Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

How to Drink from the Pierian Spring: A Liberal Arts and Humanities Question about the Limits of Honors Education

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

How to Drink from the Pierian Spring: A Liberal Arts and Humanities Question about the Limits of Honors Education

Article excerpt

Small wonder that students in both honors and the humanities are less satisfied by the shallow stream of entertainment media when they have dipped into the Pierian Spring. --Larry Andrews, "The Humanities are Dead! Long Live the Humanities!" (2015)  A little learning is a dang'rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again. --Alexander Pope, "An Essay in Criticism" (1711) 

Honors educators frequently engage in conversations about the decline of interest in and funding for the liberal arts and humanities Larry Andrews's essay "The Humanities are Dead! Long Live the Humanities!" is one of several that contributes to a metanarrative about the liberal arts and humanities, playing out along the following lines: workforce-minded politicians, short-sighted university administrators, STEM-related programs, and market-driven students no longer understand the true value of the liberal arts and humanities because they cannot be easily measured in dollars and cents; consequently, higher education today typically narrows students' perspectives, facilitates short-term and uncritical thinking, and fails to adequately enable student growth and development--that is, growth and development of the fully formed person, of the well-rounded individual, and of the caring soul. (For other articles that tie honors education to this narrative, see Blaich and Ditzler; Dooley; Martino; Salas; and Wintrol.)

This familiar narrative offers some truths, no doubt, but its simplicity is troubling. It quickly papers over many complexities related both to workplaces and to the liberal arts and humanities, and, followed to its logical conclusion, it becomes less a narrative about education and more a narrative about limits, about who and what provide limits as opposed to who and what provide freedoms, about who and what open minds and who and what close them. Those in higher education who focus too much on careers, as this narrative goes, are in the business of setting limits on what students receive from a college education, which stunts their personal, professional, and intellectual growth; conversely, proponents of the liberal arts and humanities are interested in developing fully formed minds, expanding horizons, and unshackling students from career-based chains that keep them from becoming critical thinkers, strong and empathetic communicators, and seekers of truth.

This narrative warrants critique, however, particularly in how honors educators tap into it and further its pervasiveness in ways that treat the liberal arts and humanities too broadly, too uncritically, and too heroically The goal here is not to argue against the liberal arts and humanities per se. As someone whose academic background is English, who teaches humanities courses every semester, and who understands, sees, and viscerally feels the value of the liberal arts and humanities, I am a strong proponent; however, I seek to explore the dangers that arise when liberal arts and humanities education is offered as a remedy to current educational woes. Two particular dangers arise: the first is that in advocating for the benefits of the liberal arts and humanities, proponents end up not necessarily offering any particular kind of knowledge or wisdom but often reinforce the development of skill sets that the liberal arts and humanities just happen to be good at producing in students; the second danger is that honors educators frequently paint the liberal arts and humanities as a homogenous entity whose purpose and value would be crystal clear if more people would simply take their eyes off the money and turn them instead toward the larger truth. This approach neglects to account for the relationship between the liberal arts and humanities and liberalism itself as a pervasive ideology that saturates all social and political institutions, including higher education, in the twenty-first century. …

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