Thoughts on Liberal Education

The president of the State University of New York at Albany has decided to terminate the university’s programs in French, Russian, Italian, classics, and theater. Although he blames the state legislature for providing inadequate funding, it looks to me as if the president himself is not doing a very good job of making intelligent budgeting priority decisions.

In response to SUNY’s action, Gregory Petsko defends the value of the traditional humanities.

John Ellis, on the other hand, argues that most universities have already dismantled traditional humanities programs in favor of a mishmash of courses driven by political radicalism, and that “defend the humanities” is hence a false flag under which to sail.

(Petsko link via Cold Spring Shops)

16 thoughts on “Thoughts on Liberal Education”

  1. After having witnessed my youngest daughter’s experience in her first two years at the U of Arizona, I subscribe to John Ellis’ views. I have previously described here the parody of US History she had to take as an undeclared major student her first year. English composition was no better as her final was to write an essay about a white man raping or abusing a woman or minority.

  2. Whether the SUNY Albany president intended it or not, a closure of a few years would be an opportunity to reopen new departments on solid grounds with a faculty that was open to the timeless classics and not wholly committed to the latest politically correct garbage. I don’t know if people are prepared to go in and create such departments but we should be starting to seriously work out how to do so.

  3. Do we know anything about the specific content that was being taught in these programs at SUNY-Albany? Don’t think it’s been discussed in any of the things I’ve read about this.

    I doubt if the Classics program was of the politically-correct variety.

  4. The internet has changed the value of humanities education at the university level. One can read and discuss literature and philosophy in numerous places online. A good university program perhaps may be able to provide a bit more benefit than this, but the difference between classroom and self instruction is decreasing due to the internet. So, if someone wants to learn the classics he or she may do so without needing to take courses. A humanities degree just because “I love French Lit” is a luxury purchase akin to a speedboat and should be treated as such.

    Universities have convinced employers that their workers need degrees. This means Universities can’t hide behind the “liberal arts education” idea of teaching people how to learn or how to be a member or society or whatever. The reason their product is in demand is because they’ve convinced employers to require it, so now they need to lay in the bed they’ve made.

    Therefore, University education necessarily becomes more vocational. Engineering, accounting, etc., degrees have incredible value to the student. But too many people still think of studying English as their right if that is what they enjoy, as opposed to balancing that pursuit within the wider context of their life including their ability to earn an income, stay out of debt, etc.

    Our culture won’t collapse if people aren’t earning theater degrees. Our culture will collapse if no one learns civil engineering.

  5. Ellis is correct, but the problem runs even deeper than he limes. As I have pointed out before in these pages, ,

    “The men who taught the courses in which David Brooks, and Anthony Grafton, read those classics are gone. The time servers who have replaced them teach the “politics of hip-hop” and “gender relationships in contemporary science fiction movies”. They have not a particle of the learning possessed by the scholars Grafton eulogizes. It is one thing to want a humanistic education, but it is another thing to get one.”

    Anthony Grafton is a Chicago Boy: A.B. (1971), Ph.D. (1975). The humanities that I studied (admittedly indifferently and poorly) are not only not taught, but they cannot be taught because there are not enough humanists left alive to teach them.

    Every art, every form of learning, has a time and a place. We can read Shakespeare’s plays, and perform them as well, but there are no Elizabethan Dramatists in our playhouses. We can listen to Bach and Mozart, but our composers cannot do what they did. So it is with the Humanities. It is over, bid them adieu and move on. Some day and somewhere, somebody will start something new that will delight and astound us, just not here and not now.

  6. Wow. Petsko’s “letter” is an unabashedly bitter, pretentious, pedantic, condescending screed. The entire thing can be condensed into, “Give me relevance! Don’t threaten my rent-seeking, low-value existence!” Pfft.

  7. Petsko’s letter may have been snide, but I think it was deserved. This university administration chose to cancel the programs mentioned, saving $2.2 million, while preserving budget allocations for athletics including: $4.27 million in state allocations (a 26 percent increase since 2005-06), plus another estimated $9 million in non-state revenue.

    Not a reasonable priority decision, IMNSHO, plus, I bet there are at least several hundred thousand dollars, and probably much more, that could be saved via the consolidation and elimination of administrative functions.

  8. Over a hundred not-for-profit colleges charge more than $50,000/yr for tuition. $25,000/yr is considered embarassingly cheap. Is it any wonder that students seek education-based credentials that gaurantee a job that pays enough so that they can repay a $200,000 loan, start a family and buy a house in the suburbs.

    Humanities majors courses don’t lead to a private sector job. Humanities are being shunned because they are too expensive and because, as John Ellis says, they teach class and race warfare.

    Government jobs are available, but you need political pull, not a degree, to get one.

  9. “Universities have convinced employers that their workers need degrees.”

    What has happened is that employers are no longer able to use IQ tests or evidence of aptitude to hire employees. All evidence of competence is barred by affirmative action or other anti-discrimination laws. The only remaining criterion they have is a degree which is evidence of sufficient persistence that the applicant has been able to graduate. Content, except in the case of science or math, is irrelevant.

  10. Cold Spring Shops reviews a relevant book.

    “But instead of attacking the liberal arts as a bourgeois diversion, as a previous generation did, an easier route was to retain that label but decant the contents. Out went Aristotle and in his stead came Althusser, while Dickens was replaced by Derrida and Locke by Lacan. Many sincerely believed that subjecting text to deconstruction would undermine the foundations of corporate capitalism. But for teaching undergraduates, the quest for theory is not only misdirected, it warps the whole ambience of education.”

  11. “It is over, bid them adieu and move on. Some day and somewhere, somebody will start something new that will delight and astound us, just not here and not now.”

    That may well be the most depressing thing I have ever read.

  12. I suspect the Internet and Home schooling may well lead to a radical paradigm change in education in the coming decades.

    As well it should. Academia needs to move into the modern age – and stop costing so much. The decade of the 70’s saw 60% inflation overall – but education inflated 300%. And kept climbing.

    Prohibitively expensive, and for what?

    You could spend a few bucks renting a Michael Moore movie, and get the same indoctrination.

  13. Ellis is correct. Scientific research & development competes for attention on most major campuses with left/liberal ‘humanities’ which serve as cover for intellectually coherent, Marxist critical studies on end end and intellectually incoherent PC hogwash on the other.

    Give me scientists and engineers anyday.

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