Debating the Liberal Arts

I haven’t been blogging much because I’m on leave trying to finish the manuscript of my book on Libraries and the Enlightenment, but today I ran across something tangential to the book, though related to various themes of the blog.

If you keep up with academic news, as you should, you’re no doubt aware of the siege against the liberal arts from so many quarters. A liberal education–and by that I mean an education not just in the humanities, but in the sciences and mathematics as well–is seen as an extravagance, a waste of time and money that should be devoted to graduating more folks in vocational fields or majors like business, even if business majors don’t work very hard.

Last fall, I demonstrated that the humanities, at least, have been under attack for decades, so any talk of a “crisis in the humanities” was misguided. The liberal arts education has been under attack for even longer. The 1828 Yale Report on the curriculum was a vigorous and influential defense of liberal education.

What then is the appropriate object of a college? …. its object is to lay the foundation of a superior education. The ground work of a thorough education, must be broad, and deep, and solid. For a partial or superficial education, the support may be of looser materials, and more hastily laid.

The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two. A commanding object, therefore, in a collegiate course, should be, to call into daily and vigorous exercise the faculties of the student. Those branches of study should be prescribed, and those modes of instruction adopted, which are best calculated to teach the art of fixing the attention, directing the train of thought, analyzing a subject proposed for investigation; following, with accurate discrimination, the course of argument; balancing nicely the evidence presented to the judgment; awakening, elevating, and controlling the imagination; arranging, with skill, the treasures which memory gathers; rousing and guiding the powers of genius. All this is not to be effected by a light and hasty course of study; by reading a few books, hearing a few lectures, and spending some months at a literary institution. The habits of thinking are to be formed, by long continued and close application. The mines of science must be penetrated far below the surface, before they will disclose their treasures. If a dexterous performance of the manual operations, in many of the mechanical arts, requires an apprenticeship, with diligent attention for years; much more does the training of the powers of the mind demand vigorous, and steady, and systematic effort….

In the course of instruction in this college, it has been an object to maintain such a proportion between the different branches of literature and science, as to form in the student a proper  balance of character. From the pure mathematics, he learns the art of demonstrative reasoning. In attending to the physical sciences, he becomes familiar with facts, with the process of induction, and the varieties of probable evidence. In ancient literature, he finds some of the most finished models of taste. By English reading, he learns the powers of the language in which he is to speak and write. By logic and mental philosophy, he is taught the art of thinking; by rhetoric and oratory, the art of speaking. By frequent exercise on written composition, he acquires copiousness and accuracy of expression. By extemporaneous discussion, he becomes prompt, and fluent, and animated. (7-8)

Contrast this with the purely utilitarian critics who believed only vocational training should be provided, at least at public expense. Here’s a quote from Christopher Lucas’ American Higher Education: a History:

Critics nonetheless continued with a barrage of attacks upon those colleges slow to adjust their programs. In California in 1858, the state’s superintendent of public instruction demanded to know, ‘For what useful occupation are the graduates of most of our old colleges fit?’ In Georgia the year before, a newspaper editorial criticized the professorate for its alleged intransigence in the face of social change and wondered aloud why its members deserved access to public funds. ‘We are now living in a different age, an age of practical utility,’ the paper announced, ‘one in which the State University does not, and cannot supply the demands of the state. The times require practical men, civil engineers, to take charge of public roads, railroads, mines, scientific agriculture.’ Rejecting claims that institutions of higher learning were never intended to supply the technical skills needed for the practice of any occupation whatsoever, the writer went on to argue that ‘practicality’ and ‘utility’ should become the watchwords of any public academic agency. (135)

Eventually, the question was settled with liberal arts colleges providing a more liberal education and universities providing both liberal education and vocational training, which has persisted until today, though that’s increasingly under attack as well. What it shows is that a lot of Americans have never responded too well to the higher learning. School is supposed to prepare people to enter “useful occupations,” but not to be reflective human beings or thoughtful citizens. The problem is, it’s difficult to explain the value of a liberal education to people who lack such an education. It’s like going back into the cave and explaining that the shadows on the wall aren’t real.