From The Wall Street Journal:
Higher education in the 21st century has been marked by a series of financial and existential crises. The great recession of 2007-08 raised difficult choices about which programs universities should invest in and which should be targeted for elimination. Generally when universities need to tighten their belts, liberal-arts disciplines are among the first to find themselves in the crosshairs, and at that point traditional disciplines like classics, philosophy, history and art have already begun to contract. Students, administrations believe, vote with their feet: If consumer demand is absent, universities respond not by supporting a curriculum they know is formative and valuable but by giving their customers what they say they want.
Once universities adjusted and recovered from the great recession, the 2020 Covid pandemic blindsided them. This disruption, including the long period where professors were out of the classroom, prompted a group of Christian humanists, many of whom teach in small liberal-arts colleges, to contemplate the value of the liberal-arts education they’ve spent their careers providing. The timing was auspicious—political movements that arose after the murder of George Floyd were calling for the decolonization of syllabi, and the #DisruptTexts movement began to associate classic texts with white supremacy. Many administrators, meanwhile, adopted the argument that liberal arts are a luxury that cannot be afforded in times of austerity. The liberal arts were under fire from all sides.
One result of that moment was a series of conversations, begun informally and then organized through videoconferences and supported by a grant, which has resulted in a collection of essays, “The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education,” edited by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson and David Henreckson. Fourteen of its contributors are professors, five are administrators, two are students, and four are writers who are friendly to the liberal arts. The essays are organized as a series of responses to common critiques: Do we need this sort of education? Is it a waste of time? Is it racist?
As dean of an honors college explicitly dedicated to liberal learning through the study of classic texts, I find myself mostly in agreement with the vision of higher education put forward here. I agree with David Henreckson that the liberal arts are not mere skills or techniques but a way of life that allows human beings to flourish. I find myself nodding along when Zena Hitz argues that liberal learning has fundamentally to do with leisure, the cultivation of habits of contemplation and reflection that allow us to pursue the highest human activities. And I could not be more thrilled to read Brandon McCoy’s argument that “the goal of education should be to create liberated persons who seek to examine life in its fullness, to enjoy friendships with others, and to foster the health of their communities.”
But I’m not the one who needs convincing. It is noteworthy that the book’s most compelling arguments for learning as truly liberating do not come from professors or administrators but from students and readers outside the university. For example, Sean Sword speaks movingly about his incarceration; Calvin University’s Prison Initiative, he tells us, offers a way in which “the liberal arts play a key role in the prisoner’s restoration to society.” In a similar vein, the testimony from students in the Odyssey Project, which brings “great works” courses in literature, philosophy, art and history to low-income adults, 95% of them from communities of color, is compelling and inspirational. Angel Adams Parham speaks movingly of her work with the Nyansa Classical Community, a program founded to bring classical learning and literature to young people of diverse backgrounds, especially from the African diaspora.
When Zena Hitz explains the Catherine Project (a series of online and in-person seminars) or when Nathan Beacom describes a revival of the Lyceum movement for adults, the reader is left to wonder whether the liberal arts need to be tied to our universities at all. This is no idle concern—the average annual cost of tuition at a liberal-arts college is $24,000 a year. If one can engage in liberating learning for a small donation to the Catherine Project, doesn’t it make more sense to learn in one’s leisure time rather than bother with an expensive four-year degree? Even if such study is liberatory, is it worth the student debt, especially when its own practitioners agree that it can be pursued just as profitably on the side for a pittance? In Ms. Hitz’s own words, “universities are wonderful, but they are not necessary for human flourishing.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal
PG has been increasingly bothered by the inflation of tuition and fees at a great many colleges and universities in the United States.
The idea that going into serious debt will be made right by increased earning power resulting from learning almost anything from higher education institutions can be financially dangerous if the graduate is unable or unwilling to take a remunerative job upon graduation.
In the United States, student loans are generally not subject to discharge in a bankruptcy proceeding, one of a small number of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
Suppose someone buys a house or a car that turns out to be more costly than they can afford due to job loss or other financial setbacks. In that case, bankruptcy law will extinguish those obligations entirely or allow the debtor to pay a portion of the debt if the debtor can do so.
Ditto for large medical bills and nearly all other financial mistakes or mishaps. PG wonders why borrowing for college costs (in reasonable or outsized amounts) should be privileged over healthcare or other non-discretionary debts an individual is likely to incur.
PG admits that some of his attitudes result from his experience in college,, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in an impractical subject that did almost nothing to prepare him for any sort of job available in a large city.
If he had not graduated when employers needed many employees who seemed likely candidates to be trained in a subject of which they were utterly ignorant, PG would have been in a bad way financially.