Science and the Decline of the Liberal Arts

by Patrick J. Deneen on March 31, 2010 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Short

My essay “Science and the Decline of the Liberal Arts” is now available in its entirety on The New Atlantis website.

Here’s an excerpt:

When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition. While conservatives might wish to apportion blame to those increasingly irrelevant faculty whose postmodernism has become a form of stale institutional orthodoxy, the truth is that the rise of this sort of faculty was a response to conditions that were already making liberal education irrelevant, a self-destructive effort to make the humanities ‘up to date.’ These purported radicals — mostly bourgeois former children of the 1960s — were not agents of liberation, but rather symptoms of the neglect of the liberal arts in a dawning new age of science reinforced by global competition.

Read the whole thing here.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar James Matthew Wilson March 31, 2010 at 9:53 pm

As you probably say in the whole article, Patrick, the stale postmodern pronouncements of the contemporary “liberal arts” classroom are a natural complement to science and business education: it reassures the students that there is no greater truth or better way of life than the acquisition of power, whether technological or financial. If white males are the cause of all evil and misery, and if power is the only medium of all social relations, then the wise student would be the one who tries to become a white male as quickly as possible. I’m pretty sure that’s the message behind Moby Dick . . .

avatar Roger S. April 1, 2010 at 8:31 am

“Each new generation was encouraged to consult the great works of our tradition, the vast epics, the classic tragedies and comedies, the reflections of philosophers and theologians, the revealed Word of God, those countless books that sought to teach us what it was to be human — above all, how to use our liberty well.”

Very well put. How to use our liberty well instead of how to surrender our liberty to our urges.

avatar Empedocles April 1, 2010 at 12:56 pm

You write: “Natural conditions — such as those inescapably linked to the biological facts of human sexuality — came to be regarded as “socially constructed,” including “gender” and “heteronormativity.””

I think you might like the piece I wrote on my site: “On Being Normal.”

With post-structuralism on its way out with the re-emergence of moral, semantic, and ontological realism, it is interesting to wonder how the university will change once again.

avatar Brandon April 1, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Great article, Mr. Deneen. I am currently a Philosophy major in college and the unbelievable ridicule and pressure I receive about this decision is staggaring. I’m constantly told how my degree is worthless and that I should choose a more “practical” (read:scientific) major. It is truly a tragedy that the humanities are so disparaged. My minimal interest in the rigours of quantitative science aside, I chose my major precisely because I have found that philosophy makes me a better human and gives me tools needed for a coherent outlook. If my detractors only knew what they were putting down.

avatar Franklin Evans April 4, 2010 at 10:43 am

I need to reread and digest the full essay, but it touches a core of sympathy — and dread — that I’ve carried with me since my first serious talking-to on the importance of education. My mother, an immigrant from central Europe after WWII, was highly educated herself, though never with the credentials and the opportunities they might have afforded her later in life. She chose to live that accomplishment vicariously through her children. We all, whatever path we found ourselves on, remember how highly she valued intellectual skill and a humility in the face of our limits. Regardless of where we were in the formal education process, she was capable of challenging us, making us think or scurry to look up something new.

With our youngest of three children about to finish her junior year in high school, all of them having passed through the public school system at the elite level (look up the Masterman and Central schools in Philly), my dread is already being proven out. Our children’s generation is acquiring from us the liberal arts skills we took for granted, not from their schools, and they are not acquiring them at all if the parents saw little value in them vis a vis future earning potential. My anecdotal observation of post-secondary education follows that pattern.

I see it in the middle generation, the one between myself and my children, the gen-X and Yers (mostly), who enter the working world as my peers in technical areas, but cannot spell, cannot use English grammar better than their immigrant peers from East and South Asia and Europe, and cannot speak effectively in public in Standard English. When I read a document in the course of my work, I can no longer assume that its author learned English as a second language.

They look blankly at me if I mention any form of art that’s older than 25 years. (My wife and I grieve as the number of people who recognize the name of Paul McCartney continues to dwindle, let alone know much about the Beatles beyond the movie “Across the Universe”.) They react with disbelief when I point out derivation or just plagiarism in modern “art”. Part of that is, no doubt, the same hubris of youth I once felt. But I grew out of it by the time I reached the age of 25 (just in time to become a father, to boot), whereas they don’t seem to lose it at least into their 30′s.

Anyway, thanks for a good excuse to rant.

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