Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: liberal arts (page 1 of 1)

Jennifer A. Frey:

When Zena Hitz explains the Catherine Project (a series of online and in-person seminars) or when Nathan Beacom describes a revival of the Lyceum movement for adults, the reader is left to wonder whether the liberal arts need to be tied to our universities at all. This is no idle concern — the average annual cost of tuition at a liberal-arts college is $24,000 a year. If one can engage in liberating learning for a small donation to the Catherine Project, doesn’t it make more sense to learn in one’s leisure time rather than bother with an expensive four-year degree? Even if such study is liberatory, is it worth the student debt, especially when its own practitioners agree that it can be pursued just as profitably on the side for a pittance? In Ms. Hitz’s own words, “universities are wonderful, but they are not necessary for human flourishing.”

If liberal learning does not need the university, we might ask whether the university needs liberal learning. One might worry that, in trying to prove that the liberal arts are not elitist, we have only shown that we can uncouple them from universities and be no worse off for it. If liberal learning is for everyone and can be pursued anywhere — in prison, in elementary schools, by people in poverty — why would anyone pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for it? Is it because, as Don Eben argues, a habit of learning and analysis makes students better future white-collar workers? Or, as Rachel Griffis argues, because a liberal-arts education complements professional training, thus becoming a good financial investment? Is the only good argument for liberal learning in universities, ultimately, instrumental? 

Jennifer Frey is the dean of an Honors College at a private university; I teach in an Honors College at a private university. You could say that we both have an investment in keeping that flame burning. But I think even we ought to be asking the questions Frey asks here. As I have often written, these are good times for the humanities; they’re just not good times for humanities programs in universities. This is why I keep thinking about Emily St. John Mandel’s Traveling Symphony. Even as we try to keep the humanities-in-the-university afloat, I think we need to spend a lot of time imagining the humanities without the university. 

The Decline of Liberal Arts and Humanities – WSJ:

The liberal arts are dead. The number of students majoring in liberal arts has fallen precipitously with data from the National Center for Education Statistics showing the number of graduates in the humanities declined by 29.6% from 2012 to 2020. This decline has worsened in the years since. Notre Dame has seen 50% fewer graduates in the humanities over the same period, while other schools have made headlines recently for cutting liberal-arts majors and minors including Marymount University and St. John’s University. The shuttering of liberal-arts programs has even led to Catholic colleges and universities ending theology programs. 

That’s Danielle Zito, one of several participants in this conversation. I’ll just say once more what I always say: The liberal arts, and the humanities, do not live only or even primarily in universities. They can, and they do, flourish elsewhere, among people who ain’t got time for academic bullshit. 

Cassiodorus College

For a few years, starting around a decade ago, I blogged at The American Conservative. Sometime in the not-too-distant past, they memory-holed all my posts — without bothering to inform me that they’d be doing so. Classy move, folks! Anyway, I might occasionally re-post stuff I wrote there — assuming I can find the drafts on my hard drive. (If I were desperate to retrieve anything, which I’m not, I could of course eventually find it with the Wayback Machine.) Here’s one to accompany my School for Scale idea. 

I think the world needs a quirky and extremely rich venture capitalist to fund my great project, Cassiodorus College. Tag line: Where the New Liberal Arts Meet the Old. Foundational courses will include:

Memorization and Recitation. An introduction to mnemomics, both through modern techniques and history. Books assigned will include The Art of Memory by Frances Yates and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence. Attention will be given to memorizing long poems, long speeches, meaningful numerical sequences, and nonsense.

Reading: Natural and Formal Languages. An exploration of the very different skills required to read natural languages and formal languages, especially computer programming languages. A key question will be: Why is computer code easier to write than to read, while natural language is generally the other way around. Attention will be given to the neuroscience of reading but also to the conditions under which reading can be intensely pleasurable.

Composition: Natural and Formal Languages. A course devoted to the exploration of three compositional modes: writing English essays, writing computer code, and the mediating experience of writing English essays while using markup languages, primarily HTML and LaTeX. The first part of this course will begin by having students spend extended periods hand-writing memorable poetry and prose in commonplace books, alternating that with typing into a terminal code examples from Donald Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming. Only very gradually will they progress to writing their own essays and their own code.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Stolen directly from Edward Tufte, whose books will be our texts. However, we will also explore the ways in which the various software tools available for making graphs, charts, and the like constrain our organizational and display choices. We will also give attention to the principles of excellent design, including the design of text.

Mathematical Reasoning and Rhetoric. An introduction to mathematics as a mode of thinking and a subsequent exploration of how the best principles of mathematical reasoning are routinely defied when numbers are presented to the public. Tufte is useful here too, for example, on how faulty presentation of data can lead to disasters.

Care of Plants and Animals. An idea stolen from W. H. Auden, who said that in his “daydream College for Bards” every would-be poet should tend a vegetable garden and care for a domestic pet. A great idea not just for bards. 

Please get in touch if you’re filthy rich and want to bankroll this glorious endeavor.