The Liberal-Arts fix for the Splintered Human Mind

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Egginton suggested that ““We in higher education have undermined the ideal of diversity be using it as window dressing to cover our role in not only failing to address rampant inequality but exacerbating it. Parents treat the education of their children, beginning at the earliest age, as an outgrowth of the opportunities afforded by wealth and privilege. Educational sorting widens the divide between the winners and the left-behind.” These statements troubled me, particularly because my academic discipline, rhetoric & writing, stemmed from the mid-20th century need to educate students about how to write well in college alongside the rampant increase in college enrollments and the connected democratization of education at this time period. 

Egginton comments on the perceptions about education connected to race and class, in that, “many badly-off whites have come to revile both the university, whose admissions policies have traditionally focused on ethnic and gender diversity, and the Democratic Party, whose platform they incorrectly perceive as oriented toward the needs of minorities. In fact, the vast majority of working-class people of all races are excluded from the upper echelon of the education pyramid. Because the goal of diversity has been deprived of its historical motivation in rectifying injustice, its reduced, cosmetic remainder ends up neglecting the economically marginalized of every group.” While the trends of public opinion Egginton comments about here are certainly concerning, he suggests that the liberal-arts tradition can be one way to overcome these perceptions about education, which he refers to as “the splintering of the human mind.”

For Egginton, “The real purpose of the liberal-arts curriculum was always to expand community and strengthen democracy.” These curricula can, according to Egginton, ” inculcate precisely those liberal virtues — tolerance of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, rejection of cruelty — that provide intellectual and ideological ballas for the protestors’ ideal. The liberal-arts tradition that such courses represent is instrumental in transmitting a political philosophy dedicated to balancing the rights of individuals against the needs of community cohesion. This tradition asks questions like: Who gets to be counted as an individual? Who belongs to a community? These are the very questions students need to be raising in order for democracy to flourish.” I am extremely excited by Egginton’s comments in this piece because I think his ideas offer us a new direction both for understanding the liberal arts, but also for understanding and advancing our democracy. 

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