It is a great misfortune that once was seen as the cornerstone of a liberal education is now widely perceived as the writings of dead, white, European males. The purpose of reading authors from Homer to Heidegger was not to narrow one's perspective to that of an antiquarian patriarchy. Rather it was to enable the people of today to participate in the great 2,500-year conversation of the Western world's greatest minds over central questions such as the meaning of life, morality, God, science, society and many others.
All are welcome to participate in that conversation no matter their race, creed, country or gender. However, to walk in on a conversation that has been going on for centuries and to pretend that one can make an immediate, creative contribution is, at best, impertinent.
Far worse is the fact that the conversation now is hardly taking place at all. On one hand, education has been significantly dumbed down, based on the premise that only an elite is capable of discussing ideas that are, in fact, necessary for all to discuss if democracy is to flourish, or even survive.
On the other hand, those remaining bulwarks of the liberal arts, such as faculties of philosophy, have themselves turned their backs on the idea of a liberal education and succumbed to the notion that to be truly "scientific," they must become so analytic and specialized that even well-educated people will have not a clue about what is being discussed.
The worst is that wider society puts no stock in the promise of liberal education. Youth are stuffed into schools for longer and longer periods to educate them for work and, in some cases, to enlist them in dubious human rights causes, such as the push for gay-straight alliances now being vigorously promoted in Ontario. It is hard to disagree with historian Christopher Lasch's 1979 comment that "Mass education, which began as a promising attempt to democratize the higher culture of the privileged classes, has ended by stupefying the privileged themselves."
There are, however, some bright lights – individual teachers and programs in the school system, some homeschooling parents and, above all, Catholic higher education. Catholic colleges, to their everlasting credit, have largely resisted the trends to over-specialization and faddism. The dream of liberal education remains alive, even if there are few takers. (See our stories on Page 11.)
Widespread liberal education, however, is the foundation of a democratic society that strives to value the common good above the illusions that unrestrained gratification of desires and the worship of the self are the highest goals to which humanity can aspire. When the value of a broad liberal education is ignored, society itself is in peril.