Category Archive 'Liberal Education'

08 Jun 2009

Without Judgment, There is Only Leftism

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Roger Scruton, in the American Spectator, describes how sloth, self-indulgence, and intellectual cowardice led the modern university to surrender to egalitarian relativism and thus to be politicized.

As universities expanded, the humanities began to displace the sciences from the curriculum. Students wished to use their time at university to cultivate their leisure interests and to improve their souls, rather than to learn hard facts and complex theories. And there arose a serious question as to why universities were devoting their resources to subjects that made so little discernible difference to the wider world. What good do the humanities do, and why should students take three or four years out of their lives in order to read books which—if they were interested—they would read in any case, and which—if they were not interested—would never do them the least bit of good?

In the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities—women’s studies, gay studies and the like—which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they. And since there is no cogent justification for women’s studies that does not dwell upon the subject’s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms. …

Subjects like English and art history grew from the desire to teach young people how to discriminate art from effect, beauty from kitsch, and real from phony sentiment. This ability was not regarded as an unimportant skill like fencing or horse riding, which students are free to acquire or not, according to their interests. It was regarded as a real form of knowledge, as vital to the future of civilization as the knowledge of mathematics, and more closely connected with the moral health of society than any natural science. It was only on that assumption that the humanities acquired their central place in the modern university.

If, however, the humanities are to avoid the cultivation of taste, it is not only their central place in the curriculum that is thrown in doubt. Given their prominence in the modern university, and the fact that increasingly many students come to university who are unprepared for any other form of study, any change in the humanities is a change in the very idea of a university. Conservatives often complain about the politicization of the universities, and about the fact that only liberal views are propagated or even tolerated on campus. But they fail to see the true cause of this, which is the internal collapse of the humanities. When judgment is marginalized or forbidden nothing remains save politics. The only permitted way to compare Jane Austen and Maya Angelou, or Mozart and Meshuggah, is in terms of their rival political postures. And then the point of studying Jane Austen or Mozart is lost. What do they have to tell us about the ideological conflicts of today, or the power struggles that are played out in the faculty common room?

The true conservative cause, when it comes to the universities, ought to be the restoration of judgment to its central place in the humanities. And that shows how difficult a task the recapture of the universities will be. It will require a confrontation with the culture of youth, and an insistence that the real purpose of universities is not to flatter the tastes of those who arrive there, but to present them with a rite of passage into something better.

Read the whole thing.

04 Oct 2007

The Sham Diversity of Today’s Academia

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Anthony T. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law and former Dean of Yale Law School, laments the post-1960s dégringolade of liberal education in America in Against Political Correctness: A Liberal’s Cri du Coeur in this month’s Yale Alumni Magazine.

Today’s defenders of diversity assume that the interpretive judgments of their students will differ according to their race, gender, and ethnicity. But at the same time they expect their students to share a commitment to the values of political liberalism on which the concept of diversity is based. These values may be the fairest and most durable foundation on which to build a political community. I believe they are. A legal and cultural environment marked by the freedoms that political liberalism affords may be the setting in which institutions of higher education are most likely to flourish. I think it is. But when a presumptive commitment to the values of political liberalism begins to constrain the exploration of the personal question of life’s meaning — when the expectation that everyone shares these values comes to place implicit limits on the alternatives that may be considered and how seriously they are to be taken — the enterprise itself loses much of its power and poignancy for the students involved and their teachers lose their authority to lead it.

Whatever fails to accord with the values of political liberalism fits uncomfortably within the range of possibilities that the prevailing conception of diversity permits students to acknowledge as serious contenders in the search for an answer to the first-personal question of what living is for. The political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, with their easy acceptance of the natural inequality of humans, offend these values at every turn. So, too, does the theological tradition that runs from Augustine to Calvin, with its insistence on church authority and its doctrines of sin and grace. And much of poetry is motivated by an anti-democratic love of beauty and power.

All of these ideas and experiences are suspect from the standpoint of liberal values. None represents the “right” kind of diversity. None is suitable as a basis for political life, and hence — here is the crucial step — none is suitable (respectable, acceptable, honorable) as a basis for personal life either. None, in the end, can perform any useful function other than as an illustration of the confused and intolerant views of those who had the misfortune to be born before the dawning of the light.

Today’s idea of diversity is so limited that one might with justification call it a sham diversity, whose real goal is the promotion of a moral and spiritual uniformity instead. It has no room for the soldier who values honor above equality, the poet who believes that beauty is more important than justice, or the thinker who regards with disinterest or contempt the concerns of political life. The identification of diversity with race and gender has thus brought us back full circle to the moral uniformity with which American higher education began, nearly four centuries ago.


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