28 July 2010

Last Post on This Site: Time to Migrate!

I have moved this blog's content (except for the links, which I'll get to) over to my new site. If you are still interested in following my commentary on the classical and Christian tradition, please visit http://westerntradition.wordpress.com/ and either sign up for email updates or subscribe to the RSS feed. I plan to update the new site much more frequently than I did this one and already have several new posts there.

I will leave this website active for now, but I don't plan to post here again, so I hope you'll join me over at WordPress. Thanks!

20 July 2010

The Blog is Moving!!

I've finally decided to go with WordPress.com for future blog content. Now that I have passed this mental roadblock, I hope to publish more regularly on the new site after I port the content of this site over to it.

Please check out the new site at http://westerntradition.wordpress.com/

06 April 2010

Quote of the Day

My recent inactivity on this blog has stemmed from two things:

1. My insane workload (6 courses this semester plus journal editing)
2. My ongoing investigation into moving the blog to another site hosting service that will provide me with more publishing options. I still haven't decided for certain what I'm going to do there.

At any rate, I saw amusing quote today I wanted to share. Earlier this semester, I made a comment in my graduate class that greatly entertained the students. Somehow the class discussion had turned to the term "racist" and its ever-expanding definition. I said that when congressmen resort to denouncing opponents of President Obama's healthcare plan as "racist," that the term has lost all useful meaning and is the equivalent of calling someone a "poopy-head." It took some time for the laughter to die down, and I heard later that a lot of Facebook status updates that night repeated my comment.

Today on Lew Rockwell's site, Tom Woods expresses similar sentiments in an article on nullification. In response to those who condemn supporters of decentralized government as "racist," he writes the following:

"Nobody buys the 'racism' smear anymore. No one in his right mind believes, with Keith Olbermann, that people who drive pickup trucks are likely to have sinister intentions, or that "arrogant" as an adjective to describe Barack Obama is a "racist code word." That game is over. The non-zombie population, which is growing all the time, just tunes it out. At this point, "racism" now encompasses, at the very least, the Tea Party, the GOP, constitutionalists, libertarians, anarchists, anyone who has ever said a kind word about the South (since what reason other "racism" could anyone have for doing that?), anyone who opposes Obama, and anyone who opposes health mandates. That pretty much leaves, as a working definition for "racist," someone who doesn't subscribe to The New Republic."

The entire article is here. I look forward to reading Tom's new book!

02 March 2010

The Practicality of the Liberal Arts

At the end of my last post, I raised two questions concerning the value of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. Here I'll begin to address the first of those questions: Are the liberal arts practical?

This question is a bit tricky for a couple of reasons. First, when most people talk in terms of practicality, they mean something that is A) intended for a specific end, and B) as efficient as possible in the pursuit of that end. Moreover, the end is nearly always something that is tangible and easily measured. Thus the practical method for producing 10,000 pairs of shoes is by using modern factory equipment rather than by hand. The practical way to travel 1,000 miles is by airplane rather than on foot. So far, so good.

But what if your end is to achieve happiness or to find inner peace? Does it make sense to speak of practicality in pursuit of these goals? Perhaps, but I think most people would agree that the terms of the discussion will change dramatically once we are speaking of intangible ends that cannot be quantified. (Yes, I know that some disciplines, such as neoclassical economics, try to quantify these things, but the honest practitioners admit that their constructs are flawed at best.)

Another reason this question is tricky is that some people are unclear or even dishonest about the end of their education. When, in response to the question "Why are you in college?", a student replies, "To get an education," what does he mean? He could mean that he wants to become a more mature and well rounded person (Socrates's "shaping of the soul"). He could mean that he wants whatever skills will land him a high-paying job. He could mean that he is there to play football, or to find a girlfriend, or to go to lots of parties. If we want to talk about the practicality of the liberal arts curriculum, we must be very clear about what exactly we think the end of education is.

My limited personal experience and reading in this area leads me to conclude that most college students don't want their souls to be shaped. They see college either as a financial investment that will pay future dividends or as an opportunity to run wild for a semester or two before they flunk out. I confess that if these are the goals of "education," then the practicality of the liberal arts is much harder to demonstrate. The greatest strength of the liberal arts from this perspective is that they inculcate skills of reading, writing, speaking, and thinking that are beneficial in nearly all career paths. The lack of these skills among today's university graduates, as evidenced by numerous employer surveys published in recent years, is evidence for the continued necessity of the liberal arts.

Even so, a liberal arts education will not provide technical training (I'm using "technical" in the broad sense here) of the sort that prepares one to step immediately into a specialized profession (e.g., accounting, dietetics) with knowledge of all its associated tasks. Thus we hear complaints about the "uselessness" of the liberal arts. Parents of college graduates are outraged when, after they have spent tens of thousands of dollars in tuition on a liberal arts degree, their children don't seem to be prepared to enter the workforce. Show me the money!

Let's concede for the moment, then, that in this particular sense the liberal arts are impractical. (I'm not forgetting my earlier argument about general strengths acquired from a liberal arts education, just putting it aside temporarily.) Does this mean that universities should abandon or downplay the liberal arts curriculum in an effort to "produce results"?

More to come . . .

26 February 2010

Liberal Learning and its Practicality (or Lack Thereof)

Earlier this week, ISI's Lehrman American Studies Institute posted this article on the greatest recent works on liberal learning. All of these titles are worthwhile. Most of them are attempts to defend the concept of liberal arts education from modern utilitarian attacks. If you are unfamiliar with this critique, you have never listened to college students complain, "Why do I have to take [course X in the core curriculum] when I'll never use that in my job?" As a humanities instructor, I hear this one a lot!

The traditional liberal arts curriculum was conceived as an education for social, political, and cultural elites. Medieval and Renaissance educators believed that society's leaders needed grounding in the classical and Christian tradition to be successful, but the question of curriculum for those lower down the social scale never came up because, well, formal education of any kind was a luxury that society could not afford to provide to everyone.

With the advent of mass education in the modern period, the liberal arts curriculum came under attack. Many educators believed that the teaching of literature, philosophy, and the like was wasted on the masses, that all they needed was functional literacy and basic skills that would make them efficient workers in an industrial society. During the course of the twentieth century, these educational utilitarians gradually succeeded in replacing the traditional curriculum to a great extent with either vocational training or, more recently, elective courses inspired by multiculturalism. The resulting fragmentation of the curriculum has caused many problems both within educational institutions and in the broader society. Westerners no longer have a common vocabulary and set of reference points for discourse, and this accounts for much of the cultural disintegration we frequently hear about.

It seems to me that we are dealing with at least two separate issues here when considering the value of the tradtional liberal arts curriculum. First, are the liberal arts practical, or to put it a little differently, will studying the liberal arts position a person to succeed in 21st-century society? Secondly, are we to measure the value of the liberal arts curriculum on the basis of its practicality or lack thereof? I'll explore these questions more in future posts.

24 February 2010

Link of the Day

I haven't posted recently, but hope to get back on a regular schedule. In anticipation of that day, here is a link to a Bloomberg article critiquing the pro-debt policies of the UK and USA.

12 October 2009

This Stuff Isn't Rocket Science . . .

My brother Jeff, who is a professor of finance, had the good fortune a few years back to have an astrophysicist take one of his MBA classes. Whenever this student expressed confusion over any part of the course's content, Jeff could shoot back, "Come on, this isn't rocket science!"

Sometimes I feel like saying the same thing to naysayers who complain that it is unrealistic to expect today's students (of whatever age) to comprehend, much less embrace, the classical and Christian heritage of our civilization. One gets the impression from these folks that any event that transpired before the 1960s is completely inaccessible to the fragile minds of today's youth. (Exceptions to this rule are the lessons that Germans are wicked because they killed Jews, and that Southerners are wicked because they owned slaves.)

Evidence to the contrary can be found in my house at the moment. My six-year-old son approached me the other day and said, "Daddy, I think I would rather live in Athens than Sparta." After I nearly choked in surprise, I asked him why he preferred Athens, and he said that voting on things would be fun, but that he didn't want to be a soldier.

What led to this impromptu discussion? It was simple: I gave him a solid, age-appropriate book (Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World) to read, and let him take it at his own pace. He seems to be retaining the information; just yesterday, while he was trying to explain to his four-year-old brother why an hour is longer than a minute, I asked him who were the first people to divide an hour into sixty minutes, and he said without hesitation, "The Babylonians." I'm pretty sure he hadn't read that part of the book in weeks.

Essentially, my six-year-old is already more culturally literate than a great many high school and college students, all because of one book. He's bright, but I haven't seen any evidence that he's any sort of genius. You're going to have a hard time convincing me that my college students don't have the capacity to learn who won the Punic Wars or the differences between Romanticism and Realism.

This stuff isn't rocket science.