In a Technocratic Age, Study of the Liberal Arts Is Even More Important

Article excerpt

Alongside the breakdown of the family, the decline of the church, and the fragmenting of local community over the last third of the 20th century, I want to propose that the loss of the liberal arts may be having comparably deep consequences for American society.

In the aftermath of Columbine, numerous commentators noted a quiet tide of hopelessness that has moved in and surrounded many American young people's lives. Yet, the diminishing of the liberal arts since the late 1960s has been largely overlooked as a cause.

Central to the failure to address this problem has been society's lack of clarity as to their significance in the first place. Whereas family and church have perennially had their constituencies among the broad American public, the liberal arts and their function have not been well understood. Even during such high points as the early to middle 1960s, the public only vaguely understood what it meant for societal leadership to be schooled in the rich and subtle arts of reasoning, questioning, dialogue, appreciating complexity, balancing tradition and innovation, and exercising judgment.

Especially noteworthy is that the decline of the liberal arts has occurred exactly over the lifespan of American community colleges.

Born in the late 1960s, the American community college might have represented the expansion and democratization of what was a thriving liberal-arts culture among the elite in the first two-thirds of the century.

But this has simply not occurred. In fact, the reverse correlation between the rise of the community colleges and the diminishing of the liberal arts may be evidence of negative ripple effects in two directions: backwards into high schools and onward into the four-year colleges.

When the new direction in higher education began to gather steam - the increase to 60 percent from 20 percent in the numbers of people experiencing at least some college - largely through the birth and growth of community colleges, the passing of the torch of liberal arts training was not well managed.

Part of the problem is that the rich liberal-arts tradition contrasted starkly with the primary motor of the 1980s and '90s - market forces, advertising, and technology - that rolled like a sports utility vehicle over anything in its way.

The liberal arts, as a result, have been ravaged by managers, government officials, and taxpayers looking for "measurable" results. But all such measures in our era are inextricably linked to corporate bottom lines. And few things could be more inimical to the spirit of liberal arts than to turn education in philosophy, sociology, and history into a seamless fit for corporate career climbing.

In fact, the most important direction for independent thinking in the current era may be to step back in search of perspective on what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes as the corporate media's "dripfeeding" its consensus into the public, night and day.

The heart of a liberal-arts seminar is the use of reason and dialogue in wresting the mind free of all controlling ideologies. It is best led by a skilled practitioner, what Plato called a dialectician. It takes place in the company of people who have gone before and left treasuries of thinking about these questions.

It is very important that the liberal-arts seminar be mainly a face-to-face activity. Supplementary things like e-mail and cyberspace bulletin boards notwithstanding, it is vital that we see each other, that we are tangible presences to each other. To say that physical presence is not necessary would be like saying that a father's or a mother's presence in a child's bedroom for a goodnight ritual could be replaced by a phone call. …

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