Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Bowling for Lenoir-Rhyne
A new Michael Moore movie?
Or the new liberal arts curriculum?


by Philip Blosser


The following remarks express my concern about the erosion of the liberal arts core at Lenoir-Rhyne College. They should not be misconstrued as a self-serving gesture in behalf of job security. I have no fear of losing my job here, no matter what curricular changes are finally implemented here; although, given the current drift of things, it might be a blessing. While I may complain about Lenoir-Rhyne’s poor salaries like everyone else, I want it to be clear that my purpose here is to defend the integrity of the liberal arts mission of the college, not my personal position.

Several times since last fall, I have written about the eroding liberal arts curriculum in colleges and universities across the country, as well as in my own instition of Lenoir-Rhyne College. See, e.g., (1) "Designing educational 'outcomes'" (Sept. 18, 2004), (2) "Axing liberal arts courses in a market driven curriculum" (Oct. 4, 2004), (3) "Axing liberal arts courses (part 2)" (Oct. 4, 2004); (4) "Axing liberal arts courses (part 3)" (Oct. 4, 2004); (5) "Deconstructing the liberal arts curriculum" (Oct. 27, 2004); and (6) "On why liberal arts programs are being eroded" (May 11, 2005).

The matter is not merely academic. I have just come from a meeting in which the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, of which I am a member, was asked by the chair of the faculty curriculum committee to consider a proposed new liberal arts curriculum in which philosophy would be no longer required of all students, but grouped together with a number of electives alongside courses in "physical wellness." Let me translate: a student, under this proposal, would be allowed to choose between Introductory Philosophy and, say, Introductory Bowling. Students would doubtless leap for joy. But from the point of view of anyone schooled in the history and meaning of the liberal arts, this is (to use the words of one of my colleagues in history) simply obscene!

The issues go far deeper than bowling or philosophy. The proposal shows a profound poverty of understanding – or at least a profound myopia – on the part of those faculty members who designed the proposed curricular changes. It reveals an erosion in understanding about the very purpose of liberal arts education, not to mention the place of philosophy in such an education. The problem behind this myopic reasoning is simple: philosophy, like the other liberal arts, has no immediately identifiable utility, therefore it is assumed to lack substantial value. By contrast, courses in "professional" programs -- such as business, marketing, tax law, physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise science, nursing, computer science, etc. -- are obviously very useful, and therefore assumed to be eminently valuable. They offer practical “know-how” that can be harnessed for useful purposes -- often with great financial rewards -- in the world of business, industry, and the health-related professions. Hence, it's easy to assume that what has no immediate imaginable use must be basically worthless. This, at least is the assumption under which the liberal arts, including philosophy, are being eroded in favor of professional programs.

While I would be the last to question the value of whatever is useful, I would be the first to insist that not all value is reducible to utilitarian value. This is the great error of our times, especially in first-world countries like the United States. We value work. We value it because it is useful. It builds things, produces consumer articles, and gets things done.

But there are many things that have no utilitarian value that are of great value and importance. Who would question the profound value of happiness and pleasure? Yet we don't value either of these because they're useful. Useful for what? Nothing. We enjoy them precisely as ends-in-themselves. Who would be such a boor as to question the value of a birthday party! Yet we don't celebrate birthdays because they’re useful, but simply as ends-in-themselves – or, more precisely, to celebrate the life of an individual as an end-in-itself. Church attendance is not something generally considered useful either; which is likely why church attendance has fallen off so precipitously in our utilitarian work-a-day world. In fact, those who go out on Sunday, not to go to church, but to go shopping or to dine out, consider it very useful that stores and restaurants should be open on Sundays; and even those who have to work on Sundays consider it useful that they should have another day added to their schedule of gainful employment. But if God does exist, of course, then divine worship must have value, but not because of any particular usefulness it may have for God or for us. Even leisure is something of great value, though our utilitarian culture pressures us to think even of leisure in terms of its "usefulness" in enabling us to work harder. But that, of course, is to miss the point of leisure. Leisure is not something whose primary value is instrumental -- in helping us work harder -- but rather as an end-in-itself. Leisure is the point of work, not vice versa. We work in order to enjoy the leisure it makes possible, not the other way around; and anyone who confuses the means and ends here is in danger of losing all sense of what life is for. Likewise with the liberal arts.

If we bought a large wooded property of many hundreds of acres in the mountains, and came across a fence while exploring our newly-acquired lands, it would be foolish to act on an initial impulse to simply knock down the fence because it was in the way and we couldn't see its point in being there. The fence was presumably built for a purpose, and the prudent thing would be to discover that purpose. Likewise with the liberal arts. It would be equally foolish to act on an initial impulse to simply do away with liberal arts courses like philosophy, just because we couldn’t see any use in them. But that is exactly what the designers of this proposed curriculum have done in listing philosophy as an elective alongside bowling. Not only are they signalling that philosophy is as useless as bowling, however much certain curious individuals may enjoy them; whatever they may say, they are signalling that philosophy is of no more value than bowling!

Philosophy, like history and theology and the rest of the liberal arts, has a long and venerable tradition in western history. According to Aristotle’s classification, the practical sciences improve our practice. Thus computer science improves our performance in navigating the Internet world of online research and email. The productive sciences improve things in the world. Thus electrical engineering improves the memory chips that drive our computers. But neither of these sciences involves the liberal arts. What are the sciences, then, that improve our selves, our psyches, our souls? Why the liberal arts, of course, and none other!

It is a question of whether we want our students to all aspire to become in their own way “philosophers,” lovers of wisdom … or mere bowlers – knuckle-dragging mouth breathing bowlers for Lenoir-Rhyne, facing a future bereft of intellectual life, stuffed full of potato chips and sour cream dips and nachos grande, making shift to hobble, wheezing and grunting, hauling their tremulous torsos and abdomens in and out of fluorescent-lit bowling alleys. I am not so naive as to suppose that enlightened minds will prevail over the pressures of self-seeking utilitarian values among our faculty. But one may hope, and argue, and put up a good fight in behalf of our liberal arts mission.

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