Book of the Month/August 2012
Engaging the Culture – Book Review
Written by Douglas Wilson
Wednesday, 01 August 2012
This month’s book selection is part of a larger series, and if this first one that I read is anything to go on, I want to commend the whole series. The series is new from Crossway, edited by David Dockery, and is entitled “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition.” The book I read is by Gene Fant, and is called The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide. This book has two things going for it. First, it is a very fine introduction, and the second is that it is an introduction to something that really needs to be introduced.
The elective system in higher education was a 19th century innovation that began the American mania for jobs-training as a necessary substitute for a true education. After the conquest of the liberal arts tradition in universities the residue of the liberal arts tradition turned into a handful of “majors,” and was thought of, for example, as vo-tech training for future English teachers.
But liberal arts is training for life, not training on how to make a living. This latter pursuit is obviously not optional, which means that it must be included at some point — but not as the whole point.
Another wrinkle was that the liberal arts tradition in the West was distinctively Christian, which meant that the big questions were not just raised, but were also answered. Apart from Christ, everything just flies apart. Philosophy can say with etymological pride that their name refers to the “love of wisdom,” but the average intro course to philosophy will disabuse the hapless freshman of that notion pretty quickly. It is the same with the broader category of the liberal arts. Intended to prepare the student for the life of a free man or woman (liber means free), the tradition is now a series of courses in various forms of intellectual bondage. This is why it is so necessary to reclaim the Christian intellectual tradition.
Fant quotes one father who summed it up nicely. “can you explain to me why I’m paying tens of thousands of dollars to have my student corrupted?” (p. 17). Any form of liberal arts education which leads away from Christ is leading people away from its own center.
This book covers all the basic issues that are necessary to cover in an introduction like this one — the history of liberal education, the relationship of wisdom to liberal learning, the place of general revelation, liberal learning and the so-called “core curriculum,” and more. The book is short, but is densely packed. There is a lot to glean here.
One last thing, a warning. When the American system of higher education abandoned their educational heritage, they did so for the sake of that American ur-idol pragmatism. Everything was geared to equipping the students for “a job.” This seemed to work swimmingly for a time, but idols will always let you down. Jezebel introduced Green worship to Israel, a religion that promised verdant fertility, and when Elijah mentioned what he thought about that, everything turned Brown. Pragmatic higher education has been hoist on its own petard — this pragmatism isn’t working anymore. We have ourselves a university system with the staggers.
Since the system is being run by people who didn’t receive a true education, and who therefore do not know what a true education is for, they have sought to keep the whole deal going by infusing it with vast amounts of federal cash. More billions, more bloat, more bigger!
In other words, our glorified jobs program is now doing a lousy job equipping students for job. We have succeeded, however, in sending them out into a terrible job market with loads of unnecessary debt. This is the Higher Education Bubble, one of the verge of bursting, if it hasn’t already.
There are a number of ad hoc arrangements taking shape that do equip students for their vocational pursuits, and which are doing an end run around the university system. They do the job, and they don’t cost piles of cash. There is a good return on the investment. This is all to the good — provided it doesn’t constitute yet another step away from the historic liberal arts course of study. Used rightly, these alternative arrangements could be used as a way to help students get a liberal arts education and vocational training without having to get two college degrees, one old school and other new tech.
Parents and students who are deciding on what kind of college education (if any) to pursue really should read this book.