Smoky Mountains Sunrise
Showing posts with label Liberal Arts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Liberal Arts. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What Happens Today at a Liberal Arts College?

By John Leo

Today the National Association of Scholars is releasing the results of its long, in-depth study of Bowdoin College, "What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students."

Among the findings: Bowdoin, in a retreat from its past, stresses global citizenship (with declining emphasis and on and concern for the United States). Multi-culturalism, diversity and emphasis on race and gender pervade the curriculum and campus life. Openness and critical thinking are officially preached, but many campus core tenets cannot be challenged in the face of the college's prevailing orthodoxy, and those who might challenge (conservatives) are virtually gone from the campus--only 4 or 5 of the 186 faculty could be listed as conservative, and 100 percent of faculty donations in the 2012 presidential  election went to Barack Obama.

The study of Bowdoin was triggered by happenstance--a golf game that included Wall Streeter Thomas Klingenstein and Bowdoin president Barry Mills. As a result of the disturbing conversation at that game, Klingenstein decided to fund the NAS study of the college. 

Here are excerpts from the preface to the report:

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Dr. Larry Arnn: "The Educator as Statesman"

By Michael R. Cook
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Anyone concerned about the generally deplorable state of American higher education will be heartened by the remarks, contained in the video below, of Dr. Larry P. Arnn.

Larry Arnn became the twelfth president of Hillsdale College in 2000. Many of us are familiar with Hillsdale as the little school in Michigan that refuses all government funding – as well as the onerous regulations that invariably accompany taxpayer subsidies.

Less well-known, perhaps, is the fact that Hillsdale distinguishes itself, today, as one of the very few places where young Americans can obtain an authentic education in the liberal arts – the kind of education, as Jefferson believed, that is essential to self-government in a free republic.

In fact, Hillsdale is doing today exactly what it has done from the time of its founding in 1844. It teaches the “permanent things.”

And why should we find this heartening? After all, Hillsdale is but one small outpost in a landscape containing thousands of colleges and universities whose faculties have, almost uniformly, abandoned the classical liberal arts curriculum – along with any serious reflection on America’s founding principles.

But at Hillsdale, we do find ample cause for encouragement. Under Dr. Arnn’s inspirational leadership, the college is flourishing. Each year it attracts more and better-qualified applicants for admission. And each year the reach of the school’s influence expands. For example, its monthly speech digest, Imprimis, is now received in 1.8 million homes and offices.

Today, Hillsdale College is anything but obscure. Indeed, some believe that Hillsdale has taken its place as the finest liberal arts college in the land. I include myself among that number.

Listen to Dr. Arnn’s remarks delivered recently before an audience in Naples, Florida, and I think you’ll have good reason to agree with me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fifty Years of 'The Two Cultures'

C.P. Snow’s Landmark Lecture Is More Relevant Than Ever

From MIT's The Tech
By Gary Shu

May 7 marked the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s influential talk, “The Two Cultures.” In his lecture and subsequent book, the English writer and physicist described the widening gulf between the humanities and science.

For some reason, what people thought of as “intellectuals” ignored the contributions of scientists even though much of humanity’s knowledge marches along the path of the technical arts. C.P. Snow succinctly expressed himself with a story:

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.”

“Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative.”

“Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

As someone trained in science, when I first read of this exchange I was encouraged that this was a historically recognized (albeit unsolved) problem. After all, what was called “natural philosophy” is one of the only genuinely universal forms of knowledge.

Like F = m·a or s = dQ/T, science’s enduring statements will be true whether we’re in a Bangladeshi jungle, on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or on the other side of a Galilean moon. You can’t say the same about the aesthetics of St. Peter’s Basilica without the baggage that Western civilization brings.

Scientific laws govern our existence and technologies rely on our ability to understand and manipulate the rules of nature. Without true scientific and technical scholarship, our world would not have steadily increasing life expectancies, 160-story buildings sprung from the middle of the desert, an ability to track our friends’ whims from across the world, or machines in our pockets that would have been considered supercomputers thirty years ago.

One could reasonably declare the war between the two cultures won. The humanities have slunk into a fifty-year morass from which they have yet to emerge from, while the vast majority of the world’s recent progress has advanced through innovations in technology. Science is — and has been — ascendant.

And yet, I would still claim an educated (American) person is someone who has read Shakespeare.

We live in a society of common values. We built our institutions to support the principles we have agreed upon. To wantonly ignore the urban history that produced a city like Boston or to tinker in the lab while neglecting the great lineage of thought behind scientific enquiry are both types of ignorance similar to that of C.P. Snow’s partygoers.

Promoters of the humanities argue that a “learning for its own sake” liberal arts university provides its students with critical thinking skills that are widely applicable, regardless of their later career choice. But if this is true, why don’t I trust a random sociology major to provide me an accurate balance sheet model? Conversely, would I rely on a chemical engineering graduate to give me a one-sentence description of “deconstructionism”?

While administrators and legislators have been promoting more professionalization in college education, the exact opposite should be happening: we should argue for an authentic liberal arts education that encompasses the tradition humanities core curriculum with a broad and basic scientific background along the lines of MIT’s General Institute Requirements.

Such a graduate would be equipped to handle any task that the modern world demands, whether it’s to write a report for a policymaker or to hunker down behind a microscope, because he or she would draw on the best of both traditions while avoiding their weaknesses.

When the problems we’re confronted with require technical solutions to social problems — healthcare, the economy, energy, the environment — we do little right in reproducing the past’s myopia through a balkanized education system. Interdisciplinary programs are poor substitutes by providing too little of all. Higher education should be laying a much firmer foundation of the breadth of human knowledge — the original intent of the classic university — in both science and the humanities.

The humanities guide our values, but we need science to understand the world and what remains possible. Technology gives us tools for solving problems, but we need the humanities to understand which ones we want and how to apply them. Those that bridge the two cultures and understand the interaction at the link will be best able to tackle tomorrow’s difficulties and lead us through the next century.

There are still unanswered questions though. How do we fit our technical solutions into the other cultures of the world? Will we be able to guide tomorrow’s advances into an agreement with our values and vice versa?

Most importantly: how do we continue to bridge the gap between the humanities and science so they not only start speaking to each other, but also inform and advance the other?

In a world where tomorrow’s solutions require exponentially more technical knowledge, C.P. Snow’s fifty-year old lament remains as fresh as ever. The Two Cultures continues to be a problem worth thinking about.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

That Nameless Virtue

Universities cannot guarantee the moral worth of their graduates

From The Harvard Crimson
By Christopher B. Lacaria

In a little more than a month, Harvard will graduate yet another class of seniors and commend them to prestigious positions in regions far-flung across the globe. Even with the economic downturn, no doubt this class—like all before it—will eventually fill the highest echelons in government, finance, law, and academia.

In conferring the degree, embossed with the university seal and confirmed by the president’s signature, Harvard thereby will stake its reputation on the intellectual fitness and aptitude of each recipient. Few indeed would doubt the natural intelligence, raw talent, and competence of most, if not all, of those in line for a sheepskin. But whether the last four years have augmented or molded those natural capacities in which newly arrived Harvard freshmen abound remains an open question.

Complaints about the Core and the nascent General Education—its lack of common requirements or a coherent, unifying philosophy—are rehearsed often. And the demise of a potential Great Books track within Gen Ed called further attention to this problem. The prevalence of grade inflation and the existence of trendy but “soft” disciplines in the humanities and social sciences continue to portend trouble to those concerned with Harvard’s intellectual rigor.

But these standard jeremiads against Harvard’s curricular vacuity, as just and true as they are, only extend so far. For one cannot seriously contest whether Harvard graduates are brilliant, well read, and extremely likely to succeed at whichever tasks they choose to apply themselves. Yet, despite this, one cannot but have serious reservations about these graduates’ cultivation, moral virtue, and character, over which Harvard as educator claims no responsibility.

In a kinder and gentler era, universities sought—as many of this region’s more ancient preparatory schools still ostensibly do—to educate not only the mind but also the “whole person.” For, in those days, Harvard and others cared not so much that their graduates were successful at their chosen professions as that they were decent, upstanding, and honorable gentlemen who would not bring shame upon their almae matres by their ill conduct.

The notions of honor and character to most Harvard students sound old-fashioned, if not completely absurd. Yet, at one point, such concerns formed the center of a truly moral education. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics listed “greatness of soul,” or “magnanimity,” among the principal moral virtues—as the “crown” of the virtues, in fact, without which the other moral virtues cannot properly exist. For one who exemplifies all the moral virtues—an ideal toward which men of a previous age continuously would strive—proudly disdains base and trivial matters and values not material goods as much as the well-deserved respect of a good man. The magnanimous man, who seeks great honors while deserving them, necessarily is also a good man, the ideal gentleman.

Neither Harvard nor contemporary university pedagogy esteems this old ideal. The intellectual fads that currently enthrall academia long ago abdicated any concern with ends: Education, under this regime, is merely a question of means. Students indeed may write well and argue their points persuasively and powerfully, but toward which goal and on behalf of which argument they may exercise their faculties are questions never asked. Scientific training, assisted by advanced technology, points toward an ever-expanding horizon of information to be gathered and knowledge to be pursued, but with little concern for what purpose such research ultimately may be used.

Universities like Harvard still purport to teach the liberal arts, those studies worthy of a free man. Such a curriculum once itself implied an ideal, an end. The liberal arts, indeed, have had as their object to cultivate the “gentleman,” in the sense that the word implies a distinction, a high standard that presumably all, and probably most, can never attain—and not as we often use the term today, to welcome every male individual who passes through the door of a public restroom. A liberal education aspires to make men’s minds liberal, worthy of being free: those who are free from acting according to base motives, such as personal gain, and can practice the virtues for their own sake.

Modern college curricula have no regard for the virtues. The wisdom offered in classrooms, if not, as in the admittedly “applied” sciences, purely instrumental, is then essentially a curiosity, since it has no relationship to the good life. And, as such, graduates will be left uninstructed as to how they ought to use, or how they ought to act with, the knowledge they have gained and the natural intelligence they have sharpened over the last four years.

The lack of a moral ideal in education bodes especially problematic in the case of Harvard students, who, already confident and ambitious, deserve to have their talents and energies directed toward a suitably noble end. Those students, without due guidance, understandably will concern themselves first with gainfully employing their knowledge and skill for either money or power, and only secondarily, if at all, with the responsible and respectable ideal that their university and most in their generation abandoned long ago.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears in The Harvard Crimson on alternate Thursdays.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The New Learning That Failed

The New Criterion recently published a thoughtful article on the decline of classical learning and the core liberal arts curriculum in the university. For those who would like to understand the "dumbing down" of our elementary and secondary schools and the coarsening of our culture, this article probes the root causes.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and author of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Richard Dawkins believes that Christianity is an intellectual vacancy. That's probably because he has never visited the astonishing Thomas Aquinas College, says Marc Sidwell.
"I look up now, past a rounded tree which quivers with bird-life, and I see a few of the students. Once again, it's a kind of shock to gaze upon them."
It is unfashionable to acknowledge that good ideas come from America. Thirty years ago Christopher Derrick discovered Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California, and could not conceal his wonder. Here was a community of learning unlike anything left in Europe. He shared his delight in Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if Truth Mattered. Stumbling on his account last year while researching a new history of liberal education, I, too, was exhilarated. The decades have changed nothing; this college is as important as ever.

Thomas Aquinas College is a Great Books school. Its students engage directly with the profound thinkers that define Western civilisation: St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Euclid, Plato and Shakespeare, to name only a few. Classes employ the Socratic method of dialogue. The curriculum is stretching, yet not impossibly demanding. Most important of all, the college is centered on the faculty's profession of Catholic faith. Beginning in wonder, the course aims at wisdom.

"What struck me first was the extreme happiness of the students," wrote Derrick. That still appears to hold true. The discovery of intellectual power in the context of an intellectually rigorous faith looks far more enjoyable than the usual campus free-for-all. For what Thomas Aquinas College rejects is the easy relativism that Pope Benedict XVI has so roundly denounced. Assured of the existence of truth, the mind is freed to engage with the great conversation of the Western mind.

Thomas Aquinas College is a modern exemplar of a great tradition. Liberal education stretches back to the birth of our civlisation-a golden thread of intellectual freedom. It begins in 5th century Athens, as the education due to a free man. Faith and reason intertwined in the Catholic Church, carrying our civilisation forward after the fall of Rome. Now men spoke of universal freedom and therefore a universal education. Preserved in the Benedictine orders, transmitted by schoolmaster-priests, it was the Christian liberal educators who kept the life of the mind alive through centuries of uncertainty and civil strife.

It is extraordinary that the vital educational role of the Church is now so underappreciated. Only last year, suspicion of Catholic schools was common in the Press even as a survey demonstrated their above-average standards and their excellent work towards producing well-rounded future citizens.

Such excellence should come as no surprise. St. Thomas Aquinas, the doctor angelicus, is proof of the high value Catholicism has always placed upon reasoned enquiry into creation. Yet the sceptics like Richard Dawkins continue to sneer at Christianity as an intellectual vacancy. They misquote Tertullian as "I believe because it is absurd" and do not know St. Anselm of Canterbury's Credo ut intelligam. ("I believe in order to understand").

Recently, this teaching has been reaffirmed. Pope John Paul II published Fides et Ratio in 1998, which opens with a ringing endorsement: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

Only last year His Holiness Benedict XVI used his Regensburg address to say that "the encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance."

Even while Rome speaks, the ideal of a liberal education is almost lost from British discourse. Thirty years after Christopher Derrick's epiphany in Santa Paula, it seems little has changed at home. Instead, the exchange runs the other way. Two British students and one Irish citizen are currently enjoying the Californian sun, not the first to accept the 6000-mile journey as the price of an education no longer available at home.

Today, Thomas Aquinas College is more confident than ever. For 30 years, its graduates have gone out into the world and proven their ability to excel in all fields. One American alumnus runs a network of pre-schools in London. When Christopher Derrick visited, only six years after its founding, there were 33 students. Today, there are ten times as many, and a growing waiting list. For the last three years, the college has been in the top 10 conservative colleges in America.

"The human mind is ordered to truth," says college president, Dr. Thomas E. Dillon, who was a member of the teaching faculty at the time of Derrick's original visit. He notes the Vatican's recent emphasis on this teaching and adds: "If anything, the mission and character of Thomas Aquinas College is more relevant now than it was in 1977."

A liberal education is not exclusively a Catholic prerogative. Protestant and secular schools all do fine work in this great tradition-again, now largely in America. Yet it remains true that the Catholic Church has played the greatest role, and is most likely to be in the vanguard of any revival. To me, an Anglican, it seems tragic that Britain, once the last bulwark of liberal education, should choose to neglect its heritage.

Perhaps foolishly, I find myself inspired by the great unbuilt British college, the College of Light. In 1641 Jan Comenius was invited to London by the Long Parliament to establish the Collegium Lucis: the last moment when scientific thought and Christian faith might have united in a modern British institution. Civil war intervened, and the Royal Society was established instead, without Comenius's (admittedly heterodox) faith.

America, they say, is always a few decades ahead. That makes it high time for Britain to catch up with the principles of Thomas Aquinas College. Meanwhile, the Californians join Pope Benedict in his prayer on the recent feast of St. Thomas Aquinas: "Let us pray that Christians, especially those who work in an academic and cultural context, are able to express the reasonableness of their faith and witness to it in a dialogue inspired by love."

Marc Sidwell is a Research Fellow of the New Culture Forum and a freelance author. He writes articles on liberal education for the Social Affairs Unit and is currently editing a liberal education reader from Plato to the present day.

(This article first appeared in the May 2007 issue of The Catholic Herald of London.