Activism: The Ideal of a ‘Liberal Arts Education'

An ideal that’s bad for the academy and bad for the world.

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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