Is There Hope For the Liberal Arts?

Reasons for optimism -- and worry.

This past weekend, at the college at which I teach philosophy, I had the honor of presenting a student of mine—I’ll refer to him by his first name, Mike—with an award in academic excellence. 

In the nearly 20 years that I’ve been teaching in my discipline, I’ve taught at a diverse array of colleges and universities: institutions that are small and large, public and private, religious and secular, research-oriented and teaching-oriented, and which span from Texas to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  

Over this time, I’ve taught literally thousands and thousands of students, several of whom were especially bright, committed, and capable. 

Yet it is the student upon whom, on behalf of our department, I bestowed this prestigious award that enjoys the distinction of being the best philosophy student that I have ever taught. 

In my prefatory remarks, I of course made mention of those of his many virtues that distinguish him in this regard. However, I noted as well that by way of these very same intellectual and character excellences, Mike exemplified as much as any student of my acquaintance ever has the kind of person for whom a classical liberal arts education was intended and that it was meant to produce.

The liberal arts have fallen on hard times, I declared from the stage of the auditorium in which the awards ceremony was held.  Thankfully, though, my student Mike has resurrected my hope that all is not lost. 

This was on Saturday morning.  My hope remains.  But when, a mere 24 yours later, I turned to The College Fix, an excellent student-run campus watchdog publication, it was tested once more. 

At the University of Oregon, “minority” is no longer a permissible term for conservative students to use self-referentially.  Jadyn Marks, a senior majoring in political science and legal studies, writes in the Daily Emerald that while “it would be technically accurate to say that conservatives are a minority on” college campuses, like that of her own, the term is meant to suggest that they are “marginalized”—which they are not.

“By referring to themselves as minorities and taking the language reserved for marginalized communities, conservatives are drawing attention away from communities who actually experience discrimination, or prejudiced treatment, and oppression, or ‘unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.’” 

Marks says that she has “yet to hear any statistics about conservatives being faced with increased rates of police brutality or being tried and sentenced as adults in court despite being 16 years old.”  In stark contrast to conservatives, “We face institutionalized discrimination at the hands of those in power, whether it comes to the pay gap, higher rates of incarceration or the right to marry[.]”

Since real “minorities are beaten to death for being gay or because a white girl made up a story that you wolf-whistled at her,” the “narrative” of the beleaguered minority “does not apply to conservatives[.]”  Thus, Marks “urge[s] them to abandon it, as well as the connotative language that goes with it.” 

Sure, it’s true that conservatives are yelled at for their views, but this is as nothing compared to what actual minorities must endure.  And besides, if being yelled at for one’s political views constituted “discrimination, [then] everyone could consider themselves discriminated against at one point or another.” 

Conservative students, though overwhelmingly outnumbered on college campuses, are forbidden from using the term “minority.”  Notice how this argument, for as weak as it is, succeeds: In using “minority” to describe themselves, conservative students prove that the charge of racial insensitivity leveled against them by their leftist peers is true after all!

Over at Stanford University, the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) are accused (once more) of “racism” for one of their emails.  The organization planned a “mixer” on the same evening that “various race-based events”—the Black Community Welcome, the Chicanx/Latinx Community Welcome, and the Markaz Community Welcome (which seeks to provide a “space” for Muslims)—were also scheduled to be held.  Yet Annika Nordquist, the young woman who sent the email on behalf of the SCR, knew that these racially-oriented events would not divert traffic away from the SCR gathering, for the former are vehicles of the identity-politics characteristic of the left.  

Thus, she included one line that provoked the militant campus left to go on the offensive.  She wrote: “I’m guessing our target audience will be available.” 

The Stanford Daily pounced, declaring that Nordquist’s email “implied that students of color are not the ‘target’ of” the SCR’s “recruitment process.” 

The president of the Student Democrats, Gabe Rosen, added fuel to the fire:

“I find it very problematic, to put it mildly, for representatives of any campus organization to imply that their outreach only applies to students who don’t engage with community centers.” 

He added: “Community centers are vital spaces for the facilitation of dialogue and inter-community bonds across campus; it is disappointing to see a potential desire to disengage with them.” 

Read: Stanford’s College Republicans care only about recruiting white people.

At Reed College, after many demonstrations during which “Reedies Against Racism” (RAR) forced the cancellation of classes, flashed obscene signs, and made threatening remarks to students and professors alike, administrators and faculty conceded to their demand to reconfigure Reed’s “Introduction to Humanities” course so as to make it less white. 

For a year-and-a-half, student activists have been equating this change with “reparations.” 

But now that Mexico City and Harlem are slated to be taught during the second semester of this Humanities course—i.e. after Athens and Rome are taught—the students are upset.  Why?  Insofar as instruction regarding non-white cities follows instruction in European cities, “Reed freshmen will still receive the message that learning about white culture is more urgent and foundational to a college education.” 

RAR’s Facebook post concludes: “In short, we’re calling for the Humanities 110 faculty to pick different cities from the old syllabus for the first two semesters. We feel that these cities should be outside of Europe, as reparations for Humanities 110’s history of erasing the histories of people of color, especially black people.” 

Thanks to my student, I remain hopeful that the liberal arts may see themselves through this storm. 

Yet, I fully confess, my heart is troubled.