Some years ago I led an essay with this opening: “We continue to be besieged by commentary in the battle over the humanities in higher education–do we need more emphasis?, do we need less?, is it all about jobs?, is it all about competency in a skill set?, what about critical thinking?, what about making good citizens?, what about the pursuit of meaning in life?, etc., etc.” Well, guess what–the questions remain the same and I haven’t seen much progress in a win for my side in these wars.
I have tried to cut through these questions to get at the heart of the matter with my friends who share my views on it, which is that the central problem is not being addressed–the major deficiency in what now passes for the study of the humanities is the denigration over the past several decades of its core intellectual foundation in Western Civilization. In other words, the heart of the matter is the illiberal nature of liberal education at many of our leading colleges and universities.
Lately there have been suggestions by several knowledgeable observers that the humanities programs offered by our top universities could be the platform for leadership in reasoned discourse that could help reverse the trend of incivility that has produced such intense polarization in our public square. This really should be the case, and there are some islands of excellence (Hillsdale College comes to mind) but a quick overall review of these offerings and their growing immersion in identity politics and other postmodern nonsense leaves me with very little confidence that they are up to the task without significant reform.
One organization to which I belong, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), gets it and has done more work than most to address the core problem at the trustee and alumni/donor level, which is a “must do” to get at the central issue, the erosion of the mission of higher education. And they recognize that this will involve a major battle with an alliance between activist students and non-academic administrators who are undermining this mission. This battle will not be fun and in most places not popular with established interests–academic, social, and political. But it must be engaged vigorously.
One of my favorite quotes on the definition of and value of a liberal education to a society is from Leo Strauss in a speech over 50 years ago entitled “What is Liberal Education?”:
Liberal education is the counter poison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing by “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.” Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant. Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.
We need much more of this, properly understood, not less, and it badly needs defending.