The Liberal Arts: Death by Suicide?

Years ago, at a function and the LBJ Presidential Library, I shared a dinner table conversation with John Agresto who was at that time the President of St. John's College, Santa Fe. I found him to be a sharply insightful and passionate defender of the classical tradition of the liberal arts. Judging from this article, it sounds like he hasn't changed a bit and that makes me smile.


The biggest wake-up call came from John Agresto, past president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. (St. John's in Santa Fe, which celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting the “What Is a Liberal Education For?” conference, has an older campus in Annapolis, Md.) Quoting worrisome statistics about the humanities today – English, long a go-to concentration, now accounts for just 3 percent of majors nationwide, for example – Agresto said the liberal arts are “dying.”

But, he said, taking a different tone from speakers earlier in the conference – many of whom focused on defending the humanities to detractors – the death may be “less a murder than a suicide.”

‘More Critical Than Thoughtful’

Agresto said that much humanities instruction has been co-opted by hyperspecialization and especially by critical theory. He said overly-critical approaches at once demean the subject matter and limit students’ free inquiry. For example, he said, when professors portray the founding fathers as mere “white racists,” no student or parent “in their right mind” would pay $50,000 a year to study them.

To save the humanities, professors must value opening up students’ minds over “preaching and converting," he said. That means returning to an older mode of instruction, and instilling critical thinking skills. It means getting students to ask questions and helping them see the “variety” of answers – not leading them to a specific point of view, he added.

In the past and at their best, the liberal arts were a “gift” given to everyone, Agresto said. “It didn’t matter that Dante and Homer were dead white males,” and keeping Shakespeare alive wasn’t an “ethnocentric act.”

Read the entire piece here.

Hat tip to Books Inq.