Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Liberal Education in Crisis

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Liberal Education in Crisis

Article excerpt

It is often said that liberal education is in crisis. A long line of books has lamented the decline of the liberal arts tradition for almost a hundred years. But if the symptoms of this crisis are familiar, the nature of the crisis is strange. It is not just that liberal arts colleges are failing to achieve their aims, but that there is a striking lack of clarity about the aims themselves.

This lack of clarity does not afflict other institutions. The aim of the research university is to produce and disseminate scholarship and scientific knowledge. The aim of the vocational university is to give students technical expertise and marketable skills. But the aim of the liberal arts college is shrouded in platitudes. The words in which we think about higher education have become so vague and confused it is hard to say precisely how liberal arts colleges differ from research and vocational universities, what they offer that other institutions do not, and why they should exist.

The crisis has deep roots. It goes back to the emergence of the research university in the nineteenth century, which altered the assumptions underlying traditional views of higher learning, and shifted the meanings of the basic words in which we think about education. It is because of this deep shift in our assumptions and language that we find it difficult to articulate precisely the nature and aims of liberal education.

Catholic colleges matter today because they endured and responded to that shift in an exemplary way, and because the resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition can help us to retrieve and rethink the traditional aims of liberal education.

What then has happened to liberal arts colleges? What is the situation of liberal education today? And how can we best understand and respond to that situation?

Criticism and Crisis

Critics of higher education tend to repeat a set of standard charges.

1. Academic work has become too specialized.

2. Scholarship has become narrow, trivial, and insular.

3. Academics tend to write in a technical jargon that is opaque to outsiders.

4. The undergraduate curriculum has become fragmented and incoherent.

5. Undergraduate education is adrift without any sense of common purpose.

6. Liberal education has become increasingly irrelevant in a world dominated by modern science and technology.

7. Liberal education is economically useless.

8. Liberal education no longer centers on the arts of language. Hence:

(a) The quality of academic speech and writing is deplorable; and

(b) academics fail to teach students to listen, speak, read, and write. (1)

9. College students are being taught to do independent research, but are not learning to think for themselves.

The traits of the crisis are obvious, but its causes are not. How are these traits related? Where do they come from? What are their underlying grounds?

To understand this crisis we need a genealogy of the liberal arts college. Very briefly: despite the internal tensions within the liberal arts traditions, liberal education was originally grounded in a number of core assumptions--about the nature of truth, tradition, language, the self, and education. These assumptions supported the distinctive institutions of the traditional liberal arts college: its curricula; pedagogies; disciplinary divisions; the roles of faculty and students; and the language in which education was understood. These institutions and their underlying assumptions were challenged with the emergence of modern science. The thinkers who founded the modern sciences profoundly altered traditional concepts of truth, tradition, the self, and education, and these new concepts laid the foundations of the modern scientific research university.

But the research university did not simply replace the liberal arts college. …

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