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Daily RC Article 176

Navigating the Decline of Liberal Arts: Challenges and Reflections on Education


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For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. He must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past, which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present.

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The division between vocational and liberal arts education, is today tilting in favour of the vocational. Even within the liberal arts, more students are, “fleeing from ‘useless’ subjects to ‘marketable’ or job oriented subjects such as economics,” says Delbanco.

Delbanco reminds us of Max Weber’s distinction between “soul-saving” and “skill-acquiring” education. The liberal arts, in Delbanco’s phrase, “as a hedge against utilitarian values,” are soul-saving. What isn’t open to question is that today, the liberal arts have lost interest in their primary mission. That mission is that of "attaining and sustaining curiosity and humility," while "engaging in some serious self-examination."

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Delbanco warns that it won’t do to posit some ideal but antiquated golden age when higher education approached perfection. Surely he is correct. A good deal of the old liberal arts education was dreary. The profession of teaching, like that of clergyman and psychiatrist, calls for a higher sense of vocation and talent than poor humanity often seems capable of attaining. A liberal arts education does not hold a higher position in the world’s regard today.

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Also student evaluations, set in place to give the impression to students that they have an important say in their own education, are one of the useless intrusions into university teaching by the political tumult of the 1960s. Teaching remains a mysterious, magical art. Anyone who claims he knows how it works is a liar. No one tells you how to do it. You walk into a classroom and try to remember what worked for the teachers who impressed you, or, later in the game, what seemed to work best for you in the past. Otherwise, it is pure improv, no matter how extensive one’s notes.

According to Delbanco, one study found that students tend to give good evaluations “to instructors who are easy graders or who are good looking,” and to be hardest on women and foreign teachers; another, made at Ohio State University, found “no correlation between professor evaluations and the learning that is actually taking place.” As Delbanco notes, the main result of student evaluations is to make it easier for students to avoid tough teachers or, through harsh reviews, punish these teachers for holding to a high standard.

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I was not myself regarded as a tough teacher, but I prefer to think that I never fell below the line of the serious in what I taught or in what I asked of my students. What I tried to convey about the writers on whom I gave courses was, alongside the aesthetic pleasures they provided, their use as guides, however incomplete, to understanding life. Reading Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Tolstoy, and other writers I taught was important business. When I taught courses on prose style, I stressed that correctness has its own elegance, and that, in the use of language, unlike in horseshoes, close isn’t good enough; precision was the minimal requirement, and it was everything.

The text discusses the declining emphasis on liberal arts education, noting a shift toward vocational subjects. Author Delbanco highlights the ancient Greek belief that liberal arts cultivate intellectual depth and critical thinking. However, he observes a departure from the liberal arts' primary mission of nurturing curiosity and humility, with students favoring job-oriented subjects. Delbanco criticizes student evaluations, arguing they prioritize ease over learning and can hinder high standards. The author emphasizes the value of teaching literature and prose style, aiming to convey aesthetic pleasure and guide students in understanding life.
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