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  • Joanne Jacobs

If liberal arts are dying, is it suicide?

Liberal educators aren't making the case for liberal arts education, writes John Agresto, former president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, in The Death of Learning.

The humanities are seen as useless -- or only for the fortunate few who don't need to earn a living.


Demand is sinking for liberal-arts degrees, notes Jonathan Marks in a Commentary review of Agresto's book. Marks is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education. History degrees made up 1.2 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in 2019; English was 1.9 percent, down from 7.5 percent in the early 1970s. (I earned a bachelor's in English and creative writing in 1974.)


Agresto notes that English is now outranked in popularity by “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” writes Marks.


In part, that's because young people don't read very much. "In 2015, according to the Higher Education Research Institute, well over half of incoming freshman reported spending an hour or less per week on reading for personal interest."

. . . Universities aren’t helping themselves, however, when they hire hyper-specialized professors whose Ph.D.s are proof mainly that they have “bored down deeply into a small area.” And they aren’t helping themselves by teaching politicized courses that cut down great thinkers as racists, or sexists, or homophobes, and caricature the world outside the university as racist, or sexist, or homophobic. . . . It’s rhetorical overreach to say, as Agresto does at one point, that the “liberal arts have died … by suicide.” But he makes a convincing case that the institutions are bleeding, in no small part, from self-inflicted wounds.

Agresto doesn't propose how to adapt the core curriculum to "the last 30 years of critical theory and social change," writes Diogenes Candle, in Medium. "He is in deep admiration of Jefferson, for example, but doesn’t entertain the possibility of adding Frederick Douglass to the pantheon."


Teaching the Great Books properly is expensive, he adds. "The essential value of liberal education may lie as much in the pedagogy as the reading list. Specific texts may differ, but the approach, skeptical and Socratic, with students engaging each other as well as the texts, is not optional. You can’t teach the Great Books in vast lecture halls."


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