Redefining Liberal Arts Education in the Twenty-First Century edited by Robert E. Luckett Jr.

Redefining Liberal Arts Education in the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Robert E. Luckett Jr.
Foreword by William D. Adams
University Press of Mississippi
Paperback 306 pages

Liberal arts education defended in book featuring many Jackson State scholars

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Clarion Ledger

American exceptionalism goes hand in glove with universal education—succeeding when public education is emphasized and failing when its absence deprives people of opportunity and hope.

The thoughts of progressive educators interest me, having reaped the advantages of studying with committed educators. I am not alone in that regard. People wanting to partake of what Professors ponder, presently, will profit from “Redefining Liberal Arts Education in the Twenty-First Century” (University Press of Mississippi).

I reluctantly read compendiums given the lack of narrative unity therein. This anthology is best treated as an academic journal, read one article at a time. Enjoyed in such way, rather than in isolation, there is much to commend. Being primarily comprised of entries written by Jackson State University educators, it offers insights into the impressive academic achievements at that institution of higher learning, often overlooked, given that the legacy of Jim Crow concentrates white Mississippians’ gaze upon “traditionally white colleges” to the exclusion of compelling scholarship at “historically black colleges” in the state.

A leitmotif of the book is that liberal arts education is deemphasized at significant cost: In its place are STEM curricula prioritizing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—unconcerned about the unintended consequences of what is tantamount to vocational training.

Society celebrates the first in a family to graduate from college—and rightfully so—without considering the differences between college education before the GI Bill extended its availability to a broad segment of the population who never enjoyed one and after it became readily accessible.

When college education was a luxury, students focused upon art history, classics, history, literature, and philosophy, creating expansive scholars, exemplifying “the Renaissance Man”, with appreciation for the pro bono publicum. Technical training, ignoring independence of thought and lifelong learning, yields a world in which people are increasingly unhappy, in which technology is treated as an end in itself rather than as a means through which to realize greater goals.

Scholars in the book lament the ruthlessness resulting from narrow perspectives after Mammon became the unquestioned ideal, instead of one among several priorities. Many note that the huge debt amassed while completing degrees frequently forces graduates to emphasize perceived employability, although the proposition is hardly all or nothing. One can simultaneously enjoy technical training and an expansive curriculum. Innumerable instances are cited in which a graduate is a more attractive candidate for a job after developing more comprehensively in the classroom. Crucially, one is better positioned for leadership roles having become more articulate and visionary through a liberal arts education.

The conclusion cites Bard College President Leon Botstein’s 2015 observation “that, over the past fifty years, the winners of the Nobel Prize in science have been individuals with strong backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences as well as the arts, which goes to show that ‘no breakthroughs and discoveries occur “without pioneers whose ambitions are fueled by matters outside the realm of science and technology narrowly defined.”’ There are no illiterate scientists, and ‘all the decisive progress in science—the essential bedrock of technological and economic change [he says]—is a high order of literacy.”

The conclusion continues, “With a liberal arts education, we ask critical questions seeking solutions in the tradition of Socrates and other philosophers. Voltaire understood this point by saying that one can tell a literate man from an ignorant man not by the answers he gives but by the questions he asks.”

Pompous people who proudly and publicly pontificate prove themselves to be empty shirts—demonstrating how little they know and how incurious they are—incapable of engaging with the crucial issues of the times and of expanding their perspectives thereby. Heaven help us if social engineering saddles humanity with a kakistocracygovernment by the worst people—creating lemmings, masquerading as people, who descend the mammalian moment into the destiny of the dinosaurs, whose epoch on earth ended irreversibly.

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.


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