Who Killed the Liberal Arts?

Recently I came across this article in the Weekly Standard by Joseph Epstein called Who Killed the Liberal Arts? And why we should care.”

In it he traces a history of how the Liberal Arts education in today’s universities has been degraded, from what was once intended to train free people how to think into a mess of lightweight exercises in political correctness and shallow group think. From a study of Western literature, philosophy and history to a crazy amalgam of gender studies, the worship of multiculturalism, and lightweight popular culture subjects.

It’s somewhat long, but worth the time. It’s the first time I’ve ever really read a description of what Liberal Arts was meant to teach, and the reasons and he gives a thoughtful analysis of how it all works together in our culture today in a sort of weird apprenticeship racket. All you need to know to be a journalist you could learn in the newsroom in a matter of months, he says, yet people spend four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn pretty much the same thing in a college atmosphere.

Anyway, I pulled a quote from the article that I found particularly interesting in light of his discussion of learning how to think:

Only years later did I realize that quickness of response —on which 95 percent of education is based—is beside the point, and is required only of politicians, emergency-room physicians, lawyers in courtrooms, and salesmen. Serious intellectual effort requires slow, usually painstaking thought, often with wrong roads taken along the way to the right destination, if one is lucky enough to arrive there. One of the hallmarks of the modern educational system, which is essentially an examination system, is that so much of it is based on quick response solely. Give 6 reasons for the decline of Athens, 8 for the emergence of the Renaissance, 12 for the importance of the French Revolution. You have 20 minutes in which to do so.

The idea behind the curriculum at the College of the University of Chicago was the Arnoldian one, abbreviated to undergraduate years, of introducing students to the best that was thought and said in the Western world. Mastery wasn’t in the picture. At least, I never felt that I had mastered any subject, or even book, in any of my courses there. What the school did give me was the confidence that I could read serious books, and with it the assurance that I needed to return to them, in some cases over and over, to claim anything like a genuine understanding of them.

I’m finding myself that I like to spend time thinking. That things don’t come quickly, especially if you don’t have the opportunity to reflect and simmer. Yet, as he points out we, as a culture, have filled up our lives with so many things, there’s rarely time for that. And if there is, one feels almost guilty indulging in just thinking…  The fast response is desired and praised, the slow one, well, not so much.

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