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Liberal arts and civil society

Proponents of broader college attendance subsidized by the public treasury and disconnected from any concrete investment in an individual's marketable skills often make the claim that a liberal arts education is critical to the foundation of civil society. And they are probably right in that very specific claim, as it is hard to imagine this country's governing institutions having been founded by people who did not have a grounding in the liberalism of Locke and Burke.

But not only is their claim insufficient to support either the social structure they advocate or fulfillment by the institutions they intend to deliver it, the problem with the idea of universal liberal arts is that it doesn't actually work the way its proponents idealize it. The evidence is all around you that the factory college model does not produce better citizens more capable of empathy or critical thinking, or a broader understanding of civics.

Instead, it produces and promotes shallow thinkers with stupid ideas like Ibram X. Kendi, AOC, and Robin DiAngelo, who don't quite celebrate ignorance in the way that folks like Marjorie Taylor Greene do but nonetheless are just as, if not more, destructive of civil society and come by it much less honestly and with a veneer of legitimacy bestowed by once-great institutions.

I often think these days of iowahawkblog's epic tweet about institutions and the left. It's not especially insightful in the sense that it's really pretty darn obvious. The brilliance is in how it so succinctly describes what has happened to our public institutions, largely as a result of factory colleges and their flattered-yet-miseducated discharge socially promoting people with dumb and often destructive ideas.

Young people should go back to doing what worked when we actually had statesmen running the country for its long-term benefit with seriousness and something approaching competence: becoming useful first, and only then beginning to engage thoughtfully in civic life. Establishing the norm that young people should take four years to develop and engage with complex ideas before they actually know anything from experience is a dumb social experiment, maybe of magnitude similar to that of China's one-child policy.

Our civic discourse was healthier and our institutions stronger before there was an expectation that everyone would obtain a four-year liberal arts degree. Liberal arts as originally conceived (meaning a classical education with a focus on history, literature, arts, mathematics, and natural science grounded in Western thought) might be indispensable to future statesmen, but there is literally no evidence that what qualifies as "liberal arts" today is useful either to individuals or to the broader public, or that it promotes a healthier and more functional civil society. On the contrary, it seems to have produced at least two generations of graduates who've had their confident ignorance given a stamp of approval before they've actually accomplished anything.


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