Book Sample for: A University Education for the 21st Century: The Opening of the American Mind by Fr. Juan Velez

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Chapter two: A Crisis of Liberal Arts Education

Higher education has lost its primary goal: the cultivation of the intellect and will of its students. This is so because it has lost an understanding of itself and the unity of the sciences, something that only the liberal arts can provide. There has been a loss of the unity of knowledge, and of the search for objective truths. The result has been a fragmentation of learning and a failure to ask the fundamental questions. Teachers and students ask a lot of questions but usually very specific ones that do not respond to the deepest needs of man: the need for meaning.

The crisis of the university is a crisis of the liberal arts tradition, but more fundamentally it is a crisis about man’s capacity to know truth. In The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Allan Bloom attributes this failure to the unexamined acceptance of cultural relativism and historicism.[1]  He defines the latter as “the view that all thought is essentially related to and cannot transcend its own time.”[2] For most of the 20th century, these have resulted in the acceptance of one sole virtue of primary education: tolerance or openness with the consequent rejection of the liberal arts (western thought). Students arrive at the university with one belief: that truth is relative. Bloom contrasts this relativism with a true openness to knowledge; hence, the reason for the title of his book The Closing of the American Mind.

Universities and colleges have become, for the most part, large or small entities that house many or some professional schools and departments. Despite more or less eloquent mission statements, there is no actual common purpose other than advancing the individual goals of each of these professional schools or departments. The unity of learning has become fragmented, and this is reflected in the learning students seek and find -specialized knowledge and practical knowledge.

However, there are exceptions to this statement. I would like to mention, albeit in passing, some institutions of higher learning I have had the opportunity to visit that I think do have a unitary vision of man and university education: the University of Dallas, Franciscan University at Steubenville, Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College and my alma mater the University of Navarre. These are examples of schools that try to form the individual student as a whole person, keeping with the best of western thought and focusing on the teaching of undergraduates.[3]

Two Models of Core Curriculum

During the 20th century, the classical liberal arts tradition of learning was rejected as something impractical, and in the United States it was replaced with the concept of a core curriculum. Mark. C. Henrie explains the two models of this core curriculum that arose: the Western Civilization Survey courses and the Great Books programs.[4]

The first approach was Western Civilization: survey courses which sought to present the large picture of Western thought and history. General Education in Western Civilization was a required sequence of history courses taught at universities, which arose during the two world wars and lasted until it was rejected in the 1960’s, although universities such as Columbia and Princeton continue to have it as an elective. Henrie writes, “This method had the advantage of providing an approach to one incarnation of the human whole, western civilization – its arts, literature, philosophy, politics and religion – understood as a whole. This approach also had the advantage of locating the individual in historical time, of taking history seriously.”[5] When poorly taught, it became an indoctrination and unexamined praise of the excellence of American culture. According to Henrie, the secular academics that developed the Western Civ. curricula at universities such as Columbia understated the role of Christianity.

The other approach was the Great Books model, of which St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, is the best known. In this curriculum, great works of literature and philosophy are read and studied by the students in their original texts. Various objections have been made to this model, one being the lack of sufficient historical consciousness –  the history of the authors and events surrounding the texts is not given enough importance. Another is that in these programs “the history of the West is not a history of answers, ’but a history of questions, permanent questions’ that can never have conclusive answers.”[6] Despite these possible flaws, Henrie holds that the Great Books curriculum is superior to the survey approach of Western Civ. Other institutions have developed this type of curriculum, such as the University of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame and Thomas Aquinas College.[7]

The crisis of the university can also be correlated to the sharp rise in empirical sciences. The German university model, which began in 1810 with the Humboldt University of Berlin, was established on the principle of the union of teaching and research in the work of the individual scholar or scientist. This research-oriented type of university became the model for universities in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, such as the John Hopkins University. With the development of new technology and a great number of discoveries, universities have become highly developed research institutions in biology, molecular biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. The results-driven labs and grants have only made empirical research grow even more. Although there is theoretical research, the larger part is applied research with “useful results” for industry or medicine. This practical and results-oriented framework of teaching and research has altered radically the vision of the university and intellectual discourse, as well as the necessity for serious ethical considerations in research in the natural sciences. Many students who wish to work in science do not see the need or purpose for studying liberal arts, which for them lack objectivity and are simply a waste of time and money.

Although many schools retain the title of liberal arts colleges, there are only a few universities and colleges in the United States where students are formed in the liberal arts tradition. In Universities and so-called liberal arts colleges, there are, to be sure, liberal arts or humanities programs, but these are not the same. They do not seek a unified knowledge of reality or the great ideals and institutions of western civilization.

Allan Bloom, professor at the University of Chicago, notes that in the sixties universities were intent on removing requirements, while in the eighties they were busy trying to put them back which they attempted to do in two ways. The first and easier way was to make use of existing introductory courses in each of the general divisions of the university: natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. The students learn a little about many things and they find this to be a preliminary to the real learning. “Thus they desire to get it over with and get on with what their professors do seriously. Without recognition of important questions of common concern, there cannot be serious liberal education, and attempts to establish it will be but failed gestures.”[8]

The failure of this motivated the second approach, which was the creation of composite courses with the collaboration of professors from various departments with titles such as “Man in Nature,” “War and Moral Responsibility,” and “Culture and the Individual.” Although this required specialized professors to broaden their perspectives, according to Bloom, these courses faced “the danger of trendiness, mere popularization and lack of substantive rigor.”[9] In the hands of the best professors, these courses can deal with the permanent questions, at least making students aware of them, and giving them some knowledge of the important works that deal with them. Bloom contends that this is often not the case and that the faculties do not perceive such courses as their real business.

In the further words of Bloom, “There is no organization of the sciences, no tree of knowledge.”[10] There is not only an absence of the whole of learning, there is no hierarchy in learning, and the students are not presented with the most important questions and courses and texts that can help them find the right answers.  Thus, the great majority of Liberal Art Colleges have lost their identity and reason for being, becoming a confusing composite of Studies Programs and Departments. Bloom adds that the unresolved intellectual problem of what a university is cannot be resolved by the administration.[11] This disarray of higher education is evident throughout the country and has led to even further pitfalls: the students design their own courses and curriculum. A study of one of the top liberal arts colleges confirms the extent of this current trend in education.

Study of a Top Liberal Arts College

In 2013, the National Association of Scholars published a study of Bowdoin College, renowned as one of the top United States liberal arts colleges.  It discloses the disjointed and relativistic state of the education offered to students.[12] Harvey Mansfield, professor of political philosophy at Harvard, sums up the findings of this extensive one-year study. To begin with, Bowdoin like so many of America’s colleges is wedded to political correctness rather than to the pursuit of knowledge. Bowdoin writes that it “claims to be ‘inclusive,’ open to all claims, yet it does not include conservatives.”[13] Out of its 182 faculty members, only perhaps half a dozen are conservatives.

Students at Bowdoin must design an education based on their own goals, the college’s vision and a few requirements. Mansfield explains;

“Except for light requirements of distribution outside one’s major and of concentration within it, requirements that have been lessened whenever the college stops to think about them, the student is free to choose. By this principle, all courses are treated by the college as equal, none more important, none necessary to or contributing more toward the ‘liberal arts.’ A liberal arts education, the study says, has become an education in liberating oneself from the liberal arts.”[14]

Consequently, students choose courses on current topics or “topical courses” on the environment (“sustainability”) or homosexuality, or “global citizenship,” or multiculturalism. This reaches the absurd as in one of the courses, Queer Gardens, which failed due to lack of enrollment.[15]

All courses are considered of equal importance. Instead of survey courses aimed at teaching a subject matter, courses aim to show the relevance of a professor’s specialty. As for teachers at Bowdoin, the college is not so much a body of teachers that teaches students, it is a research institution of “over-praised” undergraduate student researchers whose research is defended by political correctness.

The topical courses offered lack rigor despite claims of universal scope and interdisciplinary nature. “Topical courses are featured in programs called ’Studies,’ such as Gender and Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies (separate from the preceding), Environmental Studies, and Africana Studies, that were founded explicitly as political advocacy for their constituents.”[16] Other programs “such as Asian Studies and Latin American Studies, with apparently neutral names, are now concerned mainly with repudiating Western colonialism.”

The results are not surprising: “without wisdom, without culture.” Mansfield closes with a striking indictment:

Bowdoin’s curriculum lacks the academic standards of excellence that conservatives mostly and mainly defend in academia with little or no help these days from liberals. It is conservatives who deplore and resist the brazen politicization of the classroom, the loss of the great books, indeed the disregard of greatness in general, the corruption of grade inflation, the cheap satisfactions of trendiness, the mess of sexual license, the distractions of ideology, the aggrandizement and servility of administrators, the pretense and dissembling of affirmative action, the unmanly advice of psychologists, the partisan nonsense of professional associations, and the unseemly subservience everywhere to student opinion. None of these was necessary or useful in order to welcome those non-WASPs previously excluded from our colleges.”[17]

This summary by Mansfield mirrors that of Bloom’s almost thirty years earlier.[18] The experience of many students and professors on college and university campuses throughout the United States confirms the findings of the Bowdoin study, leading to the conclusion that its findings can be generalized to the liberal arts colleges of the United States. How then can students obtain an undergraduate education in the Western tradition of liberal arts? It seems highly improbable but this is not the case. The rest of this chapter will address the possibility of realizing the goal of a university education given the landscape of today’s higher education.

Only a small number of students will be able to attend one of the few colleges in the country that have good programs teaching western thought and civilization or studying the great texts. These are fortunate students who will find a community of teachers and fellow students with whom to develop a philosophical habit of mind and explore the best of Western thought and culture.

The rest of the students – the great majority of students – who wish to form their mind and will, seeking and finding answers for their questions in the intellectual tradition of the West, can still obtain a liberal arts education. However, they need to create their own curriculum in the western tradition following some aspects of the traditional seven liberal arts. In the departments of universities and colleges of the United States, students can still find courses that explore the central themes of the western tradition and that study the great texts.

This goal requires good advice and planning prior to beginning higher education because college student advisors and course catalogs do not point out these courses to students. Students need the proper understanding of the purpose of higher education and the liberal arts tradition, and an institution such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute articulates this vision and offers concrete guidance. When students, with the help of such guides, create their own curriculum, they are actually choosing a classical “core curriculum” that embodies the wisdom and achievement of western thinkers. Their goal must be discovering the truth of things and becoming a civilized man or woman.

A Classical Core Curriculum

Such a curriculum was not something of the distant past. Philosophy professor and novelist Ralph McInerny recalled his studies at a minor seminary in Minnesota during 1942-45: “The curriculum was classical – Latin from the very beginning, Greek starting in the Third Year, English, history, math, science of a sort, and French or German.”[19] McInerny wrote for the school newspaper and with others put on plays. He wrote of his teachers who were priests:

“Among them were some of the best teachers I ever had. Classics were at the heart of the curriculum. In Latin, after a year of grammar, we read Caesar, went on to Cicero, and then to Virgil and Horace. I was tortured in Catullus by Father Walter Peters, a vain and eccentric man shaped like the letter S, a German among so many Irish. He also taught me Horace and inspired me to read Thomas Mann.”[20]

Indeed, until the 1950’s a student’s core requirements consisted of more than half of his college coursework.[21] This has sadly changed. Now students spend a large amount of time fulfilling general requirements, without any substantial unity or rigor, and the requirements of their “major” or “concentration.” This is even more reason for them to choose their electives carefully. Henrie provides students with detailed advice and a bibliography for a good classical core curriculum.[22]

In the Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum, he presents a core curriculum that consists of eight elective courses that students should take throughout their four years of undergraduate studies: classical literature, ancient philosophy, the Bible, Christian thought before 1500, Modern Political theory, Shakespeare, United States History before 1865, and 19th Century European Intellectual History. This core curriculum takes into account the university’s requirement of courses in sciences and a foreign language. This list does not pretend to be comprehensive, and at the end of the guide Henrie offers ten other elective courses that would complete the view of the Western whole. Among these are Comparative Literature, Music Appreciation and Art History, which should really be counted among the first group.

Some words on the study of music and fine arts are opportune here. A meaningful university education should include the study of basic music theory and history. This study should focus on classical Western music but include music from other civilizations as well. This education develops appreciation for beauty, which enriches the person and society in various ways, beginning with greater sensibility and respect for people. Many schools offer music courses for non-music majors but relatively few students take these courses, among other reasons because they do not see an immediate “usefulness.” In addition there are many good books and recordings for the study of music. Listen is a complete course by musicologists Joseph Kerman and Gary Tomlinson, which includes many illustrations and recordings.[23]  Another good course for more advanced students is How to Listen and Understand Great Music by musicologist Robert Greenberg.[24]

Something similar should be said about the importance of the study of painting and sculpture, art forms that exist since prehistoric times. The beliefs and sentiments of human beings have found expression in the fine arts and have contributed to the creation of the cultures of different civilizations. Besides the delight that art often produces in the observer, it teaches persons to understand people and cultures. There is also an important connection between aesthetic perception and the spiritual life. Appreciation for art cultivates the capacity for observation and fosters a contemplative attitude that opens the person to beauty, truth and goodness. Looking at good art can also deepen a person’s ability to understand suffering and show empathy. Furthermore religious art, a frequent subject of art, not only can teach students religious beliefs, it can inspire them to develop a spiritual life (their relationship with God).

The Oxford History of Western Art is a good survey of western art with contributions by many art historians.[25] But even more than good courses students’ love of music and the fine arts is awakened by visits to art museums and live musical performances. At most schools students can participate in a variety of singing groups and choirs, and in the larger ones they can play in or listen to orchestras and small group string ensembles.

As noted above choosing the right courses is also essential in gaining a good liberal arts education. In addition to the advice to be found in articulations of a good core curriculum, students need to read between the lines in course offerings. Courses that refer to a revision of the past, gender themes or esoteric subjects are suspicious and usually highly biased. It is unlikely that a course titled “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Representing Women in the Renaissance” can offer an undergraduate a meaningful understanding of Shakespeare. A course titled “Shakespeare, Sex and Power” probably reduces the themes dealt by Shakespeare even if these two are important ones. Bloom notes:

“There is an enormous difference between saying, as teachers once did, ‘You must learn to see the world as Homer or Shakespeare did,’ and saying, as teachers now do, ‘Homer and Shakespeare had some of the same concerns you do and can enrich your vision of the world.’ In the former approach, students are challenged to discover new experiences and reassess old; in the latter, they are free to use the books in any way they please.”

Titles that indicate debunking of earlier truths are also likely to be very one-sided accounts of the subject. Survey courses in general, no matter their deficiencies, are better than specialized courses in history, literature and other subjects.  For example, a course as specific as “Black Feminist Literary Traditions” might more properly be the subject for a graduate seminar. Students need a firm grounding in the main authors, their arguments and texts, and to examine the questions they asked and the context in which they lived. A quick search of a professor’s publications and reading a chapter of one of his books can provide information about the content of his courses.

Choosing the right professors is also paramount for a good liberal arts education. A professor is a guide to truth. He or she is someone from whom to learn the path to follow, a person whom one can and should admire for his or her knowledge, integrity and genuine concern. The great Western model is Socrates who helped Plato and his other students to reason, always seeking the truth despite the cost.  Confucius considered the teacher-student relationship as one of the five fundamental relationships. A teacher offers wisdom to students and, in turn, students show their respect, gratitude and loyalty. This type of relationship is analogous to the classical doctor-medical student relationship enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath. Students should thus seek out the good teachers. They should look for teachers that are respected for their academic rigor – not their capacity to entertain – and their respect for students. They should avoid the “easy” teachers or the ones known for their sophistry. A good professor remains a lifetime teacher and friend.

As important as choosing the teachers and courses for a college education is choosing and fostering meaningful friendships – another subject to be referred to in other parts of this book. Our colleges and universities are plagued with an anti-intellectualism that is due to a superficial and materialistic culture where sports and future material gain are set on high pedestals.  The soul needs intellectual friendships that will nurture its growth and enlarge its views and understanding. Reading for courses and other reading should naturally lead to engaging dialogues. These sincere and probing conversations will spur men and women to a greatness of soul, the magnanimity about which Aristotle wrote. Referring to his years at a minor seminary, McInerny wrote, “It is in the nature of such schools, perhaps all schools, that much of one’s learning takes place independently of classes and teachers (…) In short, we were taught, but we also educated one another and ourselves.”[26]

In these conversations, among themselves and with their peers, students will ask the most important questions in life – questions about truth, about God, human relationships, justice, the meaning of suffering, etc. – and they will find answers in the accumulated wisdom of men and women, especially in classical western civilization and the Judeo-Christian West. They will see knowledge as a connected whole, instead of a fragmented assortment of contradicting truths, and they will learn to appreciate the centrality of religious belief and morality.

Only this type of education with mentors and peers will open the minds of students in America and elsewhere. Newman held that the liberal arts have the capacity “to open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties (…)[27]

The crisis of the university, which is a crisis of the liberal arts, will not be solved in our times but it lies in the hands of the future professors and university presidents who are today’s students. Now as in ages past, the pursuit of truth, goodness, beauty and justice requires the study of liberal arts that students can still attain if they think about the purpose of a university education, choose the right teachers and courses and form a good community of friends.

 

Recommend Bibliography:

Allan Bloom, “Introduction: One Virtue,” in The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, Simon & Schuster, 1987, 25-43.

Mark. C. Henrie, A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000.

[1] Allan Bloom, “Introduction: One Virtue,” in The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25-43.

[2] Idem, 40.

[3] There are other schools in United States that subscribe to this vision in theory and practice.  Some of these can be found in the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College. http://www.cardinalnewmansociety.org/TheNewmanGuide/RecommendedColleges.aspx. Abroad, in addition to the University of Navarre, there are a number of schools such as the University of La Sabana (Bogotá), the Panamerican University (Mexico City), the University of Los Andés (Santiago de Chile) inspired by St. Josermaría Escrivá and Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, that combine a liberal arts education, professional schools and research.

[4] Mark. C. Henrie, A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum (Delaware: ISI Books, 2000), 10-14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Some humanists complain about the legitimacy of the Great Books programs, defending recent scholarship reinterpreting the classics. Allan Bloom comments that, “In their reaction there is a strong element of specialist’s jealousy and narrowness.”

Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind…, 346.

[8] Idem, 343.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Idem, 337.

[11] Idem, 344.

[12] Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students,” National Association of Scholar’s Report submitted April 3, 2013, accessed on November 10, 2014.  http://www.nas.org/images/documents/What_Does_Bowdoin_Teach.pdf

[13] Harvey Mansfield, “The Higher Education Scandal,” Real Clear Politics, May 20, 2013, accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2013/05/20/the_higher_education_scandal_118473.html

[14] Mansfield, “The Higher Education Scandal,” ibid.

[15] “Explores how the garden in Western literature and art serves as a space for desire. Pays special attention to the link between gardens and transgression. Reconsiders one of the founding myths of Western culture: the idea of a lost Eden.” Accessed November 10, 2014 at http://www.bowdoin.edu/gay-lesbian-studies/courses/f12.shtml

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 337, 346.

[19] Ralph McInerny, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life and Pastimes, (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press) 2011, 15.

[20] Idem, 16.

[21] Myra Harada, “History of Higher Education Curriculum,” (Unpublished manuscript, 1994), 19-25. Retrieved on November 10, 2014. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED379977.pdf

[22] The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has prepared monographs from distinguished scholars offering more in detail reflections and advice on courses within different majors.

[23] Joseph Kerman, Gary Tomlinson, Listen, 6th edition, Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.

[24] Robert Greenberg, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd edition, Chantilly, Virginia: The Teaching Company, 2006.

[25] The History of Western Art, Martin Kemp, ed, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[26] Ralph McInerny, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life and Pastimes, 18.

[27] Newman, “Discourse 5: Knowledge, its own end,” Idea of a University, 122.

2 Comment(s)
  • Rick Allen Posted November 10, 2015 10:31 am

    Hi, Fr. Juan! Hope this note finds you well. You might be interested in Paul Shrimpton’s The Making of Men: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin (Gracewing, 2014). Lots of interesting details about Newman’s ideas and efforts on the pastoral aspect of college, the continuity of his ideas about the value and role of the tutorial system, and the political, ecclesiastical, and social dynamics of the personalities involved in the launch and early years of the Catholic University of Ireland. I’m reading it now–almost done!–but I’ve gained a vivid sense of Newman’s practical concerns with sustaining the university and the day-to-day life of its students.

    • Fr. Juan Velez Posted August 28, 2016 5:47 am

      Rick, I am sorry just to read this now. Paul Shrimpton’s book is excellent. I have also read it and encourage others to read it.

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