As American colleges turn into overpriced and badly managed vocational and technical institutes, the ideal of a liberal education falls farther and farther from view. On the “practical” side many colleges now offer majors in topics like business administration and recreation management. Fair enough in its way, although this is an incredibly expensive and ineffective way to learn basic job skills. But this is training, not education.We professors in the liberal arts and the humanities love to wring our finely textured and subtle hands in dismay over this state of affairs, but as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus point out in an excellent piece in the Los Angeles Times, the humanities are also to blame.
[I]n visiting university classes across the country, we were appalled at how the humanities and social sciences — even pure sciences — were being taught. If students are staying away from those classes, it’s not necessarily because they prefer practical training. Many times it’s because professors have subverted the subjects that once held pride of place on most campuses.The liberal arts have been radically altered, both in format and function. The catalog labels are still recognizable: psychology, comparative literature, English and the like. But what is being taught is no longer attuned to undergraduates looking for a broader and deeper understanding of the world.Consider Yale‘s description of a course it offered that dealt with how disabilities are depicted in fiction: “We will examine how characters serve as figures of otherness, transcendence, physicality or abjection. Later may come examination questions on regulative discourse, performativity and frameworks of intelligibility.”Classes like these suggest that professors are using the curriculum as their personal playgrounds.
Quite so. The young have both a right and a need learn about the great classics and landmarks of human intellectual and cultural achievement. Whatever fripperies and frills colleges want in their curriculum, the failure to offer students the opportunity to grapple directly with the greats is a gross betrayal of the mission of an educational institution.Learning from a scholar who is engaged on the frontiers of contemporary debate is also a privilege; there is nothing wrong with colleges offering upper level students courses that are focused on state of the art debates and theories, however arcane these look to outsiders. But that is a side dish and should be offered in very moderate portions; the main job of an undergraduate college is to introduce students to the foundations — and to give them a lifelong hunger to learn.