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.

College majors & unemployment

Colleges are getting blamed for turning out so many unemployable graduates with “impractical degrees” in the humanities.  Critics are saying that students should take “practical” majors like business or other job-training fields as a way to reduce unemployment.

But that’s exactly what college students, including the unemployed graduates, have already been doing!  Only 12% are humanities majors.  What we have now is a glut of unemployed business majors, computer programmers, and (especially) architecture majors.

Bloomberg’s Virginia Postrel gives the facts and the economics behind the issue (such as supply and demand:  if everyone would or could go into the “high-paying” fields, they would no longer be high-paying):

Contrary to what critics imagine, most Americans in fact go to college for what they believe to be “skill-based education.”

A quarter of them study business, by far the most popular field, and 16 percent major in one of the so-called Stem (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Throw in economics, and you have nearly half of all graduates studying the only subjects such contemptuous pundits recognize as respectable. . . .

Most are studying things that sound like job preparation, including all sorts of subjects related to health and education. Even the degree with the highest rate of unemployment — architecture, whose 13.9 percent jobless rate reflects the current construction bust — is a pre-professional major.

The students who come out of school without jobs aren’t, for the most part, starry-eyed liberal arts majors but rather people who thought a degree in business, graphic design or nursing was a practical, job-oriented credential. Even the latest target of Internet mockery, a young woman the New York Times recently described as studying for a master’s in communication with hopes of doing public relations for a nonprofit, is in what she perceives as a job-training program.

The higher-education system does have real problems, including rising tuition prices that may not pay off in higher earnings. But those problems won’t be solved by assuming that if American students would just stop studying stupid subjects like philosophy and art history and buckle down and major in petroleum engineering (the highest-paid major), the economy would flourish and everyone would have lucrative careers.

That message not only ignores what students actually study. It also disregards the diversity and dynamism of the economy, in good times as well as bad.

Those who tout Stem fields as a cure-all confuse correlation with causality. It’s true that people who major in those subjects generally make more than, say, psychology majors. But they’re also people who have the aptitudes, attitudes, values and interests that draw them to those fields (which themselves vary greatly in content and current job prospects). The psychology and social work majors currently enjoying relatively low rates of unemployment — 7.7 percent and 6.6 percent respectively — probably wouldn’t be very good at computer science, which offers higher salaries but, at least at the moment, slightly lower chances of a job.

Whether they’re pushing plumbing or programming, the would- be vocational planners rarely consider whether any additional warm body with the right credentials would really enhance national productivity. Nor do they think much about what would happen to wages in a given field if the supply of workers increased dramatically. If everyone suddenly flooded into “practical” fields, we’d be overwhelmed with mediocre accountants and incompetent engineers, making lower and lower salaries as they swamped the demand for these services. Something like that seems to have already happened with lawyers.

Not everyone is the same. One virtue of a developed economy is that it provides niches for people with many different personalities and talents, making it more likely that any given individual can find a job that offers satisfaction.

As any good economist will remind you, income is just a means to utility, not a goal in itself. Some jobs pay well not only because few people have the right qualifications but also because few people want to do them in the first place. In a culture where many people hate oil companies, petroleum engineers probably enjoy such a premium. Plumbers — the touchstone example for critics who think too many people go to college — certainly do.

The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

via Business: Washington Post Business Page, Business News.

I think the real problem is the academic collapse that has been documented in virtually all subjects that has taken place in most of today’s colleges and universities.  (Not at Patrick Henry College where I serve, I am happy to say, where our graduates with their classical liberal arts foundation are even doing well in today’s job market.)


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