Liberal education, if it does not discover how to speak to society in ways our culture understands, and if it cannot make its virtues apparent to the democracy in which we live, will make itself smaller and smaller, lose the audience it wishes to hold, and die by diminishment. The liberal arts are dying because most Americans don’t see the point of them. They don’t get why anyone would study literature or history or the classics—or, more contemporarily, feminist criticism, whiteness studies, or the literature of postcolonial states—when they can get an engineering or a business degree.Americans have two serious concerns regarding the value of a liberal arts education: first, the personal good of a liberal education, its value to the future life of the student, which is no longer as evident as it once was; and second, that except for academic ideologues on the left who passionately believe the liberal arts can be used to bludgeon students to become “social justice” activists, we more old-fashioned instructors are so frightened of speaking the language of usefulness and relevance that we come across less as citizens helping to promote the wider good and more as cloistered, inward-looking intellectuals. If we have the capacity and the will to be of real use to society, we have hidden it under a bushel.My point is that the liberal arts are, at their best, not only of immense value—let’s even say of “use”—to each of us as individuals, but also to America at large. Part of the greatness of the Founders was that they were much more hesitant than we are to believe that liberal education could not be useful or that other forms of education could not be liberal.If Jefferson could think of a fully educated man as one who understands farming and philosophy, if he had no trouble moving from classical studies to writing a tract upon which a nation would be built, why are we Americans today so rigid in our separation of the theoretical from the practical, the scholarly from the civic?
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