domingo, 17 de mayo de 2015

Two entirely different, and seemingly incompatible, ideals of the university....

The Case for the Liberal Arts:
 Stronger than Ever?

by Wilfred McClay

If we are to make any kind of case for the liberal arts, we must first have a reasonably coherent notion of what the liberal arts are, and what they are for. That means clearing away some persistent misconceptions.

First of all, the term “liberal arts” shouldn’t be understood as a synonym for “the humanities,” or for those “soft” disciplines that are offered as complements to the “hard” disciplines of science and mathematics. Teaching them is not just a matter of imparting certain analytical techniques, even if they do impart those skills extremely well as a byproduct of their work, skills that are readily transferable to other areas of human endeavor. The “liberal arts” do not refer to a particular content area or a particular body of knowledge, although their exercise may well involve the acquisition of such a body of knowledge. They are not reducible to a lengthy list of books that must be read, or to languages that must be mastered, or to concepts with which one must be demonstrably conversant—although all those things will contribute in indispensable ways to the pursuit of a liberal education.

Instead, the mark of a genuinely liberal education is that it aims at instilling a set of paradoxical qualities, which are often quite fiercely at odds with one another. Those qualities can be grouped under two broad rubrics: the capacity for inquiry, and the capacity for membership.

Let me illuminate what I am saying by providing a specific example.

A number of years ago, when I was still a fairly junior professor on the faculty at Tulane, I went to an academic conference in San Francisco whose subject was the purpose of the modern university. It was well-attended, and featured two outstanding plenary speakers, both of whom were received very warmly by their audiences.

The first was the historian C. Vann Woodward, who was receiving a luncheon award for his long and illustrious career, and particularly for his commitment to free speech and free investigation. In his remarks, Woodward put forward a bold and uncompromising view of what the university’s appropriate work consisted in. “The university,” he declared, “is the place where the unthinkable can be thought, the unspeakable can be said, the inconceivable can be conceptualized, and the unfashionable can be entertained.” The university, and it alone, offered the world a place consecrated to the most precious and most imperiled aspect of human freedom: our freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of expression. Without strong institutional protections for such freedoms against the forces that always seemed to spring up against them, we would lose the benefit of them, including the benefits that come of a culture that is bent upon seeking and finding the truth, without fear or favor. Visibly stirred by these words, the audience applauded loud and long, and I joined them.

Then later in the day came an address by the political scientist James Q. Wilson, also speaking on the theme of the university’s purpose. In his speech, Wilson argued that the modern university was best understood as the chief conservator of the rich but fragile civilization of the Western world, the keeper of our chief intellectual, moral, and artistic treasures and our collective historical memory. That heritage had made us what, and who, we are; but our dynamic commercial and progressive culture was all too likely to toss that heritage aside, in the pell-mell pursuit of the next big thing. If the university did not take care to look after the older things, he asked, who else would? Without a strong institutional commitment to the conservation and propagation of that cultural inheritance, we would lose the benefit of it, including the benefits that come of sustaining a vital connection to the past, and to the best that has been thought and expressed in the human experience. For these words, too, the audience applauded loud and long, and again I joined them enthusiastically, though by now experiencing a bit of puzzlement at them, and at myself.

Puzzlement, because it struck me that the audience, and I myself, seemed to be applauding, with equal enthusiasm, two entirely different, and seemingly incompatible, ideals of the university.


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