We are besieged by commentary in the battle over the humanities curriculum in higher education—do we need more emphasis?, do we need less?, is it all about jobs?, is it all about competency in a skill set?, what about critical thinking?, what about making good citizens?, what about the pursuit of meaning in life?, etc., etc.
Partly in response to all of this, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences formed the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, co-chaired by Duke University President Richard Brodhead and retired Exelon CEO John Rowe and comprised of a blue-ribbon group of 50 scholars, business executives, lawyers, judges, university presidents, and cultural celebrities. After over two years of careful study, the report of the Commission, named “The Heart of the Matter”, was released in June. It contains some interesting and useful recommendations for reviving interest in the study of the humanities. For example, the creation of a “Culture Corps” in communities across the country to convey humanistic expertise and interest to the next generation, a concept, incidentally, that G. K Chesterton believed was the central purpose of education.
But nowhere in the report was the recognition that the major deficiency in what now passes for the study of the humanities is the denigration over the past several decades of its core intellectual foundation in Western Civilization. As noted by Peter Berkowitz, the report never really gets to “the heart of the matter”, which is the illiberal nature of liberal education at our leading colleges and universities.
In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Jacobs, Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice has this to say:
The primary concern shouldn’t be how American students rank in international science and math scores (though that is certainly relevant). It is whether the U. S. can be a prosperous, pluralistic democracy if higher education fails to require students to think, inquire, and explain. A liberal democracy requires a certain kind of civic culture, one in which citizens understand its distinctive principles and strive to preserve them.
And over 50 years ago, Leo Strauss delivered an address entitled “What is Liberal Education?” In it, he said:
Liberal education is the counter poison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.” Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant. Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.
We need much more of this, properly understood, not less.