My friend and professional contrarian Darryl Hart has turned to The Front Porch Republic to offer a critique of Bill Cronon’s thoughts on liberal education from his seminal article “Only Connect.” (He is responding to this post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home).
After listing Cronon’s virtues of a liberally-educated person, Hart concludes:
The old Beach Boys song, “Wouldn’t it be Nice,” is running painfully through my head.
Some of these higher education happy thoughts may be true when it comes to certain skills that liberally educated students receive, as in reading, writing, and thinking (though they miss just as many undergrads as they hit). But number seven’s warm fuzzy, “Liberally educated people are humble, tolerant, and self-critical. They recognize and value different perspectives” makes absolutely no sense of many professors who are liberally educated as well as the string of academic novels that feature scholars who are proud, myopic, judgmental, and overly protective of reputations and office hours.
At the same time, this list, while patting those involved with liberal education on the back, doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the students who come to liberal arts institutions do so by way of families who have inculcated many of the virtues touted in this list — even some of those critical skills attributed to liberal education. It seems to me that any proper evaluation of a liberal education concedes that time at college mainly refines what has already gone on in the life of a student before enrollment. Lights may go on in the case of discovering authors and important texts, but the virtues that a society needs from its members are more often learned from parents, teachers, and clergy, than from hyper-sensitive and ambitious faculty teaching the Great Books.
Hart’s thoughts here are on the mark. I wish more academic scholars would practice the liberal arts virtues that Cronon espouses. But I also think Hart needs to get out a bit more. For example, in the last week I have spent time with two scholars who reflect these virtues: Geoffrey Harpham, director of the National Humanities Center, and Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Jewish Civilization Program at Georgetown University. I could also add folks like Annette Gordon-Reed and Anthony Grafton to the list. Perhaps some of the novelists Hart mentions did not spend time with these gracious scholars.
As a father, I could not agree more with Hart’s point about raising children. I think our society would be in much better shape if liberal arts education served the purpose of refining “what has already gone on in the life of a student before enrollment.”[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-E4FRtrD9aQ]