Friday, December 17, 2010

In Defense of the Liberal Arts

Hmmmm.... Although I am an avid consumer of high culture myself -- from Thucydides to Chaucer, from Bach to Stravinsky -- I have always found it hard to defend such pursuits as anything more than personal amusements.

And I ended up practising what I preached. In my freshman year at university, I got the highest mark awarded in the poetry paper that formed part of the final examination for Introductory English literature. And there were around 1,000 students in that course.

So my emotional home is undoubtedly in the Humanities. Yet I did not persevere with that line of study. My major field of study became psychology -- which I saw (rather wrongly) as having some utility rather than being mere amusement.

But maybe my personal love of Humanities pursuits blinds me to its having utility too. So I think maybe there is something in what Victor Davis Hanson says below

One point Hanson might have made is that novels from past centuries can widen one's perspective. The world revealed to one when reading (say) Jane Austen is a very different one to the world today and an awareness of that could well help us to see present arrangements in a broader perspective. It might help us to take less for granted.

And there is one Humanities pursuit that I have never been apologetic about: The study of Latin. Learning Latin grammar is perhaps the best pathway to an understanding of how sentences work and is therefore a major help in learning how to write clear English. -- JR

The liberal arts face a perfect storm. The economy is struggling with obscenely high unemployment and is mired in massive federal and state deficits. Budget-cutting won't spare education.

The public is already angry over fraud, waste and incompetence in our schools and universities. And in these tough times, taxpayers rightly question everything about traditional education -- from teacher unions and faculty tenure to the secrecy of university admissions policies and which courses really need to be taught.

Opportunistic private trade schools have sprouted in every community, offering online certification in practical skills without the frills and costs of so-called liberal arts "electives."

In response to these challenges, the therapeutic academic Left proved often incapable of defending the traditional liberal arts. After three decades of defining the study of literature and history as too often a melodrama of race, class and gender oppression, it managed to turn off much of the college audience and the general reading public. And cheek by jowl, the utilitarian Right succeeded in reclassifying business and finance not just as undergraduate university majors, but also core elements in general education requirements.

In such a climate, it is natural that once again we are hearing talk of cutting the "non-essentials" in our colleges such as Latin, Renaissance history, Shakespeare, Plato, Rembrandt and Chopin. Why do we cling to the arts and humanities in a high-tech world in which we have instant recall at our fingertips through a Google search and such studies do not guarantee sure 21st-century careers?

But the liberal arts train students to write, think and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge. Without that foundation, it is harder to make -- or demand from others -- logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.

Citizens -- shocked and awed by technological change -- become overwhelmed by the Internet, cable news, talk radio, video games and popular culture of the moment. Without links to our past heritage, we in ignorance begin to think our own modern challenges -- the war in Afghanistan, gay marriage, cloning or massive deficits -- are unique and don't raise issues comparable to those dealt with and solved in the past.

And without citizens broadly informed by humanities, we descend into a pyramidal society. A tiny technocratic elite on top crafts everything from cell phones and search engines to foreign policy and economic strategy. A growing mass below lacks understanding of the present complexity and the basic skills to question what they are told.

During the 1960s and 1970s, committed liberals thought we could short-circuit the process of liberal education by creating advocacy classes with the suffix "studies." Black studies, Chicano studies, community studies, environmental studies, leisure studies, peace studies, woman's studies and hundreds more were designed to turn out more socially responsible youths. Instead, universities too often graduated zealous advocates who lacked the broadly educated means to achieve their predetermined politicized ends.

On the other hand, pragmatists argued that our future CEOs needed to learn spread sheets at 20 rather than why Homer's Achilles does not receive the honors he deserved, or how civilization was lost in fifth-century Rome and 1930s Germany. Yet Latin or a course in rhetoric might better teach a would-be captain of industry how to dazzle his audience than a class in Microsoft PowerPoint.

The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern -- communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for the ability to express themselves effectively and with dignity. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves.

Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way Twittering cannot. The latest anti-Christ video shown at the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian will fade when the Delphic Charioteer or Michelangelo's David does not. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad.

America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art and music is not one of them.


Many students don't feel safe in school

As bullying, violence and other assaults have crept out of the District and into the suburbs, many students feel much less safe at school than their parents think.-Greg Whitesell/Examiner file
Barely half of students said they felt safe when they walked into Col. Zadok Magruder High School last year.

Magruder is not a chronically underperforming D.C. public school, but a Montgomery County high school where more than 97 percent of its senior class graduated last year, students showed up with a 94.6 percent attendance rate, and every student met state graduation requirements.

Just 55 percent of last year's Magruder students agreed with the statement "I feel safe in school" in a survey administered by the county's public school system SEmD a much lower number than the 71.2 percent of Magruder parents who agreed that "My child feels safe at school." Only 20 percent of students believe their belongings are safe at school and more than 60 percent agreed that "bullying is a problem."

Bullying, violence and other assaults have crept out of the District and now persist in the suburbs. Last week, a social studies teacher at Centreville High School in Fairfax was arrested for taking "indecent liberties" with a 16-year-old female student in 2007 and 2008. In Prince George's County, a student stabbed another at Northwestern High School during a fight Tuesday.

And in Montgomery, students feel much less safe than their parents think. At least one in four students at 31 public middle and high schools in Montgomery did not agree with the statement "I feel safe in school" on the survey, up from 24 schools in 2009. About 77 percent of high school students said they felt safe at school, while 92 percent of parents believed their children felt safe. Almost half of students deemed bullying a problem, while less than 30 percent of parents said the same.

"I spent a day in the lunch period talking to students about getting an adult on board if there was any safety issue going on. But most of the kids ... didn't know me well enough to open up to this old lady," says Patty Winters, chairwoman of the safety committee for Magruder's Parent-Teacher-Student Association.

Winters said she has focused on a campaign against drunken driving in which a grim reaper dresses up and deems students "dead." But little is done regarding the 34 fights, three weapons incidents and 20 "attacks" that Magruder reported last year -- and those aren't the highest numbers in the district. Northwood topped with 45 attacks; Kennedy with 50 fights; and Gaithersburg with seven weapons incidents.

In Fairfax, there were 133 weapons incidents and 429 offenses against students in the public middle and high schools last year.

Jim McLain, security coordinator for the Fairfax school system, pointed to the roughly 170,000 students in the district: "You're talking about a pretty large town, and in spite of best efforts, things are just going to happen."

In a survey by Fairfax's government and school board, 50.8 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students said they had been bullied in the past year. Nearly 20 percent said someone had attacked them with the intention of seriously hurting them, and 88 percent said they had been threatened with a weapon.

Prince George's County declined to provide data, but its security issues, along with those of the District, are well-known. When Prince George's stepped up its attention to bullying, reports shot up from 77 in 2008-2009 to 347 incidents of bullying last year.

In D.C., interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson had to oust the private operator of Dunbar Senior High School after observing lax security. At most D.C. public high schools, security issues have declined in the past two years, but remain high. This school year, 51 students have been suspended for bringing weapons like knives, BB guns and box cutters to school.


Rioting UK students are misguided

Peter Saunders

Thousands of student radicals and hangers-on smashed up London last week, desecrating the Cenotaph (Britain’s national memorial to the war dead) and besieging the heir to the throne in his car. Like toddlers throwing a tantrum, they were complaining about a decision to make them pay for their own degrees.

Cameron’s Coalition is freeing universities to set their own fees for home students up to an annual maximum of £9,000 ($14,350 – considerably higher than the $8,859 maximum charged in Australia).

As in Australia, British students will pay nothing up front, but will repay their debt after they graduate. Repayments will be phased according to income, starting when earnings reach £21,000 pa ($33,500, roughly comparable to the $36,185 income threshold here). Students from poor backgrounds will get the first two years of their studies free.

Parliament last week confirmed these changes. Labour voted against, despite having instigated the inquiry that came up with the proposals, and the junior partners in the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, split down the middle (their candidates had all pledged before the election to oppose any fee increases). Student leaders vowed to continue their campaign, but Cameron says the increases (from a current maximum of £3,000 [$4,780]) are necessary if universities are to be funded adequately.

With some justification, students point out that their parents’ generation got their university education for nothing. But they forget that higher education has mushroomed in the last 30 years. The United Kingdom now has 115 universities, and 44% of under-30s attend one. You can have a ‘free’ system, or a mass system, but no country can afford both.

Despite their red flags and Socialist Worker banners, the student radicals want their studies funded by other people whose lifetime earnings will be lower than their own. They favour the continuation of a system that redistributes income from people who haven’t gone to university, to people like themselves, who have.

Students say higher fees will deter people from going to university. Nobody knows if this is true (the introduction of fees by the Blair government had no impact on university applications). But even if it turns out to be true, it would be no bad thing if people started to think more carefully about whether university is right for them, and what courses they should do when they get there.

Currently, many graduates end up in jobs that do not require a degree, and there is no evidence that employers are crying out for more art historians, sociologists, or media studies experts (despite politicians claiming the country needs more graduates so it can compete in the global economy). As Andrew Norton of the CIS has been explaining for some years, the absence of a market in higher education has meant that many youngsters have made ill-informed decisions from which they have not benefited.

Hopefully, the introduction of full-cost fees will also shake up the universities. With the exception of Britain’s only private university (Buckingham), the other 114 teach for only about half the year. The other half is reserved for lengthy vacations so staff can carry out ‘research.’ This contributes to high tuition costs. The students who trashed London should reflect on the fact that fees are going up so their lecturers can continue to enjoy pampered careers.

Of course we need our best universities to do research. But this does not require every lecturer in every university to be given half the year off to produce skip-loads of third-rate publications. Most of what passes for ‘research’ in our ‘universities’ nowadays is of little value, and most lecturers would be better employed teaching for longer.

As the weaker institutions look for ways to reduce their costs and lower their tuition fees to attract customers away from their more prestigious competitors, they will have to use their labour more efficiently. This means their staff should have to teach more and write less. If that happens, it’s a win-win outcome.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated December 17. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

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