What Happened to the Liberal Arts?

Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College Bennington College talks (in 2009) about what’s wrong with American higher education and how we might be able to fix it.

The progression of today’s college student is to jettison every interest except one. And within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less; this, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. As one moves up the [educational] ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as, “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” are treated with more and more skepticism, and move off the table.

In so doing, the guardians of secular democracy in effect yield the connection between education and values to fundamentalists, who, you can be sure, have no compunctions about using education to further their values: the absolutes of a theocracy. Meanwhile, the values and voices of democracy are silent. Either we have lost touch with those values or, no better, believe they need not or cannot be taught. This aversion to social values may seem at odds with the explosion of community service programs. But despite the attention paid to these efforts, they remain emphatically extracurricular. In effect, civic-mindedness is treated as outside the realm of what purports to be serious thinking and adult purposes. Simply put, when the impulse is to change the world, the academy is more likely to engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment.

It’s a very interesting discussion and one with serious implications for the future of the American experiment. “There is,” Coleman explains, “no such thing as a viable democracy made up [only] of experts, zealots, politicians, and spectators.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer