Long Live the Liberal Arts!

With a workforce development model our students are just seen as cogs in a wheel.

Since before the development and implementation of Common Core we have seen a shift in education from classical education towards a workforce development model. The emphasis has been placed on STEM at the expense of the liberal arts. Common Core was introduced to help prepare students for STEM (failed in that record) in order to prepare students for 21st century jobs of the 21st century economy. If there isn’t a job for it in the future, so the argument goes, then we should not be investing our time there.

So you have the reform math push by Common Core that tries to get kindergarteners to think algebraically to cutting the amount of literature a student reads while in school in lieu of informational text as student won’t get paid to read fiction don’t you know?

David Whalen, provost at Hillsdale College, wrote a piece that pushes back against this trend. Please take some time considering it. Here are a few relevant excerpts:

The value and importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects have been elevated as worthy of study over and against the rather insubstantial and ideologically shrill humanities.

In fact, however, these arguments constitute a persuasive and powerful argument for the very education they attempt to dismiss. However unwittingly, it fairly demonstrates the need to study things enduringly human and humane, artful and wise.

For example, an essay by G.W. Thielman published in June 2015 attempts to argue in favor of a STEM education (as do many), and demonstrates the inescapable importance of the study of rhetoric and logic — liberal arts as venerable as they are essential. In his essay, Thielman argues that Edison has illuminated the world more than any of its sages, and that Tesla (the engineer, not the auto) has “contributed more power to the public” than all of history’s revolutionaries. This offers a fallacy of equivocation that no doubt is intended to amuse more than to persuade.

But it is a fallacy, and both its deployment and discernment depend on the liberal art of rhetoric for their fullest grasp and even enjoyment.

A sound liberal arts education aims precisely to sharpen readers and thinkers in their use of such arguments and amusements. It aims to prepare minds and hearts for a world loud with all manner of persuasion, much of it good, much more of it not-so-good.

Common Core advocates with their alleged desire to help students to think critically short circuit their own stated goal when liberal arts is diminished.

There are problems within liberal arts education, but is liberal arts education really the problem?

Sadly, the objection to the liberal arts — as currently taught — carries a good bit of weight. Censorious, radicalized ideology has become such an orthodoxy in the humanities that dissent is rarely tolerated, and the extremity of its commonplace views renders parody virtually impossible.

But to reject the liberal arts misses the point. “Abusus non tollit usum,” the old adage goes: “The abuse of a thing tells not against its proper use.”

The liberal arts are not the problem here; poor “practitioners” of them are the problem, and it is no correction simply to despair of the arts and wander off into precincts where numbers are thought never to lie and the root of happiness can be found in laminar airflow.

Put another way, if one’s doctor suggests treating a sprained ankle by shaking a dried gourd at the full moon, one does not give up on medicine; one finds another doctor.

Also Whalen points out the fact that we engage in liberal arts education because it is a reflection of who we are.

The economic, political and social consequences of this or that kind of education, the cost of investment in disciplines given to self-indulgent theorizing, the needs impressed upon us by technological developments, military conditions and social necessities — all these matters matter, and all their arguments count.

What’s more, rarely does one find acknowledgment that the sciences and math are liberal arts and essential components of a sound liberal arts education. But the liberal arts do not derive their importance from our educational policy or our individual preferences. They derive their importance from our nature (dare one say it).

It is a problem that the humanities are so often captive to poor teaching and corrosive intellectual fads; it is the “problem” that they are, after all, inescapable. That is, the humanities and the other liberal arts (even science and math) arise out of, and force upon us, reflections about what is to be desired, what is to be pursued, what is to be done.

We cannot help but think about these things. We cannot choose to jettison or abandon the fact that we are philosophical, aesthetic, ethical beings who think about what is, what ought to be, how we ought to live, and why all this matters. The disciplines that take up this inescapable facet of our humanity are the liberal arts. To do without them is to leave uncultivated an essential aspect of ourselves (namely, our selves).

Be sure to read the whole piece.