It was wholly a pleasure to hear from another fan of that endangered species on American campuses, liberal education. It seems the more bureaucratic types in American education, whether they've burrowed into administration or become tenured members of the faculty, are busy transforming our universities into trade schools in every way but the name.
Recommended Reading: "Mission Lost/ California's state university system offers everything but a liberal education" in the Spring issue of City Journal.
This survey of the bleak horizon was written by Bruce S. Thompson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and professor of classics and humanities at California State in Fresno. His dispiriting conclusion:
"The disappearance of liberal education helps explain why today, despite their Latin mottos and medieval graduation gowns, most state universities look less like traditional colleges and more like other state-funded bureaucracies, run not by scholars but by managers and functionaries. No longer do they provide students with a grounding in the 'best that has been said and thought,' as (Matthew) Arnold put it. What they do provide is a poor substitute: vocational training and unexamined left-wing orthodoxy."
Can this trend be reversed? Yes, if we continue to raise our voices in defense of liberal education, which lies at the core of Western civilization itself. That civilization is now under attack not just by assorted jihadists around the world but, much more effectively, by our own intelligentsia around the country. Or at least by its more with-it members, who never met an attack on Western civilization they didn't like.
My hopes rose, new friend, on hearing this family story you shared: "I was working at some forgotten task with my niece who was home on a brief recess from her final year at an out-of-state Methodist school. ... Something was said or done to spark some distant memory of a vague and arcane quotation that had once registered in my subconscious, and I absentmindedly voiced the first part of it. In a twinkling she quoted the final part of it. I stopped, turned, and looked at her in a completely new light that has not left her since, and she said with that unassuming smile that makes everyone love her: 'Never underestimate the value of a liberal arts education....' "
What a fortunate uncle to have such a niece. What a fortunate community, republic, society we would be if we could complete each other's quotations.
Then we would all have common points of reference, which is one definition of a coherent culture.
We might not agree -- indeed, let's hope we wouldn't in a free country -- but we might better understand the point others were making. Perhaps the better to refute it. But we wouldn't be just talking past each other, as in so much of what passes for political dialogue today. We would be speaking the same language, citing the same references, recognizing the same allusions. We would be able to come and reason together.
Any distinctive civilization is composed of just such commonalities.
Without them, we lose a shared frame of reference. Instead of E Pluribus Unum, or From Many One, we risk going from one to many.
My debt to you doesn't end with that story. You also brought back boyhood memories of whiling away an endless summer day under the slowly revolving ceiling fan on the screen porch of our house on Forrest Avenue in Shreveport, absorbed in the latest sci-fi thriller. Maybe one by good old, reliable old Robert A. Heinlein. His old paperbacks now have been elevated to classics by fanciers of science fiction, and for good reason. Your appeal for a revival of the old standards in education included Robert Heinlein's own, characteristically direct definition of a liberal education:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
That piquant description of someone who is truly educated would make a good, even provocative, starting point for any discussion of what a liberal education should be about, and why it is menaced by what has been rightly called "the barbarism of specialization."
So many of our leading universities -- if leading only in prestige instead of quality -- have embraced specialization uber alles. The arts and sciences are left to languish, and a common curriculum becomes a thing of the past. Athens turns into Babel.
In the postmodern university of the all-too-near future, education is to be served up cafeteria-style and the student told: Take what you want and call it a balanced diet. This isn't education or any other kind of discipline; it's dissipation.
It's as if civilization itself had become an elective. Which happens when the barbarians are no longer at the gates but in the faculty lounge, having long since come to dominate the administrative offices. In the rush to raise graduation rates, what those graduates learn becomes only a secondary consideration.
Can higher education be saved? Small, liberal-arts colleges across the country are showing it can be. They're setting an example that more of our great universities -- great in numbers and resources, anyway -- should follow. It can be done.
Where there's a will, there's got to be a way, however devious. Yes, it would take ingenuity, perseverance and, most of all, a faculty that still believes in liberal education. For when educators cease to believe in education, not just the old core curriculum may be lost but the core of a civilization.
So be well, friend and comrade-in-arms in this struggle, stay strong, and keep fighting for liberal education, Never, never, never, never give up.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)