Liberal Arts

I’ve moved from “The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean” to a recorded lecture series on the Renaissance. One of the initial lectures discusses the roots of the Renaissance as a reaction against the Middle Ages in returning to the classical ideals of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. One tenet of those cultures was a “liberal education” for the citizenry to provide a better-educated, more adaptable populace. Interesting to think that our modern education is based on principles over 2000 years old.

What bothers me, though, is how literally colleges seem to be taking the idea of “liberal arts” these days. It seems colleges increasingly view their role as pushing the liberal agenda. There’s not even so much as lip-service paid to the idea of ideological diversity, or even neutrality. Case in point, this little gem:

A professor at Michigan State University (MSU) opened the first day of his…class on Thursday by bashing Mitt and Ann Romney and ranting against “old Republicans” who he says “raped” the country, according to a student who made a secret recording of the class.

The eight-minute secretly recorded video also reveals Prof. William S. Penn bullying a student who apparently disagreed with his Democratic politics and arguing that Republicans want to prevent “black people” from voting.

“If you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all of the old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them,” said Penn. “They are cheap. They don’t want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could.”

It’s hard to imagine what a rant such as this has to do with any college subject, but what’s even more surprising is that Penn teaches creative writing. It would be different if this were a lone wolf, but this case is far from typical. Even back in the 1990’s when I was in college it was not uncommon for professors to openly discuss their own politics in class. This would not necessarily be a problem if the students were encouraged to debate the professor, but most students are taught, formally and informally, to respect the teacher and let them speak or to keep your head down and shut up lest you get graded down for arguing. It’s a bully pulpit, and it seems far too many professors can’t resist.

There was one notable exception in my (lengthy) college career: Professor “Bud” Wigginton. He taught English 201, which focused on argumentative writing. He was one of those who would frequently discuss controversial topics in class, though in this case it at least fit the nature of the class. I’d heard a few rumors about him, ie. “if you’re a Mormon you can forget getting an A”. So I went in to my first few assignments rather wary. And I got B’s and C’s. I don’t remember now if I finally went to him about it or if he asked to see me, but one day we ended up discussing my grade.

“Your problem, Mr. Stratton, is that you don’t take a side,” was his response. “You try to show both sides, which is admirable, but you don’t try to argue one way or another. Pick a side and defend it!”

I came away from the discussion a little angry, and with my back up. I decided on the next assignment I’d show him. I’d argue a point, all right. I’d pick the side opposite what he appeared to believe and then catch him when he still marked me down. The trouble was, he gave me an A. If I remember correctly, he also wrote a little note like, “Yes! This is what I want!”

Over the remainder of the semester we formed something of a friendship, and my respect for him grew. I think I disagreed with him on every topic, and I got an A. My papers were frequently marked in places with notes like “Excellent point!” or “I hadn’t considered that.” I even started to openly disagree with him at times in class discussions–and he seemed not only fine with that, but welcomed it. I soon grew to look forward to his class, and we had several good conversations outside of class.

Neither of us changed the other’s mind. But I came to see him as a teacher who, while naturally coming from a certain perspective, saw his role as teaching students to think for themselves. I think he truly thrived on debate, not as a win-lose situation, but as a win-win situation in which two people might at least gain greater understanding of an issue from one another. He wasn’t about to apologize for his beliefs, but he was well-versed in the counter-arguments, and seemed to see in them an opportunity to tighten up his own thinking on the matter.

But teachers like Professor Wigginton (He had a Doctorate, but insisted we call him “professor”) are rare these days, and he’s long since retired. Teachers like Professor Vrooman, my Economics teacher, don’t last long in colleges. I don’t think he was conservative, but he had two strikes against him. He taught economics as a science, not an ideology. And his teaching style was a bit confrontational, with some salty language and mild poking at the local culture. Between the liberal faculty (though I suspect ISU was mild by comparison) and the significantly Mormon student body he got complaints from both sides. He didn’t last long, but I count myself lucky to have been one of the few students he got the chance to teach. He helped me understand economics. He helped me enjoy economics.

That’s what college should be about. No, we don’t necessarily want ideologically neutral campuses. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could at least get ideologically divers, campuses, whose missions were first and foremost to teach, to teach to think, and to provide students with as broad a perspective as possible? Can you imagine how it would change the world?

Unfortunately, that’s not what we get much anymore. Now what students think is more important than that they can think for themselves. I can understand that. If you truly believe in something it’s only natural that you would want to teach that to those for whom you are responsible. It’s too important to leave up to chance or free thought. We can’t afford to lead the horse to water in the hopes they will take a drink.

But if we return to the original definition of a Liberal Education, that’s not the role of a college. I can see an argument for their role being to provide alternative viewpoints to their students’ backgrounds. However, the political/ideological demographics of the US being what it is, that would call as much for conservative viewpoints as liberal. I don’t think most colleges are willing to go that far, though quite frankly the country as a whole would benefit from it if they would. If we could all learn to respect one another’s point of view, even if we will never agree with it, that would be a big step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, thanks to the increasingly liberal education system in this country, the most exposure the average American gets to how to debate and exchange ideas is from our politicians. And that is a scary thought.

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2 Responses to Liberal Arts

  1. So, Thom, do you want first go at the windmill, or should I have at it?

  2. Nah, I’ll just wait until they put me in charge of the world.

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