Abraham Lincoln once said that the demise of “a nation of freemen” like ours would come not from some external threat, but “by suicide.” It seems that what the Great Emancipator proclaimed about the republic is true of the academy as well.
At a recent conference at St. John’s College on the future of the liberal arts, John Agresto—president emeritus of St. John’s College Santa Fe—joined other presenters in defending the humanities and lamenting the death of the liberal arts. But he also had the courage to point out that their death might be “less a murder than a suicide.”
What did he mean? Here’s how Inside Higher Ed summarized his argument:
Agresto said that much humanities instruction has been co-opted by hyperspecialization and especially by critical theory. He said overly-critical approaches at once demean the subject matter and limit students’ free inquiry.
In the past and at their best, the liberal arts were a “gift” given to everyone, Agresto said. “It didn’t matter that Dante and Homer were dead white males,” and keeping Shakespeare alive wasn’t an “ethnocentric act.”
When scholars of the humanities themselves dismiss their subject matter as passé and prejudiced, is it any wonder students do as well?
Of course, Agresto was a unique college president and St. John’s remain a unique institution. (Its two campuses are among the 23 schools to receive “ACTA As” for their outstanding core curricula.) St. John’s knows that the cafeteria-style curriculum at many colleges and universities fails to nourish young minds. Experience shows us that when the Great Books of Western civilization are dismissed as antiquated, the vacuum is not filled by that which is more challenging and edifying, but by courses about zombies, vampires, and Beyonce. In an academy unmoored from its roots, the lowest common denominator reigns.
But talk like this requires that we affirm that there is a “higher” and “lower” in education; it requires the willingness to say that there is such a thing as “the best that has been thought and said.” It is possible to revivify the humanities. And the first step to doing so is a proud affirmation that a truly liberal education—in literature, economics, history, the sciences—produces better employees, better citizens, and better souls.