Heresy on the liberal arts?
By Anonymous on Saturday, Jun 27 2009
Our discussion of liberal education early in the 2009 Institute with Susan Hanssen and David Whalen was well-timed and stimulating, but left me troubled and concerned about our conversations around this issue.
I should probably preface these comments by noting that I find Cardinal Newman's arguments about the unity of knowledge and the need for education to promote "a philosophical habit of mind" both sublime and compelling. I became enamored with liberal learning in college, and made many of my own academic decisions—including the study of classical languages, history, literature, philosophy, and politics—as part of a personal quest to attain this type of education.
Yet some 25 years after my initial college experience, and having studied and worked in an array of fine universities, I find myself teaching in a liberal arts institution but surrounded by faculty who are too busy and too specialized to interact much about liberal learning. I also labor amidst students who are solid American pragmatists, with little evident interest in cultivating that philosophical habit of mind, and far greater concern about job opportunities after college that will justify the substantial fiscal outlay they are making in their higher education.
On the personal front, while I have enjoyed my ongoing educational journey, and have had many moments of enlightenment (especially encountering Plato and Augustine), I am not certain that these pursuits have actually bestowed upon me a philosophical habit of mind of the sort Newman characterized. Nor do I have a clear sense that many of the students I have worked with over the past two decades, either at the graduate or undergraduate levels, have truly partaken of liberal learning, despite my best attempts to orchestrate their educational experiences along these lines. This is no crisis of confidence on my part, mind you, but rather an attempt at candor.
I do not know if my observations here represent excessive pessimism, or simply a failure of us all to live up to Newman's standards. Perhaps my perceptions about the paucity of liberal learning in America spring from the inescapable plague of disciplinary specialization. Maybe the ideal of liberal learning is simply overwhelmed by our intensely pragmatic and materialistic culture in early 21st century America. Whatever the sources, I find myself increasingly entertaining the notion that relatively few individuals in our society may ever develop a philosophical habit of mind. And so the question then becomes how to pursue "liberal learning" against the expectation that we shall ever see widespread success in this endeavor.
I do think that ISI would do us all a favor by not simply extending our opportunities to discuss the liberal arts, but also by tracking down and profiling institutions that DO seem to be having general success in producing significant numbers of students who achieve a philosophical habit of mind—and helping the rest of us understand what is being done in those places, in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, faculty conversation, and so forth, to make this happen.