Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Liberating the Liberal Arts

By Richard Vedder

Last night I attended a remarkably erudite and thought-provoking lecture by Patrick Deneen, a political philosopher at Georgetown University, entitled "Liberating the Liberal Arts: On Re-learning the Art of Being Free." In his discourse on collegiate curricula and the meaning of liberty, Deneen hit on several themes of interest to us at CCAP.

There are different visions of liberty and freedom. To some, liberty means an absence of restraints on personal behavior, a disregard for the old moralities and religious strictures of the Ten Commandments and beyond. For others, liberty involves voluntarily accepting constraints on behavior that ultimately will lead to a better, more ordered, and truly more free society. Colleges have largely abandoned their mission of promoting virtue, self-restraint, thrift, honesty, and other virtues. Deneen is not prescriptive, but obviously he is concerned by this drift of colleges away from the verities that form the corpus of the cultural capital of Western Civilization, some of which is sort of an implicit moral code of conduct that universities are no longer inculcating.

Deneen lamented the decline in the humanities, both in terms of enrollments and content taught. English majors have been in sharp relative decline, while business majors have boomed. The leading major, unfortunately, at Princeton, is economics. College is becoming sort of an advanced vocational school. We no longer are pondering the eternal questions central to any civilization, but we are teaching our kids about how to sell, truck and barter (to borrow from Adam Smith). I would add, parenthetically, that most of that is learned best on the job in any case.

Deneen seems close to accepting my position that we are over-investing in some types of higher education. He talked approvingly of Matthew Crawford's book Shop Craft as Soul Craft which argues that many of the best jobs in life are based on skills of the hands as much as the mind. Crawford, who has a Ph.D., went into motorcycle mechanics successfully and joyfully, and maybe there is a lesson there for higher education. We have too many business majors yes --- but maybe too many of all kinds of majors. Too many people go to school for the jobs that ostensibly are available only to college graduates, and many in the process are learning much of inconsequential importance both to work and to life ---and are missing out on appreciating the richness of the human enterprise that is enhanced by the study of the humanities.

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