Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Suicide of the Liberal Arts - WSJ

A paean to liberal arts education by a high school classmate.  We were in that same homeroom with Fr. Jack Alexander. I don't remember that he picked me out to challenge the way he did Agresto, the son of a construction worker who went on to become a college president. - gwc
The Suicide of the Liberal Arts - WSJ
by John Agresto

I was a few minutes early for class. Father Alexander, my high-school sophomore-homeroom teacher, was standing outside the room, cigarette in his mouth, leaning on the doorjamb. “Morning, Father.”

His response was to put his arm across the door. “Agresto,” he said, “I have a question I’ve been thinking about and maybe you can help me.”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Do you think a person in this day and age can be called well educated who’s never read the ‘Iliad’?” I hadn’t read the “Iliad,” and am not even sure I had heard of it. “Hmmm. Maybe, I don’t see why not. Maybe if he knows other really good stuff . . .” His response was swift. “OK, Agresto, that proves it. You’re even a bigger damn fool than I thought you were.”


I grew up in a fairly poor Brooklyn family that didn’t think that much about education. My father was a day laborer in construction—pouring cement, mostly. He thought I should work on the docks. Start by running sandwiches for the guys, he told me. Join the union. Work your way up. There’s good money on the docks. And you’ll always have a job. He had nothing against school, except that if bad times came, working the docks was safer.
***Reform at the university level will require brave work by deans and presidents. A hundred-course set of “distribution requirements” with minimally guided choice fosters intellectual randomness. Instead, the best faculty should put together a coherent program of core studies to introduce students to the finest books, to alternative answers to the most compelling questions, to great literature and art and pivotal historical events. Contemporary political issues of race, class and gender do not define what’s truly important. That’s the greatest fallacy of higher education today.

Second, find ways to increase interaction with departments of business, engineering, pre-med and the like. Most students will properly go on to work in various vocational, professional or technical fields. They should be offered our civilization’s best work and its broadest vision—but humanities teachers should not begin with the notion that business and law will be “improved” by the humanities. The benefits flow both ways.

Finally, a word to secondary schools and their teachers: You may be the last hope many of your students will have to think broadly and seriously about literature, science, math and history. If they don’t read Homer or Shakespeare, or marvel at the working of the universe, or read and understand the Constitution, they never will. The hope of liberal learning rests on your shoulders. Please don’t shrug.

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