The Case for the Liberal Arts

Stanley Fish strikes again…

Early on in his new book, “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University quotes the economist Richard Vedder and the former university president William Brody to the effect that little has changed in higher education despite enormous changes in technology, demographics, funding models, and student habits and attitudes. Vedder notes that “with the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has had absolutely no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates.” Brody is less wry, but the point is the same: “If you went to a [college] class circa 1900, and you went today, it would look exactly the same.”

In many of the books on higher education now flooding the market, statements like those would be preliminary either to a denial of the point (everything is not the same; here are the new things we’re doing), or to an affirmation of it followed by detailed recommendations (here’s what we should do to catch up). Delbanco, however, not only accepts the fact that little has changed in the classroom — “most of what we see in the past looks a lot like the present” — he celebrates it in the course of answering his title’s question. College, he tells us, “is a hedge against utilitarian values” that “slakes the human craving for contacts with works of art that somehow register one’s longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself.”

The Case for the Liberal Arts – NY Times

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