If you’ve heard anything about the “liberal arts” in education recently, it’s probably been in connection to how little liberal arts graduates earn these days — if they get a job at all.
But a liberal arts education is, quite literally, an education that frees the mind and enables the person to participate fully in civic life. And that’s exactly what’s being threatened in many of today’s universities.
“There was a time when people looking for intellectual debate turned away from politics to the university,” writes Harvard University’s Ruth Wisse in the Wall Street Journal. “Political backrooms bred slogans and bagmen; universities fostered educated discussion. But when students in the 1960s began occupying university property like the thugs of regimes America was fighting abroad, the venues gradually reversed. Open debate is now protected only in the polity: In universities, muggers prevail.”
As far back as antiquity, societies saw the “liberal arts” as the education necessary for a free citizen who wished to participate in the civic process. There are actually seven “liberal arts,” which include things such as mathematics, music and astronomy. But two key liberal arts are “logic” and “rhetoric.” These words mean slightly different things in modern times, but the principle hasn’t changed. These skills enable a citizen to analyze, argue and evaluate ideas and policies. They’re the foundation of political debate.
That’s where the liberal arts are under threat today. Modern universities now seek to eliminate debate — not enable students to participate more fully in it.
“Universities have not only failed to stand up to those who limit debate, they have played a part in encouraging them,” Wisse notes. “The modish commitment to so-called diversity replaces the ideal of guaranteed equal treatment of individuals with guaranteed group preferences in hiring and curricular offerings.”
We see it in schools that protest against even hearing certain commencement speakers. Students and faculty at Rutgers University raised such a fuss about a black woman (Condoleezza Rice) speaking at commencement that she graciously stepped aside, so that controversy wouldn’t overshadow the graduation ceremonies.
At Harvard, Sandra Y.L. Korn openly advocates “giving up on academic freedom in favor of justice.”
“If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom?’” she asked in February. “Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”
Shutting down research, speakers and open debate is exactly the opposite of what universities should be about. It’s not only a disservice to those who don’t agree with the radical leftist ideology that has taken hold. It’s a disservice to those who do — and are left ill-prepared to hold their own in substantive debate about the topics at hand.
Speech and ideas must never be silenced — they should instead be countered. If universities lose sight of this, then we’ve lost the benefits of the liberal arts completely.