A recent report in the New York Times made me incredibly sad. Here are the introductory paragraphs:
In proposing last week to eliminate 169 faculty positions and cut more than 30 degree programs from its flagship university, West Virginia, the state with the fourth-highest poverty rate in the country, is engaging in a kind of educational gerrymandering. If you’re a West Virginian with plans to attend West Virginia University, be prepared to find yourself cut out of much of the best education that the school has traditionally offered, and many of the most basic parts of the education offered by comparable universities.
The planned cuts include the school’s program of world languages and literatures, along with graduate programs in mathematics and other degrees across the arts and pre-professional programs. The university is deciding, in effect, that certain citizens don’t get access to a liberal arts education.
The article makes it clear that West Virginia is not alone. Politicians and state officials–primarily in poorer Red states– are taking an ax to liberal arts education. As the article correctly notes, “this trend, typically led by Republican-controlled legislatures and often masquerading as budgetary necessity, threatens to have dire long-term effects on our already polarized and divided nation.”
Once again, it becomes critical to support study of the liberal arts. As I have previously argued, “paradigm” may be the most appropriate word to use in connection with the importance of the liberal arts, because the liberal arts allow us to form the paradigm–the world-view– we need in order to function in an era of rapid change.
Americans today inhabit a world that is increasingly global and–despised as the term has come to be on the political Right–multicultural. Navigating it requires a broad familiarity with our human history, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology, studies that prepare us to encounter, appreciate and survive in that world.
The liberal arts teach us how to be rational and analytic in an increasingly irrational age. They teach us to be respectful not just of results but of process–to understand that “how” and “why” are as important as “what.”
Most important, from my admittedly academic and civil libertarian perspective, the study of the liberal arts requires–indeed, is based upon– a profound respect for the importance of human liberty. The life of the mind depends upon freedom to consider any and all ideas, information, points of view. It cannot flower in a totalitarian environment.
Technocrats can live with Big Brother, but poets and philosophers cannot.
It may be trite, but it is nevertheless true that learning how to communicate and learning how to learn are the essential survival skills. If all one learns is a trade–no matter how highly compensated the particular trade might be–he or she is lost when that trade is no longer in demand. But even if that never happens, lack of familiarity with the liberal arts makes it less likely that a person’s non-work life will be full and rich. There is nothing wrong with learning a trade; it’s important and worthwhile. But there is a profound difference between “trade school” and the process of acquiring an education. That difference is the liberal arts.
As the Times essay concludes:
The humanities are under threat more broadly across the nation because of the perceived left-wing ideology of the liberal arts. Book bans, attempts to undermine diversity efforts and remodeled school curriculums that teach that slavery was about “skill” development are part of a larger coordinated assault on the supposed “cultural Marxism” of the humanities. (That absurd idea rests in part on an antisemitic fantasy in which left-leaning philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse somehow took control of American culture after the Second World War.) To resist this assault, we must provide broad access to a true liberal arts education.
The campaign to overturn the liberal arts is politically motivated, through and through. The Democratic Party has lost the working class, while the Republican Party has made electoral gains among the least educated. With the help of consultants, Republicans seek to gut the (nonprofit or public) university in the name of a “profit” it doesn’t even intend to deliver. The point instead is to divide the electorate, and higher education is the tool.
We are seeing overtly political efforts to turn the nation’s classrooms and libraries into Rightwing echo chambers. School libraries should be managed by the librarians who are committed to intellectual freedom. History lessons should accurately portray both the admirable and the disgraceful. A liberal arts education should be accessible to all students–not just those with the financial wherewithal to attend “elite” universities.
What West Virginia University is doing is appalling–and very, very dangerous.