I claim enough academic experience to have unwavering opinions on the nature of the modern academy. I have been a student at grand universities and small colleges, famous research institutions and schools that (mirabile dictu!) put the classroom first. I know both national and international “Singing Schools” as well as almost unknown places, whose melodies, though lovely, are not heard far from campus. I spent longer collecting degrees from various academies as it took me to go from kindergarten through high school. (Obviously I am a slow learner.) Throughout it all, I rarely questioned the value of a college education. It seemed to me that anyone with the brains to benefit from it should at least try it, either at the local community college or one of the historic universities that provide as much in social cachet as they do in learning.
I am no longer so sure. Colleges and Universities have always been about getting ahead in society, but in earlier times they also purported to train the mind and even the soul. The Liberal Arts are the studies that make us intellectually free, and they were far from the pathetic remnants of the past they now seem to many in the Academy. The Liberal Arts used never to be attacked simply because they are disproportionately the product of “Dead White European Males.” It is a modern folly is to suggest that genius is supposed to be evenly distributed throughout the world in the same way “wealth redistribution” is supposed to level the playing field for everyone. (This is obviously mad. If all the world’s wealth were equally divvied up equally in the morning, by evening we would be back to having the rich and the poor all over again. They may not be the same rich and poor, but those who think redistributed wealth will stay redistributed has obviously been too busy answering e-mail from Kenya that will make them rich.)
Nowadays “impractical majors” are denigrated by everyone from Business pundits to impoverished parents, largely for financial reasons. (It is true almost any major with “studies” in the title is likely to be useless.) Yet despite the scorn of the delightful “Click and Clack,” art history, a perfectly respectable and delightful study that has few job opportunities and, under the rank of Museum Director, pays little, is still worth cultivating. That the wise NPR mechanics knew it was not terribly profitable should make no difference; learning ought to be its own reward. Well, in theory. The halcyon days when one might do a degree just to learn something now seems terribly long ago. I could have made that choice in my youth, and I did, but with the annual cost of the most expensive Universities hovering close to the national median income, “Click and Clack” make more sense now than when they first teased art history majors about perennial unemployment.
With the crippling of Liberal Arts in the Academy, more and more college students are left completely ignorant of pretty much everything that happened before they were born. They have been so “affirmed” by their parents and teachers that they are completely unashamed of their ignorance to boot. These poor barbarians have been deprived of their heritage, not just from the West, but from all corners of the earth. Having talked to contemporaries of mine who managed to get through a British Public School without learning Latin, I no longer believe in the Oxbridge assumption that a British Public School education gives one enough “general studies” so that undergraduates can concentrate on their chosen academic course. (In this case perhaps I should point out that in Britspeak “Public” means “private”; the English memory goes all the way back to the time when a “public school” meant one that was not under the control of the Church.) Being beaten into Latin and even Greek may not have been much fun, but it certainly is preferable to the lacunae we now call education.
If it isn’t already obvious, I am one of those academic heretics dismissed as an “essentialist” by academic relativists. I believe that there is in human nature some essence that transcends time and place and is intrinsic to being who we are, and it can be taught. To doubt this is a defect I believe as severe as more literal forms of blindness and debility or, worse, moral relativism. As I am so purblind as to accept a moral basis for the study of our human heritage, I am as unfashionable as Victorian individual asparagus tongs. Mine is an act of informed faith; I cannot be argued out of it any more than I can derive morality without theology. Nothing else is big enough to generate anything like morality, so for me the Liberal Arts that teach these things have never gone out of style.
The upshot of all this is that I am no longer sure about going to college, unless one needs a degree for a particular job or purely for social cachet. (We are the real snobs here – it used to be that no Brit expected a thick British aristocrat needed the social benefits of attending Oxford or Cambridge.) Of course, it is possible to find one of those colleges that still provide a genuine liberal arts education – they do an excellent job, and that can be a good way, though not the only way, to become truly educated. Otherwise, I might suggest a potential student use his college funds to take up a trade. There is no more important man in the world than a plumber when your toilet is backing up on a Sunday morning, and anyone who thinks we need no longer craftsmen had better be truly self-sufficient in his own right. Craft certainly trumps literary theory as a useful pursuit, and my talented contractor actually leaves something that lasts when he finishes; many contemporary professors just tear things down.