The Weimar problem

From George Will:

“Every republic,” writes Charles Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, “eventually faces what might be called the Weimar problem.” It arrives when a nation’s civic culture has become so debased that the nation no longer has “the virtues necessary to sustain republican government.”

Read my comments and questions after the jump.

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The effect of the liberal arts in Hong Kong

Progressive education, which tries to reduce everything to a narrow academic specialty, thinks “liberal arts” means “humanities.”  But in reality, the classical liberal arts refers to a whole approach to education– one that is broad rather than narrow, connected rather than fragmented, open to the past rather than favoring whatever is new, etc., etc.

It’s called “liberal” from the Latin word for “freedom.”  It goes back to the distinction in ancient Greece and Rome between the “servile” education given to slaves (nothing more than training for a job) and the “liberal” education given to free citizens of the Greek democracy and the Roman Republic–one that required the cultivation of the intellect and other human powers, as well as knowledge of the cultural heritage that must be transmitted to the new generation.  (I argue that much of “progressive education” is a revival of “servile education.”)  Interestingly, when Melanchthon and other Reformers opened schools to teach the masses how to read the Bible, they instituted a liberal arts curriculum, an education for freedom.

The British have done much with liberal education, and the schools they started throughout the British empire tended to follow this approach.  Today, the still-Communist Chinese are blaming  the liberal arts curriculum in the schools of Hong Kong for the pro-freedom movement currently roiling that city, with the protests generally led by liberal arts students.  The movement is being called “scholarism.”  In the mean time, the Chinese government wants to impose a pro-government purely economic curriculum. Sound familiar? [Read more…]

“Why classical schools just might save America”

One of my many interests is classical education, on the elementary, secondary, and collegiate level.  A more common name for the classical education philosophy is “liberal arts,”  a designation that refers not to progressive politicians but to the Latin word for freedom.  The “liberal arts” referred to the kind of education to equip a free citizen of the Greek democracy or the Roman Republic, as opposed to the “servile arts,” the purely economic training given to slaves.  (Go to this website for more information and resources about classical education.)

Anyway, Owen Strachan in the American Spectator sees the connection between classical education and freedom.  And he sees classical schools as a way to “save America.” [Read more…]

Finding Your Vocation in College

Anthony Sacramone asked me to write something on “How to Find Your Vocation in College” for the I.S.I. website he edits, so I did.  I also took the opportunity to answer the conservative pundits who are saying that college students should all go into technology so they can pay off their student loans and forget about the liberal arts.  Also, Mathew Block at First Thoughts linked to the post and added some perceptive comments of his own. [Read more…]

The death of a true intellectual

Jacques Barzun died at age 104.  A scholar of breath-taking range, Barzun, a French immigrant, was a cultural historian wrote about literature, history, music, philosophy, religion, education, how to write well, and baseball.  (He is the source of the quotation, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  A champion of the liberal arts, he was a key developer of the “great books” approach to higher education.  He was a critic of Darwinism, existentialism, and other modern and postmodern philosophies.  Though his positions seemed largely in accord with a Christian perspective, he did not profess any personal Christian convictions.  And yet, he was baptized and sometimes attended both Catholic and Protestant churches.  (See this for the question of his religious beliefs.)

From his obituary in the Washington Post:

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104. . . .

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

Dr. Barzun sustained one of the longest and brightest careers in academia, having first risen to prominence as a professor who helped shape Columbia University’s approach to general education. He later was dean of the graduate school, dean of faculties and provost. . . . [Read more…]

Conservatives won at the University of Virginia

You have perhaps heard about how the University of Virginia board fired the university president Teresa Sullivan, whereupon a huge uproar ensued, and she was hired back.

I’ve heard conservatives lament the re-hiring, saying that the lunatics are in charge of the asylum, that this just re-enforces the corruption in higher education, that this is another example of  academic elites stifling reform, etc., etc.

But in this case a conservative philosophy of education was victorious over more progressive attempts to make higher education, which is admittedly frought with problems today, even worse.

First, the board members who led the charge against President Sullivan were liberals and Democratic appointees.  But more importantly, the issues she was fired over had to do with her championing traditional education over and against the changes that are already damaging many colleges.

She resisted the proposal to have UVA go in the direction of online programs.  (I’m not saying online courses are necessarily bad, but the example of for-profit online colleges is not a good one to follow.)  Most telling was this complaint from the board, her resistance to shutting down “obscure academic departments in classics and German.”

Classics an obscure program?  In Mr. Jefferson’s day, classics (the study of Latin and Greek, as well as the history and literature of those ancient societies) was about the only program there was!   Since classics exists to preserve and pass down the heritage of our civilization, it’s often a haven for conservative faculty and students.  German is obscure?  The eclipse of  foreign language is one of the weaknesses of American education.

What is at issue here is preservation of the liberal arts tradition in higher education over against contemporary academic  trendiness.

The problems in higher education are thoroughly documented in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.  It isn’t the conflict between “impractical” and “practical” education or humanities vs. science.  (Science and math are also part of the liberal arts tradition.)  As that book, written by mainstream scholars and not conservative culture warriors, shows, students are graduating without knowing or being able to do very much, due to the collapse of academic standards, bad teaching, a hedonistic student culture, the bad effects of federal funding, and all kinds of other dysfunctions.  As a result, graduates are learning less than they did under old school colleges (when the values of the liberal arts ruled).

At any rate, this time conservatives–in the sense of conservative educators and conservative higher education theory–won at the University of Virginia.

via U-Va. board leaders wanted President Teresa Sullivan to make cuts – The Washington Post.


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