It’s commencement season. Virtually every institution of higher education on earth is having a ceremony to send graduates into the big world. Celebrity commencement speakers are competing for sound-bites but tend to be out-shouted by candidates for political office this year. Were I to be a commencement speaker (a role I used to fantasize might happen, but now never will), I would lament the demise of liberal arts.
Liberal arts have declined – declined so far, in fact, that I feel constrained to explain what I am talking about. “Liberal arts” is not a course of study, but an approach to higher education based on the idea that a college graduate would be a leader in society by virtue of an elite educational background. The first question was, “What academic equipment does a leader need for the multiple tasks to be faced?” It was assumed that a college graduate would be a professional, but also more. A dentist might be on the school board, a governor’s committee, or even the governor. A librarian would be counselor to most people in town. A medical doctor might not only be on the hospital board, but the city council, the church council, and the draft board. A physician who became a missionary was ipso facto also a theologian, linguist and anthropologist.
A community leader would need to draw on a wide range of knowledge, or at least not feel like an alien when a discussion was going on about something from literature, history or natural science. It was important for the intellectual area of life to be as familiar as the social circles of the community would be. The task of tertiary education was to acquire a well-rounded understanding of how life functions for the optimal benefit of everybody. Embedded in education was the concept that “ethics is the ability to think critically about life processes and morality is living in conformity to ethics”. These were to be learned if one was to be a leader.
When I went to college in 1958 I was certain it was a step toward seminary and that was preparation for a lifetime of pastoral ministry. I thought I’d have a role in town equivalent to a school principle, chief of police, and superintendant of the hospital. But first I came to Thailand with the same intent I had in college: to be more well-rounded and informed as I prepared myself to contribute to a better society and world.
About the time I was hitting my stride as a pastor-professional, I heard a warning, “Middle age is when you expect to begin to collect your rewards for playing by the rules, and that’s when they change the rules.” The big shift in our case was into a corporate mentality. The mayor of our town was no longer a citizen presiding at city council meetings, but was the CEO of the civic administration. Leaders were specialists, not generalists. The idea of a leadership elite with a holistic vision for society was eclipsed by searches for managerial specialists who would do their job and keep out of the way of other experts doing their jobs.
I am not lamenting my loss of opportunity to wield civic responsibility. I did think Sam Harris, from the town where we lived, President of the Illinois Senate, might nominate me for a position on a state committee … but nevermind. I returned to Thailand just in time to join my friend from college days, Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, waging a battle against the national higher education bureaucracy to develop Payap into a liberal arts college. We got there too late and in the wrong place. By the 1980s, what Thailand insisted was needed were trained employees. A college graduate was to become part of a corporation of some sort. Some corporations were called companies, some were professional associations, or government organizations – they were functionally corporations. Higher education had become the human resource production tool for corporations, and corporations began to take over what the university taught and then also how universities operated and were oriented. Corporate mergers and internationalization made the world more complex and opaque.
Massification of higher education eliminated the status of graduates as elite. A bachelor’s degree now certifies that one is merely qualified to begin to undertake specialization or professionalization, or licensed to search for employment as one still unqualified. Ironically, the bulk of undergraduate work is increasingly supposed to be vocational, answering “how” without questioning “why”. In order to get into a success track, there is a selection process that gives priority to those with demonstrated capacity to excel, meaning that by graduation from college a student would have to already be “excellent”. Pre-professional bachelor’s degrees like the pre-theology program I took, or pre-med and pre-law, were narrowed so that a graduate entered professional graduate school having already taken as many profession-focused courses as possible. The need to show excellence has also driven the bell-shaped grading curve lopsided. Now students will not stand for grades below outstanding or excellent. Grade inflation is so rampant that grades no longer are treated as indicators of real achievement.
Meanwhile, there is no time in undergraduate programs for becoming liberally educated and well-rounded. “Humane letters” is an archaic term. Education for appreciating areas of life (arts, literature, languages, philosophy, and culture) has become a luxury that is both too expensive and too time-consuming.
As expected, we now have a couple of generations of people who are very selective in what they appreciate, and tend to be unwilling to appreciate people who appreciate other things. I was expounding on a type of literature the other day and was interrupted, “You misunderstand that I care!” I had misunderstood that, but it reminded me that it can no longer be assumed that people care about each other very much either. When this becomes instilled in society (and I believe it has already been) conflicted values and intolerance are sure to follow.
A culture without arts is impossible. But a culture that no longer knows what arts are is one in an accelerated rate of decline. There is more at stake than the loss of a well-rounded leadership class. The loss of liberal arts is the loss of comprehensive education, sabotaged in order to produce trained workers who need not aspire to leadership nor be concerned about what their leaders are doing.
PS-This 2014 article from Psychology Today "The Cult of Ignorance in the United States" expands on the underlying points of this week's blog.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.