Thursday, August 25, 2005

Lenoir-Rhyne College and "the erosion of liberal arts education"

Bowling for Lenoir-Rhyne - A Michael Moore movie? Or the new liberal arts curriculum? - Dr. Philip Blosser speaks out on "the erosion of the liberal arts core" at Lenoir-Rhyne College, my alma mater, including a proposal to group philosophy with a number of electives alongside courses in "physical wellness":
The matter is not merely academic. I have just come from a meeting in which the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, of which I am a member, was asked by the chair of the faculty curriculum committee to consider a proposed new liberal arts curriculum in which philosophy would be no longer required of all students, but grouped together with a number of electives alongside courses in "physical wellness." Let me translate: a student, under this proposal, would be allowed to choose between Introductory Philosophy and, say, Introductory Bowling. Students would doubtless leap for joy. But from the point of view of anyone schooled in the history and meaning of the liberal arts, this is (to use the words of one of my colleagues in history) simply obscene!

The issues go far deeper than bowling or philosophy. The proposal shows a profound poverty of understanding – or at least a profound myopia – on the part of those faculty members who designed the proposed curricular changes. It reveals an erosion in understanding about the very purpose of liberal arts education, not to mention the place of philosophy in such an education. The problem behind this myopic reasoning is simple: philosophy, like the other liberal arts, has no immediately identifiable utility, therefore it is assumed to lack substantial value. By contrast, courses in "professional" programs -- such as business, marketing, tax law, physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise science, nursing, computer science, etc. -- are obviously very useful, and therefore assumed to be eminently valuable . . .

From what I understand the other humanities are being "downsized" as well in the effort to turn what was once a promising Lutheran liberal arts institution into something resembling your average technical college.

Lenoir-Rhyne College is affiliated with the ELCA and its founding statement proclaimed "the conviction that wholeness of personality, true vocation, and the most useful service to God and the world are best discerned from the perspective of Christian faith." I think my college's founding fathers would be turning over in their grave if they could see what is happening now.

An applicable passage from G.K. Chesterton [from All is Grist]:

Now, the nuisance of all this notion of Business Education, of training for certain trades, whether of plumber or plutocrat, is that they will prevent the intelligence being sufficiently active to criticize trade and business properly. They begin by stuffing the child, not with the sense of justice by which he can judge the world, but with the sense of inevitable doom or dedication by which he must accept that particularly very worldly aspect of the world. Even while he is a baby he is a bank-clerk, an accepts the principles of banking which Mr. Joseph Finsbury so kindly explained to the banker. Even in the nursery he is an actuary or an accountant: he lisps in numbers and the numbers come. But he cannot criticize the principles of banking, or entertain the intellectual fancy that the modern world is made to turn too much on the Pythagorean worship of numbers. But that is because he has never heard of the Pythagorean philosophy; or, indeed, of any other philosophy. He has never been taught to think, but only to count. He lives in a cold temple of abstract calculation, of which the pillars are columns of figures. Bue he has no basic sense of Comparative Religion (in the true sense of that tiresome phrase) by which he may discover whether he is in the right temple, or distinguish one temple from another. . . .

From Jacques Maritain [Education at the Crossroads]:

If we remember that the animal is the specialist, and a perfect one, all of its knowing-power being fixed upon a single task to be done, we ought to conclude that an educational program that would aim only at forming specialists ever more perfect in ever more specialized fields, and unable to pass judgement on any matter that goes beyond their specialized competence, would lead indeed to a progressive animalization of the human mind and life.

Finally, from "The Changing Idea of a University: American Higher Education and the Illiberal Use of Knowledge", by Matthew D. Wright [The 2001 Lord Acton Essay Competition - The Acton Institute]:

Liberal education values man as man, unique in an ordered universe and ordered in his uniqueness. Man is not a fungible cog in the gears of social progress. Developing the student's intellect is its own good, admitting of no further justification for the energy expended. Liberal learning educates for the good of man, and in so doing produces a good for mankind. Utilitarian training, on the other hand, abandons the good of the soul for the perceived good of society, and in so doing abandons the possibility of a good society to shallow and incontinent souls. This is increasingly the position of American culture. As Newman observed of his own day, "The Philosophy of Utility, you will say, Gentlemen, has at least done its work; and I grant it,-- [sic] it aimed low, but it has fulfilled its aim." The state's experiment in utilitarianism has been overwhelmingly successful as well. Contemporary technological sophistication is unparalleled, and the university has unquestionably been at the forefront of this progress. Nonetheless, as society begins to experience the upshot of abandoning its heritage, the realization grows that it has had far, far too low an aim.

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