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Universities Trashing the Liberal Arts Tradition

The world of higher education has seen some unfortunate events this year.

Middlebury College made headlines for students and faculty protesting a lecture [1]by the noted sociologist Charles Murray. After decades of teaching literature at Providence College, Anthony Esolen left to take up a teaching position in New Hampshire at Thomas More College [2]. Esolen’s “sin” was to call into question the university’s limited understanding of “diversity” and to draw attention to a more robust account of diversity at the heart of Western Civilization, the very program Esolen helped to found at Providence. Professor Paul J. Griffiths eventually resigned [3]from his position at Duke Divinity School for being unwilling to participate in the school’s attempt to inculcate mandatory “diversity training.” In Griffith’s estimation, such training is not only anti-intellectual, but has a totalitarian flavor connected to it.

Added to this mix are the events which occurred at the conclusion of this spring semester at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts institution in Houston, Texas. Whereas all other faculty contracts were ready, as per university regulations, by the stipulated May 15 deadline, the 18 members of the Philosophy and English departments, all of whom are tenured, were told in an official notice from the president that their contracts were being withheld [4]while their departments “were under review for a potential reorganization and/or program elimination.”

The letter did not indicate how the two departments might be “reorganized” or what programs might be considered for “elimination.” Furthermore, since the university had developed no serious study of the matter over the course of the spring semester, faculty members were left entirely in the dark about the president’s plans. The note in the envelopes where their contracts should have been indicated only that some decision was to be made at the June 12 meeting of the university’s board, at which time evaluations would be made about faculty contracts.

It was widely assumed that one of the programs under consideration for termination was the Center for Thomistic Studies, the school’s Ph.D program in philosophy. The university’s Center for Thomistic Studies is unique in the United States, providing an in-depth study of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and priding itself on being firmly rooted in the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition.

Several days after the official letters went out in place of contracts, contracts were in fact sent to the members of the English Department, but rumors are that this was only after two senior faculty members offered to go on phased retirement, suggesting the likelihood that the threatened “reorganizations” or “terminations” of programs were simply a means to the desired end of the president being able to rid the university of unwanted faculty members with tenure. Thankfully, Members of the Philosophy Department also received their contracts over the summer, but future uncertainty still looms in the background. Indeed one of the most troubling aspects of the business from the beginning has been the lack of transparency from the university administration.

This problem at St. Thomas, along with controversies arising on other campuses, indicates we are losing our sense of the nature and importance of the liberal arts education, and the very purpose of the university itself. As the classical liberal arts decline within our contemporary universities in favor of a curriculum ordered towards technological competence alone, we are eroding away the goodness of a more wholesome education. As a response to the trending technocracy, we need more than ever to renew our understanding of the liberal arts as the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of self-rule.

A genuine university education, grounded in the liberal arts, is meant to help students understand, and love, the truth about themselves, the world, and their place in it. Such an education is also meant to move students “outside of themselves.” This other-oriented purpose of a liberal arts education serves as the basis for civic and associative virtue and the kind of social cohesion that builds up political friendship. At its height, especially within the setting of a Catholic university, it gives a sustainable foundation for the theological virtue of charity.

The life and foundation of the university is based on its being an institution uniquely ordered towards the whole of reality. Although there are a variety of academic disciplines, each containing its own proper subject matter and scope, there is nonetheless an overarching ontological order that provides an intelligible unity and framework for all of them. This idea is reminiscent of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg Address [5], wherein he argued that the university community makes “up a whole, working on the basis of a singular rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason.” A liberal arts education, rooted in philosophy, history, literature, and theology, is designed towards freeing students to see and understand how the various parts of reality are related to the whole.

Severed from the whole that is the basis of the liberal arts, the different academic disciplines will only feed off and reinforce a conception of parts and division. This is precisely the diagnosis given by essayist and agrarian Wendell Berry, who argues:

We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we now can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to each other only within the pattern of the whole to which they belong (The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays, 77).

This absence of a proper vision of the whole is, as Berry rightly observes, why we are currently incapable of reuniting the broken pieces of our cultural and educational fragmentation. A university that neglects or seeks to reduce the liberal arts is not being “progressive,” but regressive.  It is not leading students on a path to a broader vision of reality than the current culture offers, but is merely following the worst tendencies in that culture toward fragmentation.  It is a sign, not of health, but disease. Such a vision is a sure indicator that a university is further distancing itself from its origins and reason for existence.

The late Berry College political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler has argued [6]that “the way to defend freedom on campus is to defend the place for liberal education as such. That’s not to take a stand against justice, but for it. It’s also to take a stand for love, death, friendship, citizenship, God, man’s place in the cosmos, sublime beauty, and all the traditional concerns of higher education that can’t be reduced to either technology or justice.”

A polity filled with citizens who have no substantial moral compass, nor an articulated understanding of the common good, is no foundation for ordered liberty. The endeavor to fight against such current disintegrating trends is characterized by the Philosophy and English faculty at the University of St. Thomas, and it is why the whole university community is indebted to them. Ultimately, this truth must not go unnoticed. It is among others, that such individuals have rightly been honored with the title that best fits their high calling and vocation of professor.

Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Universities Trashing the Liberal Arts Tradition"

#1 Comment By James Hartwick On August 10, 2017 @ 6:17 am

I am a math teacher who very much believes in the value of the humanities, and I think this “STEM vs humanities” dilemma is a false dilemma. To make it go away, we wouldn’t need a number of humanities students to switch majors; however, we would need them to take a few more classes, maybe get a minor, in something that makes them more immediately employable. An English major who has taken four semesters of programming is a lot more employable than an English major who hasn’t. And I’m not arguing that this English major needs to stay a programmer his whole life; it’s just an entry level job which he can then use as a steppingstone.

Two thousand years ago, society needed carpenters. Today we need people who can program, or deal with financial information, or a myriad of other skills that a twenty-first century economy requires. The point is to have a skill that your society needs — and be able to articulate your understanding of the common good.

#2 Comment By Centralist On August 10, 2017 @ 8:58 am

I think we are seeing two things happen here. One is colleges are acting like corporations and, two the helicopter parents influence. The latter helps the former take such greater control limiting true academic thought and even encouraging a limiting the ability to question the world around us. The helicopter parents of my generation, do not value education they value prestige and profitability. Colleges no longer value like they should academic honest but place a much higher value on “profits” to spite their non-profit status. This leads to the end of debates and the decay of education has a personal good for growth to just a tool for the material well-being at the cost of the intellectual and spiritual. I am of course assuming the high levels of depression arise from placing more value on the physical realms of ourselves and not on the metaphysical ones that truly control our health.
“‘Man shall not live on bread alone,”

#3 Comment By Tony D. On August 10, 2017 @ 11:30 am

I am sympathetic to Mr. Jones’ (hopefully soon Dr. Jones’) pleas, but am pessimistic that a proper understanding of the role of education – as distinct from (but hardly opposed to) vocational training – can be restored to the public consciousness. This is due, in large part, to the pressures of self-described “conservatives” who mock those programs of study that are not visibly tied to future job prospects (with the tired refrain of “Want fries with that?”). The conservatism that values the humanities as such is a tiny minority view, I’m afraid. This then produces the vicious circle in which the humanities are ever-increasingly dominated by left-leaning (if not fully toppled-over) academics.

#4 Comment By Dave D On August 10, 2017 @ 11:47 am

I have an M.A. in English Literature. I would be more supportive of university liberal arts departments if they were truly preserving the lessons of the past and the best of what has been thought and said. However, from my experience, most are teaching more “critical theory” than anything, and when the legacy of Western Civilization is touched upon, it is with the aim of tearing down and/or destroying it. Thus, as it stands, I question whether or not this is something for which I want my tax dollars to be used.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 10, 2017 @ 11:59 am

You can blame the left… But their dysfunctionality is a consequence of their irrelevance. Who is it that determines what “skills” society needs for the direction it is desired to push it? Why, Wall Street and the elite financial globalists. The diversity claptrap is simply throwing something valueless as a sop to those regarded valueless but with the potential to cause trouble, so they won’t make trouble for those profits, or interfere with their overriding concerns, elite economic domination.

#6 Comment By polistra On August 10, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

“Liberal arts” education leads to insanity 100% of the time.

“Democracy” leads to tyranny 100% of the time.

Smoking leads to cancer 20% of the time.

We try to eliminate smoking because of a 20% hazard. Why don’t we do the same for “liberal arts” and “democracy”, which are far more certain killers?

#7 Comment By Myles On August 10, 2017 @ 9:35 pm

This was explored in detail by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in “The Idea of the University”.

#8 Comment By Suzanne Nussbaum On August 11, 2017 @ 8:03 pm

I’m with Dan.

Luckily, my humanities degrees are old (late 70s/early 80s) in classical languages and literatures. These days, I’m a Latin teacher.

The humanities _as currently taught in the voguish way_ are a disaster, and are not attracting students as they used to, before the race/class/gender tyranny descended.

Would that they were being taught à la Prof. Anthony Esolen!

#9 Comment By Joseph Auclair On August 12, 2017 @ 10:30 am

You don’t need a philosophy department to teach the lesson that nothing exists but what the physical sciences study, and everything that does exist can be exhaustively understood by the physical sciences.

Dogmatic positivism on a roll.