Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Death of Liberal Arts

I have a soft spot for a liberal arts education. Not just because I have one - my undergrad degree, with a history major and philosophy/poli-sci minor is practically worthless in terms of real world application. I actually think that part of being a well adjusted human being is having a broader perspective on the world than just knowing how to make a living. Insight into the human condition, in all its manifest forms, is a good thing, particularly since said condition effects everything from politics to economics to crime to entertainment.

Anyway, apparently, the old fashioned liberal arts education is on its last legs. In his column this week at the New York Times, Stanley Fish relates the thesis of a new book on higher education that says that the concerns about the demise of a liberal arts education have been overtaken by the reality of its demise:

[Frank] Donoghue [author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities] begins by challenging the oft-repeated declaration that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis, a word that suggests an interruption of a normal state of affairs and the possibility of restoring the natural order of things.

'Such a vision of restored stability,' says Donoghue, 'is a delusion' because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In 'two or three generations,' Donoghue predicts, 'humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.'
The culprits Donoghue trace back to Andrew Carnegie, who in 1891 praised the graduates of a business college for
being 'fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting' rather than wasting time 'upon dead languages.'
That runs to the modern development of online (and offline) universities for profit that specialize in career-oriented training rather than book learning.

I can understand why the market has developed a bias in favor of "practical" college education. At one time, a high school education produced people able to step right into the workforce. A higher education was just that - something above and beyond what most folks needed to make a living and lead a good life. That's all changed, partly because of technology issues and partly because of how badly secondary schools prepare students for the world.

In a way, the decline in the liberal arts focus is the end product of the "teach the test" mentality. Literature, philosophy, history and the like often aren't on the "test" of life, at least not obviously. I can't blame people for sidestepping them. Doesn't mean I can't mourn the loss, though.

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