In a long and learned article in City Journal, classicist Victor Davis Hanson bemoans the end of liberal arts education. America’s universities have given up on teaching the classics, the foundation of a liberal arts education.
They no longer teach Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Sophocles. They do not teach that democracy began in ancient Greece and that republican government comes to us from the ancient romans.
Hanson does not mention it, but I suspect that precious few of today’s professors know enough to teach the classics, or to teach the history of Western philosophy or literature. They were trained to indoctrinate their students, not to teach them. Let’s not forget, many of today’s courses are taught by poorly paid adjuncts. Fewer and fewer tenured professors walk the halls of academia.
And how many of today’s college students would be capable of studying Plato and Aristotle, or reading Homer and Virgil. I suspect that few of them could. All of the carping about the hegemony of Western white males is probably just a cover for students who cannot do the work.
So, the academy is being dumbed down. And this is sad indeed. But, perhaps we overreached when we decided that everyone should have a liberal arts education. Some people do not need it and would not know how to profit from it. One hates to say it, but for some people vocational training is probably best. The egalitarian notion that everyone is the same and that all students can learn something from reading Shakespeare and Milton was far too optimistic.
In other words, even if today’s professors could teach the classics effectively, many of their students, the products of America’s secondary schools, would not be capable of studying them?
There is, in other words, enough blame to go around.
Some universities have turned into indoctrination mills, more concerned with teaching students the supposed therapeutic benefits of political correctness. Others are offering vocational training. And much of the educational slack is being picked up by online courses. After all, Hanson notes, these courses probably offer better instruction than you get in college. Taught by academic stars, they not only provide exposure to the material, but they sometimes offer interactive homework assignments, tailored to each student’s needs.
Hanson tracks the movement:
As the American workforce increasingly needs retraining and as higher-paying jobs demand ever more specialized skills, students are beginning to pay for their education on a class-by-class basis through distance learning. Online classes, which do not require campus residence or commuting, also eliminate the overhead of highly paid, tenured faculty, campus infrastructure, and such costly elements of undergraduate education as on-campus lectures and extracurricular activities.
Perhaps their unspoken premise is that if universities do not believe in the value of teaching Western civilization as part of a mandated general-education curriculum, then why not simply go to the heart of the matter and offer computer-programming skills or aeronautical-engineering know-how without the pretense of a broad education? And who is to say that paid-by-the-hour instructors at the online University of Phoenix are less responsible teachers than their traditional counterparts? After all, their market-driven employers must serve a paying constituency that, unlike traditional university students, often demands near-instant results for its fees.
Those who want to find a more classical liberal arts education are gravitating toward more religious schools, like Hillsdale College, St. John’s College, etc.
Hanson is himself a classicist, so he defends the classics eloquently:
Classical learning dedicated itself to turning out literate citizens who could read and write well, express themselves, and make sense of the confusion of the present by drawing on the wisdom of the past. Students grounded in the classics appreciated the history of their civilization and understood the rights and responsibilities of their unique citizenship. Universities, then, acted as cultural custodians, helping students understand our present values in the context of a 2,500-year tradition that began with the ancient Greeks.
Study of Athenian democracy, Homeric epic, or Roman basilicas framed all exploration of subsequent eras, from the Middle Ages to modernity. An Aquinas, Dante, Michelangelo, or Montesquieu could be seen as reaffirming, adopting, modifying, or rejecting something that the Greeks or Romans had done first. One could no more build a liberal education without some grounding in the classics than one could construct a multistory house without a foundation.
But, classical liberal arts education has been supplanted by more practical subjects:
Over the last four decades, various philosophical and ideological strands united to contribute to the decline of classical education. A creeping vocationalism, for one, displaced much of the liberal arts curriculum in the crowded credit-hours of indebted students. Forfeiting classical learning in order to teach undergraduates a narrow skill (what the Greeks called a technê) was predicated on the shaky notion that undergraduate instruction in business or law would produce superior CEOs or lawyers—and would more successfully inculcate the arts of logic, reasoning, fact-based knowledge, and communication so necessary for professional success.
And, as I have often noted on this blog, universities have come to see their mission as therapeutic. They do not want students to learn; they want students to attain a specious version of mental health.
In Hanson’s words:
A therapeutic curriculum, which promised that counseling and proper social attitudes could mitigate such eternal obstacles to human happiness as racism, sexism, war, and poverty, likewise displaced more difficult classes in literature, language, philosophy, and political science. The therapeutic sensibility burdened the university with the task of ensuring that students felt adjusted and happy. And upon graduation, those students began to expect an equality of result rather than of opportunity from their society. Gone from university life was the larger tragic sense. Few students learned (or were reminded) that we come into this world with limitations that we must endure with dignity and courage rather than deal with easily through greater sensitivity, more laws, better technology, and sufficient capital.
The radical left has turned the academic into an indoctrination mill, where political correctness reigns supreme. Note well Hanson’s observation: political correctness does not involve learning or inquiring. It is not about knowing but believing.
It seeks to persuade, to convince, to indoctrinate students in dogmatic beliefs. To be fair, this practice has its roots in the Socratic dialogues. They are not designed to teach the art of inquiry. They were designed to seduce unwitting dupes into believing something:
Political correctness, meanwhile, turned upside-down the old standard of inductive reasoning, the linchpin of the liberal arts. Students now were to accept preordained general principles—such as the pernicious legacy of European colonialism and imperialism and the pathologies of capitalism, homophobia, and sexism—and then deductively to demonstrate how such crimes manifested themselves in history, literature, and science. The university viewed itself as nearly alone in its responsibility for formulating progressive remedies for society’s ills. Society at large, government, the family, and religion were hopelessly reactionary.
Is there still a value to going to America’s great universities? Surely, if you are going to study STEM subjects, the answer is Yes. Beyond that, these schools are becoming places for the elite to form friendships and social alliances. They provide status and prestige… and yes, an access to privilege. Will ironies never cease!
Hanson is not optimistic:
But their attractions—and especially the enticements of the Ivy League schools, Stanford, Berkeley, and such private four-year colleges as Amherst and Oberlin—will largely derive from the status that they convey, the career advantages that accrue from their brand-name diplomas, and the unspoken allure of networking and associating with others of a similarly affluent and privileged class. They are becoming social entities, private clubs for young people, certification and proof of career seriousness, but hardly centers for excellence in undergraduate education in the classical sense. For all the tens of thousands of dollars invested in yearly tuition, there will be no guarantee, or indeed, even a general expectation, that students will encounter singular faculty or receive a superior liberal arts education—let alone that they will know much more about their exceptional civilization than what they could find on the Internet, at religious schools, or on CDs and DVDs.