We speak of the “crisis in education,” but of course there are two crises. The crisis of America’s public schools is eminently a practical one: the diminished ability to teach the fundamentals of reading and mathematics, things schools once did with routine efficiency. But the crisis of higher education is of the existential sort—as in, why does higher education exist at all? Is it to impart knowledge, to teach job skills, to challenge the status quo, or merely to perpetuate itself, as viruses do, by self-replicating? For about a generation, the academy has found it difficult to justify what it does, and not just to society, but even to itself.
The academy still manages to turn out doctors and lawyers, chemists and engineers, without too much wringing of the hands. The crisis of confidence seems confined to that tiny lobe of higher education—the liberal arts. To be sure, the number of students who major in art, literature, or history is minute (there are 10 business majors for every one in history), but the liberal arts are as indispensable to the university as the keystone is to an arch. They give a sense of purpose and higher meaning to what would otherwise be a bundle of discrete professional or vocational programs. Because of their disproportionate importance within the university, and society itself, any wavering of their sense of purpose is of more than academic interest, so to speak.
About the Author
Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)