Tag Archive for: Liberal Arts liberal education

How American Colleges Have Failed Their Students

‘Western civ’ has become a term of reproach at many famous universities.

The dust jacket of John Agresto’s new book, The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It, depicts Gore Hall at Harvard in the 1870s. Perhaps this is a subtle indication of what lies within: Gore Hall, Harvard’s first proper library, was demolished in 1913. To be sure, it was replaced by the grand Widener Library, which is a treasure. But will it remain a treasure?

In September 2020, the university announced in a press release that “Harvard Library has begun building an Anti-Racism team,” appointing its “first Anti-Black Racism Librarian/Archivist,” who “will work with colleagues across Harvard Library on objectives relating to centering anti-racism and diversity in our collections lifecycle.” Imagine being paid to string words together like this about a “collections lifecycle”—at Harvard.

But you don’t have to imagine: this is what has become of education in this country, not only at Harvard but pretty much everywhere. The situation, summed up in a sentence by Agresto: “There’s no way to view this as other than a tragedy.” Particularly insidious is that, unlike most examples of political attacks on education in the past, the recent “dismantling of the liberal arts comes from . . . within”:

It comes from radicalized departments of history, literature, classics, American studies, and all the myriad of other studies connected to ethnopolitical interest groups. It comes from virtually every school and college of education. This is why I have no hesitation in saying that liberal education in America is dying not by murder but by suicide.

Describing the self-destruction with grace, care, and regular doses of humor, Agresto does his best to imagine a better future. A superb writer who largely avoids inflammatory rhetoric, he is the rare gifted administrator who appears to have lost none of his humanity or sense of wonder when he entered the upper echelons of academic bureaucracy: as acting chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the mid-1980s, then as president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe from 1989 to 2000, and more recently as a founding trustee of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.

What are the liberal arts? This is Agresto’s pithy explanation, which he provides in highlighting italics: “a way of understanding the most important questions of human concern through reason and reflection.” He writes that “the liberal arts hold out the promise of freeing each of us from the captivity of prejudice, of platitudes and superstition, or of whatever it is that ‘everyone’ believes” and “aim at once to be truly radical and truly conservative,” demanding that individuals acquire a foundation in the wisdom of the past so that they can truly think for themselves.

Endangered education

Unfortunately, he laments, “a rich and thoroughgoing liberal arts education [now] seems to me as endangered as the Sumatran orangutan.” As he goes on to note, when he first began to think about the book, nearly three decades ago, he drafted such sentences as “It’s clear that in the realm of education the words ‘liberal arts’ have always been words of high praise” and commented on how very rare it was to find a “faculty of liberal arts that does not think of itself as the crown jewel of the whole educational enterprise.” How things change.

Yet even in the 1980s, the bonfire of the humanities was well underway. Agresto knows this, of course. Indeed, he spends a good number of pages on the dismantling of Stanford’s Western Culture curriculum, which was last taught in 1987–88. Some five hundred protesters, including Jesse Jackson, initiated this fight by marching on campus chanting, “Hey ho, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” The march took place in January 1987; in February, Agresto’s teacher Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind; and at the end of March 1988, the game was finally up when the Faculty Senate voted 39 to 4 to revamp the course to make it more global and, supposedly, less racist and sexist.

The fact is that the humanities—historically a subsection of the liberal arts: literature, music, history, etc.—have been in deep trouble for a long time. It is difficult to find a basic course on Shakespeare at most of the better-known colleges and universities; the rise of STEM, for all its wonders, has led in recent months to the Pandora’s box known as ChatGPT; and, worst of all, today’s would-be defenders of the humanities often don’t seem to have any idea what they’re defending or how to do it.

Part of the challenge is that defending the liberal arts involves clusters of questions and debates rather than a clearly articulated set of principles. Life’s biggest questions are almost never resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and if we don’t study the differences between the Epicureans and the Stoics, between Locke and Rousseau, and between legal originalists and non-originalists, we are missing out on our own music: sometimes a battle of the bands, sometimes cacophony, always fascinating.

The diverse nature of the liberal arts means that to be educated means knowing not only the proverbial “best that has been thought and said in the world” but also the also-rans. “[W]e understand better the Founders’ Constitution,” Agresto writes, “by reading the writings of various Anti-Federalists alongside The Federalist Papers.” And beyond this: a liberal education should also “com[e] to grips with the very worst that has been said and done and understanding why.”

Disdain for the ordinary lives

Agresto firmly rejects the idea that people who study the humanities are more humane, perhaps even more human, than those who do not. Obviously he is correct about this. “Are we humanists and liberal artists actually more moral than . . . owners of delicatessens?” Agresto asks. I am the grandson of owners of a delicatessen who did not attend college, and I have no hesitation in saying that they were more moral than both I and most people I have known in decades in academia.

It is one thing to extol the extraordinary, as we should all do. But it is deeply wrong to disdain or condemn the ordinary. Yet this is how the American elite is now acting. “[O]rdinary family life, heterosexuality, simple love of country, traditional virtues, traditional religious habits and outlooks”—all are under regular attack at institutions of higher learning, which at the same time present students with such gotcha questions as “Have you ever been to a gay or lesbian bar, social club, or march? If not, why not?” (courtesy of North Dakota State). It is good to remember Cardinal Newman, as Agresto of course does: “a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end.”

For Social Justice Warriors, however, there is a horrifying new “ordinary.” Here’s how Agresto puts it, after reminding us that Social Justice was the name of Father Coughlin’s virulently anti-Semitic journal:

The last thirty years have seen the vandalizing of ever so much of higher education. The supposed reformers have entered the storehouse of centuries of accumulated knowledge, torn down its walls, thrown out its books, and toppled its monuments. For all their brave talk of justice, they have carried out what has to be seen as one of the most intellectually criminal acts of the ages, the modern equivalent of burning the libraries of antiquity. Today, acts that were unthinkable, unimaginable, just years ago now seem so very ordinary.

Agresto’s book is liberal, largely moderate, and explicitly American: liberal not as opposed to “conservative,” but in the sense of being about freedom (Latin libertas, the source of our “liberty”); moderate because moderation is “the virtue a liberal education cultivates best, as well as the virtue for which it is often criticized most”; and American for the reason that “[b]ecause we are diverse, for each of us ‘our own’ means not only what we hold in common but also what we hold separately.” This defense of liberal education will especially resonate with readers like me who at least used to consider themselves liberal, who try when possible to occupy the middle ground, and who find themselves increasingly aggressive about promoting American ideals and institutions.

Underestimating outrage

Though it is at times repetitive, you can pick up The Death of Learning and read almost any chapter on its own and be edified. But the greatest flaw, in my view, is that Agresto does a better job of explaining “how American education has failed our students” than “what to do about it.” Not that he doesn’t say the right things: about the desirability of investing large sums in small liberal arts colleges; the importance of winning over the young and those who teach them (for which reason he ends the book with two heartfelt exhortations: “A Message to High School Teachers and Principals” and “A Message to High School Seniors”); and the possibilities that new universities offer—from Austin, Texas (disclosure: I am on the advisory board of the University of Austin) to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. But, as I have already hinted, I found in the second half of the book more wishful thinking than original policy suggestions.

There are also a few spots where Agresto gets things wrong. Sometimes he should know better. Most egregious is his valorization of Anthony Fauci, who majored in classics at Holy Cross. Agresto links him with Martin Luther King Jr. as “discerning men of public presence, insight, persuasiveness, and judgment—and thus capable of doing great things,” but I for one would not use him as an exemplar of why a “liberal arts education [is] something peculiarly important and estimable” (italics in original).

On other occasions, however, Agresto overestimates goodwill and overlooks the extent of academic outrage about certain topics. He may be at his strongest when he explains how a liberal education can be not merely of value to us as individuals but of genuine use—Agresto does not shy away from this word—to our collective well-being as a country. He highlights the education and sense of civic responsibility of three of America’s Founding Fathers and its nineteenth-century “refounder,” but fails to note that in the past three years, prominent statues of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln have been taken down or that James Madison’s estate, Montpelier, has become aggressively woke.

Fair enough, perhaps. But would he have predicted that a statue of John Witherspoon that an elite university erected as recently as 2001 would now be under serious threat? As I write, the Princeton administration is debating what to do about a prominently placed representation of the only clergyman and only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence: a citizen of the world after whom the organization that publishes Public Discourse is named. (Disclosure: Princeton fired me last year, but I remain a Senior Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.) The controversy has made national news, including in these pages. To those who would take down the statue, I offer Witherspoon’s admonition to Princetonians of long ago: “Do not live useless and die contemptible.”

Let me end on a positive note. In his salutary reflections on an “alliance” between the liberal arts and vocational education, Agresto quotes Booker T. Washington, who was assuredly neither useless nor contemptible. Of a student who made use of grammar, chemistry, and other bookish subjects in the raising of an acre of splendid cabbages, Washington wrote, “[T]here is just as much that is interesting, strange, mysterious, and wonderful; just as much to be learned that is edifying, broadening, and refining in a cabbage as there is in a page of Latin.” He was right, and I’ll add to the discussion Pliny the Elder’s statement in the first century AD, Brassicae laudes longum est exsequi (“it would be a lengthy business to enumerate the glories of the cabbage”).

Learning in all its forms can and must be saved. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, and it is time for everyone to stop the destructive nonsense and return to cultivating our precious gardens, both agricultural and academic.

This article has been republished from Public Discourse with permission.


Joshua Katz

Joshua T. Katz is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on higher education, language and culture, the classical tradition, and the humanities broadly defined. A linguist… More by Joshua Katz


EDITORS NOTE: This MercatorNet column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

School Is About Freedom, Marco Rubio, Not Just Money

Republicans including Marco Rubio parrot leftist lines about how education’s ultimate goal is money. It needs to be a great deal more than that if our republic is to survive.

Once again, presidential candidate Marco Rubio, when asked a question about education, disparaged liberal learning by repeating his well-rehearsed lines about preparing students for careers in a “global” and “twenty-first-century” economy.

During the CNN town hall last week, he said that rather than teaching philosophy (“Roman philosophy,” no less), colleges should teach practical things—like welding. Sadly, Rubio is not alone. Many Republicans, forgetting their conservative roots, have joined Democrats in advancing a utilitarian view of education.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a welder. My father, an immigrant, was one. And there is nothing wrong with philosophy—for the student in a technical school. In fact, it was our Founders’ belief that only a literate, well-educated citizenry could govern themselves. Even the tradesman should be versed in the basics of literature, history, and ancient philosophy, they thought. “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” said James Madison.

Modern Philosophy Is Merely Cynicism

Rubio, however, does not distinguish between legitimate philosophy and what philosophy, like the rest of the humanities, has become under the regime of tenured radicals. The problem is that philosophy professors no longer teach their subjects or, if they do, it is to cast suspicion upon the very enterprise, as I learned in graduate school in the 1990s.

Yancy would do well to review the Greek philosophers on the art of rhetoric and what they have to say about not insulting your audience.
My seminar on ancient rhetoric consisted of the professor elevating the sophists, the teachers who for fees taught the art of persuasion by making the worse case seem better. The ends were practical: so citizens could defend themselves in court. To my amazement, my professor ridiculed the traditional philosophical goals of searching for the truth.

In the intervening decades, the situation has become worse. Consider Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy. This full professor, according to the university’s website, specializes in “Critical Philosophy of Race (phenomenology of racial embodiment, social ontology of race),” “Critical Whiteness Studies (white subject formation, white racist ambush, white opacity and embeddedness. . .),” and “African-American Philosophy and Philosophy of the Black Experience (resistance, Black identity formation . . .).”

Yancy received national attention in December for penning the screed “Dear White America” in The New York Times. He began, “I have a weighty request. As you read this letter, I want you to listen with love, a sort of love that demands that you look at parts of yourself that might cause pain and terror, as James Baldwin would say. Did you hear that? You may have missed it. I repeat: I want you to listen with love. Well, at least try.”

Yancy would do well to review the Greek philosophers on the art of rhetoric and what they have to say about not insulting your audience (“Did you hear that?” “Well, at least try.”). Behind such appeals like Yancy’s is an implied threat. Invoking the names of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other allegedly innocent victims of police violence, he accused “White America” of being racist through and through. Such rhetoric presages and justifies the angry mobs on our campuses and in our streets.

Philosophy Doesn’t Mean Grievance-Mongering

College campuses, once the places where the civilized arts of debate and the pursuit of truth were taught, have become places where the PhDs, doctors of philosophy, lead mobs of students in pursuit of retribution against some “systemic” wrong, usually in reference to race, ethnicity, or gender. Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, supporter of the Black Lives Matter mob movement, is promising to make such education free.

Our presidential candidates should consider what philosophy, rightly understood, could do. Indeed, by studying Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” students would be able to distinguish between different rhetorical appeals and learn the legitimate arts of persuasion—those that allow us to live in a civilized manner, where we resolve our differences through debate, not violence.

Were students to study Plato’s “Republic,” they might understand the dangers of a popular democracy and why the American Founders rejected one. They would consider Thrasymachus’s contention that justice is synonymous with strength, with being a “winner,” regardless of the methods. They might decide to evaluate such rhetoric carefully when it comes from a political candidate, like Donald Trump.

They would consider whether it is good for the government to put people in certain classes, as craftsmen or “guardians,” instead of allowing them to choose for themselves, or whether government should raise children rather than parents. What has been the historical outcome of such societies with centralized government, five-year economic plans, government-assigned jobs, and child-rearing from infancy? Are there any similarities to what Sanders is proposing?

Education Is Ultimately about Self-Governance

This is not to say that a class discussion should center on current political candidates. Indeed, the truly philosophical professor will keep the discussion largely away from the immediate. If the lesson is taught well, the student should come to his or her own conclusions and be able to carry those lessons into adulthood. That is the purpose of an education, not regimented job training and political molding.

The student should come to his or her own conclusions and be able to carry those lessons into adulthood. That is the purpose of an education.
The responses to Rubio’s statements in November, by such leftist outlets as ThinkProgress, CNN, and Huffington Post, were quite telling. They replied in kind to his materialist arguments. “Philosophers make more money than welders!” they said. In this they betrayed their utilitarian view of education, one that dominates the Obama administration, specifically through Common Core, a federally coerced program designed to produce compliant workers in the global economy.

The job training part has lured some short-sighted or corrupt Republicans. In higher education, too, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker advanced short-sighted “careerism,” as if he had forgotten, as Peter Lawler pointed out, Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument for studying the Greek and Roman classics. Earlier this year, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin suggested that electrical engineering was worthy of support, while French literature was not.

The other part of the progressive vision for education is to produce graduates who adhere to the state’s status quo. Students are trained to work collectively, focus on emotions, refrain from making independent judgments, and read in a way that does not go beyond ferreting out snippets of information. They are not asked to read an entire Platonic dialogue or novel. They do not get the big picture, from the dawn of civilization.

Our current educational methods are a far cry from the Founders’ robust views, of preparing citizens who are literate, logical, and knowledgeable; citizens capable of voting intelligently.

We Need Cultural Renewal, Not Materialism

We should embrace this conservative view of education. Although it is extremely rare in today’s college classrooms, it is being advanced in more than 150 privately funded academic centers on and off campuses. According to the John William Pope Center for Education Renewal, these centers “preserve and promote the knowledge and perspectives that are disappearing from the academy.”

One of these is the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, where I am a resident fellow. It was founded by three Hamilton College professors in 2007, and is located in the village of Clinton.

AHI offers students the option to read the classics in a manner that is increasingly difficult to find in the typically highly politicized open curriculum. AHI-sponsored reading groups have focused on the works of such important figures as Leo Strauss, St. Augustine, and Josef Pieper. This semester Dr. Elizabeth D’Arrivee is leading a discussion group on Plato’s “Republic.”

Political candidates would do well to explain how they will support such efforts for educational renewal, instead of disparaging philosophy and literature.

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EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Federalist. Photo Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com