classic Jesuit tradition where core requirements included three courses in philosophy -- one in logic, one in ethics, and one in philosophy of human nature -- the fact that Lenoir-Rhyne is now floating a proposal to eliminate their single core requirement in philosophy and effectively undermine the viability of a philosophy major strikes me as ludicrous. Of course, though, from the vantage point of administrators who view courses in terms of market forces, the prospect of requiring students to take something as "useless" as philosophy is understandable. It's not even that philosophy is unpopular among students. Rather, it's that most of them don't even know, before they've had a class, what philosophy is. All they want to do is make themselves marketable when they graduate, and they think thy know that philosophy won't be of any help.

At the same time, it's mildly amusing that one problem the administration faces is graduating students performing abysmally poorly in senior exit exams in the area of "critical thinking," an area in which more rigorous philosophy requirements could help shore up scores considerably. What, these students don't need logic? Out of my 78 students in two sections of Intro to Philosophy this fall, only one student could tell me who "that man" is in the following simple puzzle of logical relationships: "Brothers of sisters have I none; but that man's father is my father's son." And that's after I gave them five minutes to puzzle it out in their notebooks. No wonder these students succumb to the pervasive pedestrian relativism in the atmosphere! They don't even know the difference between an argument and an unsupported assertion (which is why so many of them think John Kerry "won" the first "debate" with George Bush), much less the difference between what's "valid" in reasoning and what's "true."

And what, they don't need ethics? And they embrace a sophomoric subjectivism that collapses any possible distinction between the "apparent good" and the "authentic good"? And they don't need a philosophical understanding of human nature, the basis for any notion of natural rights? of any notion of natural vs. abnormal psychological development? of our tradition of political liberalism, which says government is best that governs least because human nature can't be trusted with absolute authority?

And now they want to drop 3 hours of religion from the core. In a school where we've graduated a senior (a daughter of a prominent local lawyer) who didn't know the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where a graduating senior came into my office and asked in her senior year: "Can you tell me, just who was this Jesus dude?" Where 19 out of 25 students flunked an introductory religion course because they couldn't pass a final in which the curve allowed anyone to pass who made 50% or higher?

And they want to drop 3 hours in history, in an ethos intellectually inimical to any study of the historical, where, as George Santayana declared, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it"?

The School of History, Philosophy of Religion, lies at the core of the liberal arts, with its disciplines centered on tradition. From the utilitarian perspectives of the market-driven economy, these disciplines are very difficult to defend. What looks more impractical and useless than history, philosophy, and religion? Yet these are in many ways the "mother disciplines" at the heart of an education that cultivates intellectual virtue, not merely as an end in itself, but as a means
of fostering practical wisdom and pointing the way to the virtues of morality and faith.

Two indispensable components of our institutional mission lie at the heart of Lenoir-Rhyne: (1) a liberal arts committment, and (2) a committment to the Christian perspective represented by the affiliated religious tradition. I see the current proposals, however inadvertently, as undermining the integrity of this mission. I see little hope in an environment where members of the college board of trustees no longer have much of a clue what they hold in trust. Let us hope that there are still some burning embers around in whom the fire of intellectual life has not died out completely.

I keep telling my students that the ideal of a liberal arts education for everyone is a relatively new and novel ideal in history. Just take a look at when most small liberal arts colleges and universities were founded. Most were founded in the mid-19th century. Most of their grandparents, I tell them, probably didn't go to college. And now, looking ahead, I suggest to them that their children may no longer have available the possibility of a liberal arts education. They have the privilege of living during this opportune window of time in which they have access to the kind of education that most ancients and medievals would have died for. Of course such remark don't have much impact.

For an excellent example of a church-related liberal arts institution that has done it's homework, see: Christian Liberal Arts Education: Report, Grand Rapids, Curriculum Study Committee, Calvin College.

For a profoundly insightful discussion of what the liberal arts means in a life devoted to the Socratic ideal, see: A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

For another excellent discussion, see Robert Benne's Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions

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