Who Killed the Liberal Arts? And Why We Should Care, by Joseph Epstein

Unlike our current examination-based ‘quick response’ educational system, serious intellectual effort requires slow, usually painstaking thought, often with wrong roads taken along the way to the right destination, if one is lucky enough to arrive there.  

by Joseph Epstein in The Weekly Standard

The Seven Classic Liberal Arts

When asked what he thought about the cultural wars, Irving Kristol is said to have replied, “They’re over,” adding, “We lost.” If Kristol was correct, one of the decisive battles in that war may have been over the liberal arts in education, which we also lost.

In a loose definition, the “liberal arts” denote college study anchored in preponderantly Western literature, philosophy, and history, with science, mathematics, and foreign languages playing a substantial, though less central, role; in more recent times, the social science subjects—psychology, sociology, political science—have also sometimes been included.

The liberal arts have always been distinguished from more specialized, usually vocational training. For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. If he is to remain free, in this view, he must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past, which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present.

For many years, the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age as Samson fought against the Philistines of his—though in my case, I kept my hair and brought down no pillars.

A Dying Art

The Hall of Philosophers. ‘The School of Athens,’ Raphael.

As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts. Their content has been drastically changed, their significance is in doubt, and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle.

The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial.

The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.

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See also: The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: Education with Friendship and Heart

 

 

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