Writing at The Weekly Standard, noted essayist Joseph Epstein reflects on the apparent decline of liberal arts education in American colleges and universities. Much of the essay interacts with Andrew Delbanco’s excellent College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Here is a taste of his essay, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?”:
Columbia still provides two years of traditional liberal arts for its undergraduates. The University of Chicago continues to struggle over assembling a core curriculum based on the old Robert Hutchins College plan. St. John’s College, both in Annapolis and in Santa Fe, has, from its founding, been devoted to the cult of the liberal arts, even to the point of having its students study medieval science. The hunger among students for the intellectual satisfaction that a liberal arts education provides is not entirely dead. (At Northwestern, a course in Russian novels taught by Gary Saul Morson attracts 600 students, second only to the recently canceled notorious course in sex education offered by the school.) But the remaining liberal arts programs begin to have the distinct feel of rearguard actions.
The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.