Support for a ‘Liberal Education’ Is Not Dead

Support for a ‘Liberal Education’ Is Not Dead

I was delighted to read an article titled “Coming to the Defense of a Liberal Education” on the Huffington Post recently. The author, Michael Roth, cites several intellectuals who, along with him, “worry that in our results oriented regime, the study of history, literature and the arts is being compromised or eliminated in favor of narrow skills that fit into so-called objective tests.” He later reports, “There has been great disappointment that the Obama administration has continued the Bush era emphasis on accountability through narrow test taking.” It is important that people are speaking out about this.

A few years ago, before I came to the happy conclusion that, as a liberal arts educator, I abhor traditional textbooks, I inflicted one of those thick, 500-page “readers,” the title of which now escapes me, on my fledgling scholars. If any of you poor souls happen to be reading this article, I apologize. But one of the essays in that anthology still remains with me: “On the Uses of a Liberal Education” by Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia. He said back in 1997 what Michael Roth is saying today.

So many students come to community college not really to learn anything, but to get enough credits to get an Associate’s Degree that they believe will get them a better job or open the doors to a four-year university where they can get a Bachelor’s Degree that they believe will get them an even better job. The focus seems to be on the practical spoils of “going to college,” not on a journey toward intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. I try to impress upon my charges that the emphasis should be on the journey, not that elusive pot of gold at the end of the academic rainbow. What good is gold if one does not have the wisdom to avoid the ignominy of leading a shallow life? And the road to wisdom is an education that includes literature, history, and the arts. If we forget that, our colleges will produce heartless clones that will sanction through lack of attention the kind of society that writers like George Orwell warned us against. Why? Because the graduates won’t know what Orwell had to say. But, then again, ignorance is bliss, right?

Do you know why I stopped using that 500-page tome, aside from it being too expensive and too damn heavy? A new edition of that kind of textbook appears every three years or so (an insidious marketing scheme, in my opinion), and for various reasons, a few essays are taken out and a few others added. Well, this one time, Mark Edmundson’s essay was removed. I suppose the publishers felt that no one needed to read anymore about the uses of a liberal education. That was so twentieth century! But the future is still in the molding hands of our educators. Let’s not allow a heartless bureaucratic system to bully sincere teachers into replacing real teaching with giving tips on test taking.