[This essay was originally published on my Blogger site on 26 February 2010.]
Earlier this week, ISI’s Lehrman American Studies Institute posted this article on the greatest recent works on liberal learning. All of these titles are worthwhile. Most of them are attempts to defend the concept of liberal arts education from modern utilitarian attacks. If you are unfamiliar with this critique, you have never listened to college students complain, “Why do I have to take [course X in the core curriculum] when I’ll never use that in my job?” As a humanities instructor, I hear this one a lot!
The traditional liberal arts curriculum was conceived as an education for social, political, and cultural elites. Medieval and Renaissance educators believed that society’s leaders needed grounding in the classical and Christian tradition to be successful, but the question of curriculum for those lower down the social scale never came up because, well, formal education of any kind was a luxury that society could not afford to provide to everyone.
With the advent of mass education in the modern period, the liberal arts curriculum came under attack. Many educators believed that the teaching of literature, philosophy, and the like was wasted on the masses, that all they needed was functional literacy and basic skills that would make them efficient workers in an industrial society. During the course of the twentieth century, these educational utilitarians gradually succeeded in replacing the traditional curriculum to a great extent with either vocational training or, more recently, elective courses inspired by multiculturalism. The resulting fragmentation of the curriculum has caused many problems both within educational institutions and in the broader society. Westerners no longer have a common vocabulary and set of reference points for discourse, and this accounts for much of the cultural disintegration we frequently hear about.
It seems to me that we are dealing with at least two separate issues here when considering the value of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. First, are the liberal arts practical, or to put it a little differently, will studying the liberal arts position a person to succeed in 21st-century society? Secondly, are we to measure the value of the liberal arts curriculum on the basis of its practicality or lack thereof? I’ll explore these questions more in future posts.