After attending a conference of DFW’s Christian Classical Schools a couple weeks back, this well-funded lecture by Bennington College’s President Liz Coleman seems not only unimpressive, but a little naive and self-important. While her analysis of the fragmentation of knowledge and the Myth of the Expert are spot-on, they are not by any means novel insights. Likewise, her secular attack on the problem sounds like poor man’s version of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, and her renovation a far cry from the one that started St. John’s.
Now I have a hard time scowling at anything that urges our institutions of higher learning to become less hermetic, and I am rather comfortable with recognition that idea and ideals are to be action guiding. (I am, after all, a fan of Phillipa Foot.) I am certainly a fan of making people who are generalized, thoughtful, and civic. For this I wholeheartedly commend Dr. Coleman. What seemed to me to be conspicuously missing from Coleman’s talk is the attitude of learning, and the attendant excitement and humility. Instead of the awe and pleasure of learning, the yarn that was spun was one of a collegiate brain trust, as if all that was needed from education was a group of students and their imaginations. Coleman’s vision is to turn the liberal arts school into one of Center for Civic Advancement, or some variation on that theme. Instead of studying history with the classical attitude that expects to learn it becomes a tool for our socially active brain trust. To quote: “history provides a laboratory in which we see played out the actual as well as the intended consequences of ideas”. This may be better than useless academic deconstructionism, but it certainly is not the new and promising vision that Dr. Coleman thinks it to be.
When Coleman mentions “fundamentalists” who do not hesitate to use the liberal arts as a tool to bring in the “absolute” and a theocratic vision, she means that as a threat to her audience. Such people– the same ones who “do not believe in evolution”– are not educated in Coleman’s point of view, but according to her they still have the liberal arts. What this begins to betray is that Coleman means something very different by “liberal arts” than everyone else. In her vision, the liberal arts means not having a expert lead the way, which of course does not necessitate education. Now to be fair, she mentions deep thinking about things that matter, and that really is central to education. But how can Bennington be offering a fair education to its students if it doesn’t force them to deal with the questions outside the immediate purview of today’s social activism unless it is, in a sense, classical? How can it be education, in the sense of offering the deepest thoughts about the deepest matters, without dealing with the great thinkers who have thought God? It’s not that I hate secular education, or even really distrust it. It’s that vision for a new liberal arts that thinks a “Center for the Advancement of the Public Action” can replace a church does not understand the Church, the role the Church has played in society, and the relationship between the Church and the University.