It seems like every few months there's an essay, somewhere, commenting on the decline or value of the liberal arts, ruing the demise of great books and the inability of students to think meaningfully and deeply about life's big questions. Saturday's Wall Street Journal featured the latest installment, this time from John Argresto, formerly president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.
Argresto writes, "Liberal arts has not been killed by parental or student philistinism, or the cupidity of today’s educational institutions whose excessive costs have made the liberal arts into an unattainable luxury. In too many ways the liberal arts have died not by murder but by suicide."
What, for Argresto, is the liberal arts' value?
When properly conceived and taught, the liberal arts do not by themselves make us “better people” or (God knows) more “human.” They don’t exist to make us more “liberal,” at least in the contemporary political sense. But the liberal arts can do something no less wonderful: They can open our eyes.They show us how to look at the world and the works of civilization in serious and important and even delightful ways. They hold out the possibility that we will know better the truth about many of the most important things. They are the vehicle that carries the amazing things that mankind has made—and the memory of the horrors that mankind has perpetrated—from one age to the next. They teach us how to marvel.
Argresto also offers this admonition for high school teachers:
Finally, a word to secondary schools and their teachers: You may be the last hope many of your students will have to think broadly and seriously about literature, science, math and history. If they don’t read Homer or Shakespeare, or marvel at the working of the universe, or read and understand the Constitution, they never will. The hope of liberal learning rests on your shoulders. Please don’t shrug.
He's probably right. I often express the same thing with my colleagues about theology studies. A Catholic high school might be the last time students ever read Scripture or wrestle with serious religious belief. That's why high school teachers indeed have a vital charge.
See the rest of Argresto's essay, "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts," here.