Friday, December 17, 2010

In Defense of the Liberal Arts

At National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson speaks out in defense of the liberal arts against both the therapeutic Left and the utilitarian Right.
The liberal arts face a perfect storm. The economy is struggling with obscenely high unemployment and is mired in massive federal and state deficits. Budget cutting won’t spare education.

The public is already angry over fraud, waste, and incompetence in our schools and universities. And in these tough times, taxpayers rightly question everything about traditional education — from teachers’ unions and faculty tenure to the secrecy of university admissions policies to which courses really need to be taught.

Opportunistic private trade schools have sprouted in every community, offering online certification in practical skills without the frills and costs of so-called liberal-arts “electives.”

In response to these challenges, the therapeutic academic Left proved incapable of defending the traditional liberal arts. With three decades of defining the study of literature and history as a melodrama of race, class, and gender oppression, it managed to turn off college students and the general reading public. And, cheek by jowl, the utilitarian Right succeeded in reclassifying business and finance not just as undergraduate majors, but also as core elements in general-education requirements.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that once again we hear talk of cutting the “non-essentials” in our colleges, such as Latin, Renaissance history, Shakespeare, Plato, Rembrandt, and Chopin.
This is a strange alliance of Left and Right against the conservative impulse to remember the past, meditate on transcendent things and refuse to embrace the cult of novelty. Hanson writes:

But the liberal arts train students to write, think, and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge. Without that foundation, it is harder to make — or demand from others — logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.

Citizens — shocked and awed by technological change — become overwhelmed by the Internet chatter, cable news, talk radio, video games, and popular culture of the moment. Without links to our heritage, we in ignorance begin to think that our own modern challenges — the war in Afghanistan, gay marriage, cloning, or massive deficits — are unique and not comparable to those solved in the past.

And without citizens broadly informed by the humanities, we descend into a pyramidal society. A tiny technocratic elite on top crafts everything from cell phones and search engines to foreign policy and economic strategy. A growing mass below has neither understanding of the present complexity nor the basic skills to question what they are told.

The liberal arts are the "liberating arts;" they are the studies undertaken by the free man who wishes to remain free and make the best use of that freedom. The liberal arts explore what makes humans different from high-tech beasts. The liberal arts connect us to our tradition, our past, our heritage and the things that transcend time: beauty, goodness and truth.

A collectivist society ruled by the Conditioners has no need of the liberal arts. In fact, the liberal arts are a threat to the rulers and conditioners. In Brave New World, Mustapha Mond, the Controller for Europe, keeps the Bible and Shakespeare locked up in a safe. Such works are dangerous to tyrants and social engineers because they convey a view of man as possessing free will, a conscience and a capacity to know God. All this breeds people who are hard to control and manipulate, who question authority and who cannot easily be kept in their place.

The liberal arts will be needed as long as people are free and when the darkness of totalitarianism falls they will fade away.

1 comment:

D. Chambers said...

Hi Dr. Carter,

The liberal arts to me seems to be fueled the best by Christians who were the ones who preserved and sought to rediscover the arts as essentials to learning. Such an appreciation of the "gold of Egypt" means nothing unless it is plundered by the People of God. Otherwise it is simply throwing pearls to swine. As the decline of a real Christian influence continues soon all history of the arts will be revisioned to one of class and race and gender. Pretty soon as the Islamic influence increases, history will be erased and begin from the 7th century onward as the great arts and literature of Persia and Egypt and Turkey and Africa have been superceded by Islamic culture. It is sad to see but I it is only sad admittedly, from the standpoint of one who has actually learned the classics. If I had not, I probably would not care either. My background is just as susceptible to seeing all of Western liberal arts as the literature of the colonizers and imperialists. Furthermore, the decline of the Western culture, I believe is linked to the decline of the Western male. Look at all the great Western male contributors in history and literature. Where are they today? Our society is being flooded with immigrants and left/right pragmatists who want a diploma for the power, prestige, and money it brings, not for the sheer enjoyment of learning and wisdom.