Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A liberal education?

I attended a small liberal arts college. The curriculum was designed around a major and a minor, with additional requirements to take integrated classes in the fine arts, music, natural sciences, literature, and social sciences. None of those additional classes went into great depth but I was forced to gain some familiarity with disciplines like English literature or classical music I would otherwise have slighted. In "Why the humanities can't be saved" John Gray argues not only that the battle is lost but that the humanities aren't worth saving in the current academic environment. In the longer essay he also discusses how we came to this sad state.
It is hard to see why any sensible person would enroll in a humanities degree at the present time. A common argument used to be that the humanities taught students how to think. A science degree transmitted knowledge in a particular discipline, while history, philosophy or English inculcated capacities of critical thinking that could be applied in many areas of life. The humanities embodied a freedom of mind that would be useful whatever students did after they left university.

This is not an argument that can be made today. “Critical thinking” has become a cluster of progressive dogmas, which are handed down as if they were self-evident truths. Students learn an intra-academic argot – intersectionality, hetero-normativity and the like — that has zero utility in the world in which they will go on to live.

They also learn that disagreement in ethics and politics is illegitimate. Anyone who departs from the prevailing progressive consensus is not just mistaken but malevolent. When enforced in universities, this is a prescription for censorship and conformism. What is being inculcated is not freedom of mind, but freedom from thought. Losing the ability to think while attending a university may be considered a misfortune. Incurring fifty or sixty thousand pounds of debt in order to do so looks like carelessness. ....

.... From being a philosophy of tolerance aiming at peaceful coexistence among divergent world-views, [liberalism] has become a persecutory orthodoxy that tolerates no view of the world other than its own. If the contemporary academy is hostile to liberal values as they used to be understood, one reason is the rise of a new liberalism that dismisses these values as phoney and repressive. ....

It would be better to admit that the battle there has been lost, and advise young people to get to know the canon by themselves. It will not cost them tens of thousands of pounds to buy a copy of Montaigne’s essays, Emily Dickinson’s poems, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, for example. If they want to move beyond western traditions, they can read Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and hilariously funny Demons, the delightful Chuang-Tzu and dozens of other world classics. .... (more)

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