Conflicting Thoughts on the Liberal Arts Model of Education

I have some experience in the Liberal Arts model. I was educated by Jesuits in secondary school and then at the University of San Francisco as an undergraduate, and spent a year at Blackfriars Hall, the studium for Dominican Friars at the University of Oxford in the UK. I was a student of the University of San Francisco’s St. Ignatius Institute, which replaces the University’s Core Curriculum with courses centered on the “great books” of Western literature and thought. When I completed my undergraduate course of study, I was given the Dean’s Medal in Arts, which is awarded “to the graduating senior in the Arts who has best exemplified in academic accomplishments, extracurricular work, and personal life the values of the University of San Francisco, its mission and goals.” As a graduate student, I became an affiliate of the University of Oregon’s Digital Scholarship Center largely in order to facilitate collaborative projects with colleagues in departments dedicated to the Liberal Arts. Two members of my dissertation committee were philosophers. I write all this to indicate my experience with and commitment to the Liberal Arts throughout my education, and to acknowledge that its model has been very good to me.

I think that the Liberal Arts model is broken.

The criticism I am making here is separate from the criticism that liberal arts curricula, and “great books” programs specifically, tend to focus on dead white men, which is certainly also a conversation worth having.
Further, I think that institutions of higher education have an ethical responsiblity to update the ways in which they discuss it.

I’ve come to see that the Liberal Arts tradition works best in a world in which education is reserved for an elite few – in classical Greek terms, a world of hoi kaloi vs. hoi polloi (the best vs. the masses), conceptualized as hoi agathoi vs. hoi kakoi (the good vs. the bad).

I am writing this with an appreciation of the irony that I only know these terms because of a liberal arts education.