As I mentioned in a lot of my comments last week, I believe whole-heartedly in a liberal arts education when done right. I think success in all sectors of your life stems from being well-rounded, well-read, and from the ability to critically analyze and defend arguments in a civic manner. That being said, even just re-reading that last line confirms my opinion that I think we have lost all of that. We live in a world where everyone is “specialized,” where most people’s literacy stems from Twitter news feeds and Sparknotes, where civic discourse has been replaced by militant political polarization and ignorance, and where intellectual debate and rationalization have devolved to personal attacks on your opponent’s character or base appeals to your constituents’ emotions. And I think we can see the consequences of this even now. How often do we hear talks, whether between individuals or in the mainstream media, questioning the true value of a college education, especially the liberal arts?  The liberal arts education model has strayed from its original purpose, and I propose that, even in our high tech, modern world, the best way to prepare anyone for a successful life is through a classic, well-rounded education based in the humanities that teaches one how to THINK.

I will say that I’ve had limited exposure to liberal arts classes, but I’ve got to say, they’ve been pretty disappointing. Some of them were a little encouraging; we still read classics like Machiavelli and Erasmus and whatnot. But the intellectualism is gone. Instead of reading these texts for their underlying themes, instead of analyzing and arguing whether or not Thomas More’s Utopia is a promotion of communism or a satirical praise and comparative analysis of Medieval European political systems, we talk about how misogynistic More was. Instead of studying the Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War to see where we went wrong and how this applies to the modern world, we talk about how racist America was in the 1860’s. Instead of studying exotic cultures in anthropology to spur different viewpoints we talk about how gender doesn’t actually exist (really?). I realize postmodernism and deconstructionism is the big thing right now, but come on. I had a girl in my class analyzing the effects of the Protestant Reformation on women, and she was praised when she claimed she was having a hard time doing the project because she couldn’t emotionally detach herself from the material, that analyzing this through a 21st century feminist lens made her furious (obviously women were worse off then…). There is no historical context anymore, no real meaning taken from these works, other than that (newsflash) the world was pretty sexist and racist back then compared to nowadays.

But to move on, in addressing some of the other questions raised in the prompt, I think that a liberal arts education should lift you above your fellow peers, to a life better than that of “wage slavery.” The liberal arts identify you as an exceptional individual, one who can assess situations outside of your area of expertise and perform above and beyond your typical human being. And while I believe there are those out there who could do quite well for themselves without the degree per se, the overwhelming emphasis on needing a college degree has lessened their chances of even being given a chance to prove themselves. It is entirely possible for someone outside of college to read classical texts voraciously, whether at their local library or online (but no online colleges… yuck), and cultivate a liberal arts mindset. My initial gut reaction is that their rhetoric/debate skills might not quite be up to snuff with, say, a student from an elite institution, but otherwise they could do quite well from themselves; that is, assuming they even get an opportunity to do so, seeing as we apparently need to be a college grad to be an office assistant anymore.

Which leads in well to the last question. I believe the liberal arts education needs to start at a young age, possibly even at middle school, and most certainly at high school, and that this would indeed spur a more engaged, intelligent, and civilized America. It is absolutely pathetic if you compare the intellectual rigor required in high school even just 30-40 years ago compared to now. I remember a comparison of exit essays for standardized testing between then and now, where the old model was along the lines of doing a literary critique of some novel most everyone read, let’s say the Great Gatsby. The prompt was very specific, lengthy, and pretty damn heavy to be honest. I would suspect an overwhelming majority of students nowadays would fail miserably, even middle-of-the-road students. Especially after you read the modern day prompt, which was something along the lines of “Who do you think the coolest US president was and why?” Are you kidding me? That’s a question you ask an 8 year old child, not an adult on their way to college. A more rigorous academic curriculum throughout your entire education would spur a more intellectual society, would benefit the economy by increasing the value of hiring a high school graduate, which would then most likely lower crime rates, etc. To be perfectly blunt, a stupid society is a chaotic and dissatisfied society, and America, for whatever reason, has let itself get pretty stupid recently. We can claim we are “educated,” but our 21st century high school education is the equivalent of a 19th century middle school education right now.

But by increasing rigor in literature and history and critical thinking, I think we can solve this. And by the time you graduate from a true liberal arts college, you will be one of the most valuable and marketable prospects in the world, and you will have the intellectual capacity to truly solve the world’s problems. Let’s move to a tutorial system like those found at Oxford and Cambridge, I hear they’re pretty good schools. Take a look at this video of Reagan and Yalies going at it (without jumping down each other’s throats) and tell me if you would honestly ever see something like this today. Let’s move back to classical humanism; let’s study the great works of philosophy and literature and art and music and history; let’s learn how to THINK again. I truly believe in the liberal arts, I really do, but the system we have right now is incredibly flawed. And unless we move back to our roots, it will become utterly useless, and a great system of teaching that has existed since the Middle Ages will have been lost, and all for naught.

6 responses »

  1. Jordi says:

    I totally agree with most of this. Especially ways to foster more rigorous thinking.

    Except the politicians being civil. That is a nostalgia for a golden-hued past that doesn’t stand up to historical examination. Roosevelt, Truman, or Johnson could be vicious to opponents; in the 19th century they DUELED in the senate, for Christ’s sakes.

  2. eric says:

    “The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think — rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.” – a quote from somewhere on the internet.

    I’d like to frame this blog post. Thank you Matt, for writing it.
    I especially appreciated how you mentioned how so much of the liberal arts focuses on teaching us the correct PC way of viewing the world rather than giving us the tools to decide that for ourselves. I had a great conversation with Prof. Jordi that included how I believe the “PC nature” of the world in which we’ve grown up has all but (and may soon) destroy the intellectual freedom and ability of future generations @Jordi (see, twitter literacy increasing – even though I don’t “tweet”).

  3. wesmw says:

    RIP rigorous thinking. I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I think that people are too lazy nowadays to really appreciate the achievements that come with great thought processes. Thus, the question is how do we encourage future generations to revert back to the old ways?

  4. Jordi says:

    I wasn’t in your class, so I can’t really comment on what happened.

    But, to me, post-modern writers like Foucault or Derrida are very important. I am not sure how trendy post-modernism is any more, but your very awareness of the fact that women were marginalized throughout most of European or “Western” history is a small triumph of critical approaches to knowledge. (see your comment: “(obviously women were worse off then…). There is no historical context anymore, no real meaning taken from these works, other than that (newsflash) the world was pretty sexist and racist back then compared to nowadays.)

    There can always be lazy or hazy thinking and scholarship that is post-modernist, or modernist, or even conservative!

    In some ways, your heartfelt paean to the lost course of liberal arts education is conservative (I don’t mean Republican, I mean seeking to protect or conserve traditions and the traditional authority of certain knowledge or texts). However, the very critical thinking and devotion to open discourse of your conservatism itself creates the very conditions necessary for challenges to that conservatism… in short more radical ideas.

    Like the skeptical observer who must always question what even seems clearly recorded, the devoted defender of liberal arts has to question the very basis of her devotion.

  5. Jordi says:

    And for the record… unless someone defines for me whatever this “PC” thing is, it usually seems to me to be a fantastical creature imagined by some advocates from the political right to attack certain political enemies of theirs.

    Or maybe it simply means saying what might be controversial. In which case, it does not have much specific meaning.

    So, I am not saying I am “anti-PC” or trying to be politically correct or anything like that until someone defines it for me.


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