So wonders Joseph Epstein in a recent article published by The Weekly Standard. Using Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be as a guide, his answer meanders through clues in the current state of higher education as well as autobiographical accounts of his undergraduate experience at the University of Chicago and as a lecturer for 30 years at Northwestern University.
But Epstein has no aspirations to Sherlock’s genius. The culprit, as he somewhat predictably reveals it, is a faculty that “themselves no longer believe in” the liberal arts and their “soul-saving” powers. He would even seem to include himself among those disenchanted: “For many years the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age…As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts…and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle.”
But this isn’t the whole story for Epstein, as we come to find 28 paragraphs later when he finally makes it clear that what he meant by “teachers” is actually other teachers, “the guys in the next room” who “in their hunger for relevance and their penchant for self-indulgence” teach “deconstruction, academic feminism, historicism, Marxism, early queer theory, and other, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, one-idea lunacies.” For Epstein, these areas of inquiry constitute a break from “a general consensus…about what [was] qualified to be taught to the young in the brief span of their education.” “What gets taught today,” instead, he remarks, “is more and more that which interests professors.”
In the end, Epstein’s view is cynical to the point of futility. By the time he begins writing, the liberal arts are already dead. And as it turns out, the death was no murder mystery, but just another “decisive battle” in the culture wars, which, Epstein strongly believes “we lost.” But who gives up this easily on his “second religion”? Epstein may be correct about the lack of faith in the liberal arts by those who teach them, but this makes everyone—himself included—complicit in their decline. To declare the liberal arts a battlefield of the culture war is already to surrender, to give in to the idea that the conclusions we draw from them are ideological strategies. The liberal arts are not dead, and we need to stop behaving as if they were. Instead we ought to submit ourselves to their study and state our belief in them straight out; that way we might have liberal arts whose relevance we won’t have to fight for.