Activism: The Ideal of a ‘Liberal Arts Education’

6231486313_489935fc2e_b.smDinesh D’Souza’s latest documentary, America: Imagine a World without Her, features interviews with such leftist academic rock stars as Howard Zinn. However, it’s crucial for Americans, and particularly those American who are parents, to realize that the contemporary academic world is chock full of lesser known Zinns.

The traditional academic ideal of the disinterested pursuit and dissemination of knowledge has fallen on hard times.  Professors in the humanities and social sciences have spent no small portion of the 20th century lambasting it as, at best, incorrigibly naïve.  Usually, though, they’ve gone further, rejecting the traditional ideal as a noxious, indeed, an oppressive, fiction.

In its stead, academics have replaced it with a new ideal, one more suited to their own ideological agenda: the purpose of academia, it is now widely held, is to promote the pursuit of “social justice.” 

In other words, a “liberal arts education” should have as its aim the production of, not “well rounded” individuals, as had been traditionally thought, but social activists—i.e. committed leftists. 

A more disastrous turn of events couldn’t have been imagined for academia.  For centuries, it was recognized that the academic world’s contribution to the preservation and enrichment of Western civilization lay precisely in the fact that, unlike most of our activities, its activities were most decidedly not utilitarian or practical.  Vocational schools, for example, are utilitarian in that students are trained for the sake of accomplishing some predetermined goal: mastery in one’s vocation and the monetary benefits that are expected to accrue from this.

College and university students, in stark contrast, are supposed to receive, not training, but an education.  This education, in turn, is no more oriented toward some goal over and above itself than is friendship so oriented.  The education is its own reward: learning for learning’s sake—not the sake of money, fame, fortune, or any other extrinsic goal.

Given this vision of academia, even the traditional ideal of the disinterested pursuit of truth is problematic, for it suggests that the raison d’ entre of university learning is some transcendent purpose—the acquisitions of knowledge—that can be attained only after students acquire an encyclopedic collection of “facts” or “propositions.”

But if the traditional ideal is problematic, the activist ideal is ruinous.  It isn’t just that, in its current manifestation, the latter is enlisted in the service of a leftist political agenda.  The primary problem is that it promotes a political agenda of any sort.

The activist ideal transforms academia into a political institution.  Education is now “politicized,” as we say, but say confusingly, for a “politicized education” is a contradiction in terms.   Education has been jettisoned in favor of training.  Only the training in question is not training in a vocation, but in an ideology, and in the methods and ways by which this ideology can be spread to the four corners of the Earth.  

“Education” has now been rendered a thoroughly practical or utilitarian matter like any other political endeavor.

This being so, it promises to cultivate in students intellectual and moral habits that are anything but virtues.

The political activist is forever focused on the future.  The past—specifically the past of Western civilization—is treated as a history of unmitigated oppression. The present is considered to be either an impediment to a brighter tomorrow or the means by which the promised land of the activist’s imaginings will be brought to fruition.

But it is from exactly this temporal orientation—this future-centered vision—that a liberal arts education is meant to emancipate students.

For one, a training in social activism renders students ignorant of their inheritance by essentially severing them from their past and immunizing them against delighting in the nuances of the present.  That is, when it isn’t tempered with an understanding of the past and an appreciation for the present—a knowledge of its location in the time continuum—this eagerness for the future embodies a shallowness that impoverishes the imagination.

This in turn breeds arrogance—an invincible arrogance—insofar as it nourishes the belief that humanity’s liberation from the darkness in which it remains mired will only be achieved once this present generation drags the rest of us—kicking and screaming, if need be—to our salvation.

And this brings us to another critical point: Because every utopia requires for its realization an activist government, the activist ideal encourages in students a partiality toward coercion over persuasion, a disposition—no, a determination—to use force rather than engage in dialogue. 

Simply put, the activist ideal inculcates bellicosity. 

D’ Souza’s film features footage in which Howard Zinn unabashedly declares that his scholarship and teaching is driven by a desire to change the world.  In doing so, he expresses the activist ideal of the contemporary academy.

Unfortunately, the ideal is bad for academia and bad for the world.

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  • popseal

    Parents save$$$ and send children to college where they learn to hate parents and long for a free lunch.

  • CowboyUp

    What a bemusing photo. Banks gave the spoiled brats a loan and actually expect the poor dears to pay it back, oh the humanity, oh the injustice. Nobody put a gun to their empty little heads and forced them to sign the loan papers, nobody forced them to take the money. Yet it’s the banks’ fault for loaning them money, not the school’s fault for high tuition. They’re illogical and immoral

  • Tina Trent

    Extraordinary. This should hang in the hallways of every institution of higher education. We’re barreling forward to Looking Backward. Thanks Jack.

  • Hard Little Machine

    Considering that 27 is the new 18 and half of all college students enroll having to effectively repeat the 11th and 12th grade we shouldn’t be shocked by this.

  • Habbgun

    Universities are a classic monopoly. High cost and poor product. Maybe anti-trust laws apply.

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  • John

    Obviously the world needs change – Its as cruel as ever , but until hearts change for the better nothing changes for the better . Ideologies / belief systems are easily judged by what’s produced in the actions/manifestations of individuals or groups – [people do n say whats in their minds , selfish or selfless , life giving or life stealing on n on it goes] – Convincing yourself your on target is easy , seeing your off the mark often takes more then cold truth , it has to touch a warm beating heart … Until conservatives can do that , they lose , and so does the hard core lefty liberal as a result .

    • scook84

      That’s the problem.. talking about caring while the bodies keep piling up, indicates at minimum a clear disconnect with reality.

      I find it ironic the generation that preached Love, Peace, and equality begat a present that is a macabre testament to an ideology of death.

      <3 Muah!

  • De Doc

    Liberal Arts was a joke when I went to university in the late 80s. It has only gotten worse.

  • jaia

    There is no doubt to suggest that above mentioned ideas and guidelines are the changed portion for the students who are the nation builder to make the country proud. That’s why the change in education as well as to make their education free in mind along with options has to be declared to learn anything they want. With this course of action one day there will be the light of new changes.

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