The death of liberal-arts education

High-school teachers who think their job is to prepare students to succeed in their university studies will be sobered by this column by Stanley Fish in the New York Times. In it he reviews and comments on “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the University,” by Frank Donoghue.

According to Fish and Donoghue, liberal-arts education is fast disappearing and being replaced by “a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment”. This new model has no place for “an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration”. 

In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.”

Is that sobering enough for you? 

Of course there will always be a place, even if it is off in the corners here and there, for real teaching and learning, because the human spirit will demand it. But the capitulation of the university to the marketplace makes it even more important for elementary and secondary schools to focus on real learning. It may have once been possible to think, ‘My job is to get these kids into college—then their real education can begin’. If Fish and Donoghue are right, however, we who teach children and adolescents now bear the burden.

I have known for a long time, as an English teacher, that if students don’t read Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Dante, and Chaucer in my class, the chances are very good they will never read these authors at all, because the fashions of literary criticism have dictated for a generation or more that such Dead White European Males are unworthy of attention. 

Now it appears that if we want to turn our children into educated persons—literate readers and thinkers—we will have to do it before they graduate from high school, because after that they will simply be buying job skills.