Magazine article Liberal Education

Why Are Liberal Education's Friends of So Little Help?

Magazine article Liberal Education

Why Are Liberal Education's Friends of So Little Help?

Article excerpt

LIBERAL EDUCATION is IN A BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL in the contemporary university and needs all the friends it can get. But if your friends show up to the broadsword battle carrying only toothpick clichés, what good are they? Liberal education needs fewer friends who are merely well meaning and more friends who train themselves to fight for liberal education's distinctive goals-not to mention its very survival-the way they train themselves to be smart, savvy, and successful in their disciplines.

We can only be good at doing what we're trained to be good at. The reason liberal education suffers today on all possible fronts-financial capital, conceptual capital, program coherence, curricular intelligibility, and persuasive rhetoric-is that no one inside universities receives any particular training in how to think critically, comprehensively, or philosophically about it. We are all trained to think well about our disciplines, and within our disciplines we all know how to nurture and protect a high level of talk. But we are not trained to think or talk at a high level about liberal education. Few faculty members in today's universities would even know where to begin to bring themselves up to speed, as the saying goes, about liberal education in the way they know how to bring themselves up to speed within their disciplines.

A great irony is that this deficiency does not make anyone among the administrative and faculty ranks in higher education feel the least bit incompetent to talk extensively and aggressively about liberal education. No university or college teacher feels that s/he has the obligation to bone up on liberal education topics-its history, theory, or primary authors-the way s/he might if the discussion were disciplinary, which accounts for why so much liberal education talk has an insubstantial quality. Every core review committee since 1900 has circulated a few scraps of the same sacred texts with mantra-like repetitiveness but most of the time these scraps amount to little more than slogans, not arguments: that line from the Apology about the kind of life not worth living, Hutchins's throw-away line about the best education for the few being the best education for all, Newman's terse line about knowledge being its own end, and Mill's great line that a person cannot claim even to know her own position unless she knows the best arguments against it.

Informed discourse

I don't believe that educational talk, especially talk about the liberal arts, should be turned into another academic specialty. But 1 do believe that the failure of university and college folk to prepare themselves for discerning liberal education discourse explains in part why colleges and universities never make more progress in thinking through their liberal education programs and aims. Because few faculty or administrators take the time to learn new ideas and phrases, they keep circulating the same ideas and phrases. This kind of conduct runs against the grain of all faculty members' disciplinary training so strongly that it cannot be glossed over merely as a trivial anomaly. It is an anomaly, sure enough, but it is not trivial. It is an anomaly that is threatening liberal education's very survival.

If liberal education is to flourish, it needs friends who can support it with language and ideas that go beyond Hallmark card geniality and sweet clichés.

A self-taught task

The truth remains that all of us in academe need to do better than we are now doing at both nourishing and protecting high-quality discourse about liberal education. I know we can do so if we let the issue really grab our attention because I see in our dedication to another task about which none of us ever received any rich or special training, another task that we have largely been left to figure out on our own-namely, our teaching-a model for how much we can accomplish when we really put our minds and wills to the solving of a particular problem or the achievement of a particular goal. …

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