Yes, the Liberal Arts Are In Decline—and the World’s Really Not That Sad About It
Students today, with the encouragement of their professors, are increasingly deciding their own paths of study through fields that are defined by general principles and methods rather than by specific works or thinkers. To some that sounds like a dishearteningly cold pragmatism, but why should anyone be surprised when a newly, and happily, diverse student body finds it hard to get excited about fields of study that until very recently defined many of them into irrelevance? The natural and social sciences have also left a lot of diversity to be desired, but at least when Marie Curie discovered radium, she didn’t have to publish her findings under a male pen name.
The liberal arts are adapting, yes, but as they adapt, they come less and less to resemble what their defenders are mourning: a dedication to “great books and grand subjects,” in the words of Joseph Epstein, who makes clear his loyalty to a particular flavor of “greatness” when he, quite candidly, decries the decision that “the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture.” Epstein preferred a world when there was a “general consensus” about what needed to be taught in college, and that consensus included the conviction that ancient Greeks and Romans were more important to study than—this comes straight from Epstein—African-Americans.
Epstein doesn’t think we’ll find his perspective offensive, because he writes from a perspective that has presumably measured Frederick Douglass against Aristotle and, after careful and fair consideration, given the prize for sagacity to Aristotle. He’s counting on us agreeing that it’s outrageous that Douglass would be taught instead of Aristotle—but that’s a cheat. Just because Toni Morrison has now bumped, say, Proust from syllabi of world literature does not mean that the notion of a “general consensus” about whose books should be taught is any more defensible than it was when African-Americans needed to found their own colleges because the “general consensus” was that blacks didn’t belong at white colleges.
This isn’t a manifesto: I’m not saying we should replace literature with sociology, or philosophy with physics, or poetry with calculus. What I’m saying is that empirically, the world is changing, and higher education is changing along with it. What we now understand, and that Epstein et al seem loath to admit, is that the “general consensus” that defined the humanities in their heyday was never really all that general.