President von Arx Reviews "Beyond the University" in America magazine
University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., has recently published a review of Wesleyan President Michael Roth's book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. It appeared in America magazine online on Oct. 27.
In his review, Fr. von Arx writes that Roth's book argues that the tradition of liberal education in America was initially tied up with Thomas Jefferson and the early founders of the country, and their idea of what was essential for a successul democracy: "Here it is Jefferson who sets the terms of the case for liberal education in America: Liberal education trains men (deliberate choice of word here; and free, white men at that) for the independence of judgment that is essential for responsible participation in political and civic life. So from the very beginning, liberal education in the American context came to be closely identified with the autonomy and individual freedom that Americans believed to be a precondition for responsible political life."
This, Fr. von Arx writes, is distinct from the "rhetorical" tradition of liberal education "based on the liberal arts as first articulated in medieval universities and renewed in the Renaissance to include the appropriation of the great works of the classical past. This tradition, of which Jesuits were probably the greatest practitioners, sought to introduce students to a common culture and was thought to have a formational purpose: forming men of virtue who would be good Christians and good citizens."
In his conclusion, Fr. von Arx writes:
"Liberal education as conceived and practiced in most universities today has, however, for better but mostly for worse, been reduced to 'critical thinking,' the post-modern hermeneutics of suspicion that encourages and rewards the unmasking of error and the demonstration of 'privileged' points of view in anything that looks like a truth claim. This brings Roth to the place where he must in effect plead for a greater cultural sensitivity in an approach to liberal education: the need to 'absorb ourselves in great works of literature, art and science,' and the need for moral engagement: 'a way of tuning the heart and spirit so as to hear the possibilities of various forms of life in which we might actively participate.'
These are noble goals, coming from the leader of one of the preeminent liberal arts colleges in our country."
Click here for the full text of Fr. von Arx's review.