It obviously would not have counted as the survival of, say, Plato’s Academy if, at some point in the waning of Athens’s golden cultural era it had taken up the training of military leaders, or merchants, or rhetoricians. Nor would it count as the survival of a Franciscan monastery if it responded to a decline in religious enthusiasm by filling its vacant rooms with, say, vacationing nudists. What is a liberal arts college, if it can rededicate its facilities to career training for marketers, police officers, and coaches without losing its soul? How could such a change be counted as securing the college’s survival rather than managing its demise?
Talbot Brewer (Virginia) uses some events at the University of Virginia as a starting point for some general reflections on the value of a liberal arts education.
It’s said that college is not the real world, and in a sense I’m happy to affirm that. But I don’t see it as mere preparation for the things of real substance and value—that’s not the mode of its remove from reality. I see it instead as a kind of polis apart, with a few permanent members and an ever-changing citizenry of youths. What happens in this polis, when it’s in good working order, is a kind of intensification of a form of reflective self-cultivation that can and ought to be a continuous life activity. It is the stuff of a good life, not some mere instrumental means. It can be intertwined with, and can deepen, almost any subsequent life activity (including many forms of work and political engagement). This parallel polis provides an important counterweight to the culture-shaping effects that arise from the melding of corporate capitalism and contemporary communications technology.
The whole piece is here. (via Gerald Dworkin)