Liberalism and Modern Education

In the previous blog, I gave a critique on the biggest problem facing the standard STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education across the country – namely the lack of philosophical self-reflection and training. Because of this, many undergraduate STEM majors graduate with good scientific training, but they overwhelming adopt a worldview of naturalistic materialism as a methodological assumption without thinking through its implications and foundational assumptions. This leads to the unbalanced education of many scientists observed by many commentators. Now in making this critique, it is assumed that the liberal arts wing of the university system is doing its job to add the proper balance to the STEM fields. This is the ideal, but unfortunately, it is not the reality. In this blog, I want to focus my critique on the humanities and liberal arts. In my view, the fifth major issue associated with contemporary education is the devolution of liberal arts studies.

Now, some who are reading this blog may claim that I am presenting a biased view of modern liberal arts education because I am a faculty member in the STEM fields. This complaint is not only observed among STEM faculty, but it is observed across the academy. Consider the commentary from University of Notre Dame Professor Patrick J. Deneen concerning the decline of the liberal arts:

The scandalous state of the modern university can be attributed to various corruptions that have taken root in the disciplines of the humanities. The university was once the locus of humanistic education in the great books; today, one is more likely to find there indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class. The humanities today seem to be waning in presence and power in the modern university in large part because of their solipsistic irrelevance, which has predictably increased students’ uninterest in them.

Now there are numerous reasons for Deneen’s conclusion, but I want to focus on two: (1) science and global competition have hallowed out the liberal arts and (2) liberalism has led to self-destructive tendencies within the liberal arts.

The Old Science and the University

When most people today think of science, they usually think of the natural and physical sciences. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is a relatively new definition of science, which occurred sometime during the 18th century at the time of the growth of rationalism and the Enlightenment. The “old science” finds its classic definition as “knowledge acquired by study, acquaintance with or mastery of any department of learning.” The old science was pre-modern in origins, mostly religious and cultural, deriving its authority from the faith traditions and cultural practices that one generation sought to pass on to the next. The vestiges of this older tradition still exists on campuses today, such as the Gothic buildings; the titles “professor”, “dean”, and “provost”; and the robes worn at graduation.

For centuries, the humanistic disciplines were at the heart of the university. The “old science” recognized that a unique feature of man was his capacity for liberty – in other words, man was unique for his ability to choose and to consciously order and direct his life. Anchored by a Biblical worldview, it was acknowledged that this liberty was subject to misuse and excess. Thus, to understand ourselves was to understand how to use our liberty well in light of the sinfulness of man. Thus, the liberal arts sought to encourage that hard task of negotiating what was permitted and what was forbidden, what constituted the highest and best use of our freedom, and what actions were immoral and wrong. Hence, to be free (or liberal) was itself an art, something that was learned not by nature or instinct, but by refinement and education.

At the center of the liberal arts were the humanities, the education of how to be a human being. Thus, each new generation was encouraged to consult the great works of our tradition (the vast epics; the classic tragedies and comedies; the reflections of philosophers and theologians; the Word of God; etc.) to teach us what it was to be human. This means that one of the core skills learned in the liberal arts is how to properly analyze worldviews. While the modern sciences were an integral part of the original liberal arts education, they were considered the main avenue towards understanding the natural and created order of which mankind was the crown. This was the original vision of the university and as it can be seen, the humanities were guided by a comprehensive religious vision.

The New Science and the Multiversity

The current dilemma concerning the humanities began in the early modern period (1500-1800s) with the basic argument that a new science was needed to replace the “old science” of the liberal arts. The “new science” is synonymous with the natural and physical science and thus is restricted to those branches of study that relate to the phenomena of the material universe and their laws. Historically, this new science no longer sought to merely understand the world, but to transform it. This impulse gave rise to a scientific, industrial, and technological revolution. The success of the modern scientific revolution in bringing unprecedented prosperity provided the motivation to reject the “old science” with its claims of tradition and culture. This debate also changed the way in which we viewed the philosophy of higher education. Consider the words of Deenen

In the nineteenth century, U.S. institutions of higher learning began to emulate the German universities, dividing themselves into specialized disciplines and placing stress on expertise and the discovery of new knowledge. The religious underpinnings of the university dissolved; the comprehensive vision that religion had afforded the humanities was no longer a guide. What had been the organizing principle for the efforts of the university—the tradition from which the faculty received their calling—was systematically disassembled. In the middle part of the twentieth century, renewed emphasis upon scientific training and technological innovation—spurred especially by massive government investment in the “useful arts and sciences”—further reoriented many of the priorities of the university system.

Thus, the original vision of the university was considered archaic and the multiversity vision was adopted, which was presented in the 1960s as “central to the further industrialization of the nation, to spectacular increases in productivity with affluence following, to the substantial extension of human life, and to worldwide military and scientific supremacy”. This creates new incentives and motivations for the faculty, not to study classic works, but to create new knowledge. Hence, innovation and progress are the virtues of the multiversity and the past was understood to offer little guidance in a world oriented toward future progress. The prominence of the library (the central place of the university in the transmission of culture and tradition) was replaced by the laboratory (the central place of knowledge creation in the multiversity). The core curricula at universities – formed originally out of an understanding of what older generations had come to believe necessary for the formation of fully human beings – were displaced increasingly by either “distribution requirements” or no requirements whatsoever, in the belief that students should be free to establish their course of study according to their own wisdom.

Liberalism and the Liberal Arts

In response to these changes, the humanities began to question their place within the university. Did it make sense any longer to teach young people the challenging lessons of how to use freedom well, when increasingly the scientific world seemed to make those lessons unnecessary? Could an approach based on culture and tradition remain relevant in an age that valued, above all, innovation and progress? How could the humanities prove their worth, in the eyes of administrators and the broader world?

In my view, this is the background behind the transformation of many liberal arts programs. Modern liberal arts are very much characterized by liberation from tradition. Liberal arts faculty could demonstrate their usefulness and progressiveness by showing the backwardness of the classical texts; they could “create knowledge” by showing their own superiority to the authors they studied; and they could display their irrational anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that formed their discipline. Thus, instead of teaching students how to weigh conflicting views of the world for themselves, too many liberal arts courses (and departments) have simply indoctrinated students into adopting this anti-traditionalism, which is another form of chronological snobbery.

In the 1960s, there was still a desire to read the classic texts (usually for the purposes of critique); today, the classical texts of the humanities have largely been discarded. For example, a recent study have shown that the average English major is not required to take courses on the classic works from Shakespeare and Chaucer. Instead, we now have classes in English departments such as Literature, Food, and the American Racial Diet, Punk Culture: The Aesthetics and Politics of Refusal, The Politics of Hip Hop, Gender, Sexuality, and Literature: Our Cyborgs, Our Selves (for more information on the typical liberal arts curriculum, see this work from Peter Wood and Michael Toscano). After rejecting the objective anchors in the academic canon of classical texts, these fields succumbed to passionate group thinking and self-absorption. The liberal arts have devolved into a free-for-all, as witnessed by the plethora of departments categorized by identity politics.

Our Response

From a Christian perspective, underlying the devolution in the liberal arts was an acceptance of the modern understanding of liberty. For the “old science”, liberty had long been understood to be the achievement of hard discipline – a victory over appetite and desire. In the 20th century, the humanities adopted the modern, scientific understanding, which holds that liberty is constituted by the removal of obstacles, by the overcoming of limits, and by the transformation of the world – whether the world of nature or the nature of humanity itself. Education thus came to be a process of liberation, not the cultivation of self-restraint. Moreover, the postmodernism that is typically associated with the humanities has led many to believe that all of our natural conditions are socially constructed. Thus, if man had any kind of “nature,” then the sole permanent feature was the centrality of the autonomous will and thus the raw assertion of power over any restraint is definitional of mankind (a topic discussed in a previous blog).

The humanities of old (fostered with a Christian worldview) can muster a powerful argument against this tendency. The warning in essence is simple: at the end of the path of liberation lies enslavement. Liberation from all obstacles and self-restraint is illusory because human appetite is insatiable and the world is limited. Without mastery over our desires, we will be eternally driven by them, never satisfied by their attainment. What we are seeing is the excesses of modernity – the flattening of the soul and the theft of transcendent meaning and value. Thus, the only way to reclaim the proper usefulness of the liberal arts is to reclaim the religious underpinnings of liberal education and the comprehensive vision that religion has afforded the humanities. Liberal arts can find its proper place in the academy if it returns to its original intention of studying the true nature of man and serving as a corrective to the philosophical hubris of the philosophy of modern science. A restored liberal education would be an education in the limits that culture and nature impose upon us – an education in living in ways that do not tempt us to live for ourselves. Thus, we would learn a proper understanding of liberty: not as liberation from constraint, but rather, as a capacity to govern ourselves well, living in our Father’s world.

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One thought on “Liberalism and Modern Education

  1. Pingback: The State of Higher Education | CredoCovenant

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