Alongside the breakdown of the family, the decline of the church, and the fragmenting of local community over the last third of the 20th century, I want to propose that the loss of the liberal arts may be having comparably deep consequences for American society.
In the aftermath of Columbine, numerous commentators noted a quiet tide of hopelessness that has moved in and surrounded many American young people's lives. Yet, the diminishing of the liberal arts since the late 1960s has been largely overlooked as a cause.
Central to the failure to address this problem has been society's lack of clarity as to their significance in the first place. Whereas family and church have perennially had their constituencies among the broad American public, the liberal arts and their function have not been well understood. Even during such high points as the early to middle 1960s, the public only vaguely understood what it meant for societal leadership to be schooled in the rich and subtle arts of reasoning, questioning, dialogue, appreciating complexity, balancing tradition and innovation, and exercising judgment.
Especially noteworthy is that the decline of the liberal arts has occurred exactly over the lifespan of American community colleges.
Born in the late 1960s, the American community college might have represented the expansion and democratization of what was a thriving liberal-arts culture among the elite in the first two-thirds of the century.
But this has simply not occurred. In fact, the reverse correlation between the rise of the community colleges and the diminishing of the liberal arts may be evidence of negative ripple effects in two directions: backwards into high schools and onward into the four-year colleges.
When the new direction in higher education began to gather steam - the increase to 60 percent from 20 percent in the numbers of people experiencing at least some college - largely through the birth and growth of community colleges, the passing of the torch of liberal arts training was not well managed.
Part of the problem is that the rich liberal-arts tradition contrasted starkly with the primary motor of the 1980s and '90s - market forces, advertising, and technology - that rolled like a sports utility vehicle over anything in its way.
The liberal arts, as a result, have been ravaged by managers, government officials, and taxpayers looking for "measurable" results. But all such measures in our era are inextricably linked to corporate bottom lines. And few things could be more inimical to the spirit of liberal arts than to turn education in philosophy, sociology, and history into a seamless fit for corporate career climbing.
In fact, the most important direction for independent thinking in the current era may be to step back in search of perspective on what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes as the corporate media's "dripfeeding" its consensus into the public, night and day.
The heart of a liberal-arts seminar is the use of reason and dialogue in wresting the mind free of all controlling ideologies. It is best led by a skilled practitioner, what Plato called a dialectician. It takes place in the company of people who have gone before and left treasuries of thinking about these questions.
It is very important that the liberal-arts seminar be mainly a face-to-face activity. Supplementary things like e-mail and cyberspace bulletin boards notwithstanding, it is vital that we see each other, that we are tangible presences to each other. To say that physical presence is not necessary would be like saying that a father's or a mother's presence in a child's bedroom for a goodnight ritual could be replaced by a phone call.
It is also important that the liberal-arts seminar be an honest and patient activity, not superficially upbeat or too efficient. For despite being barraged by the media with assurances that this is "the best of times," many young people are aware that something fundamental is wrong, yet they are not being trained to think about what that is.
Without liberal-arts education, much of this generation will not read the thinkers who could help them to think. Unable to read beyond a People-magazine level, students will not have readily available to them the companionship of those who have tackled fundamental life problems in the past.
Society has not provided them with the patient training needed to read Albert Camus, Simone Weil, and David Hume; Pierre Bourdieu, C. Wright Mills, and Max Weber; Buddhist Sutras, The Book of Job, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Such training is vital for them to become good at thinking.
Instead, what young people are exposed to is a relentlessly upbeat world where the market is God, advertising and sales are everything, time is money, sex is easy, and intelligence is synonymous with the ability to get ahead.
What genuine liberal arts can provide is a kind of reasoning that is wide, deep, and versatile enough to put such narrower forms of thinking in their place. It is only the renewal of such thinking, applied to the study of the most fundamental problem of life, that can offer a full response to the prevailing techno-market forces.
A critical mass of young people needs to know there is a place where grown-up men and women sit down with emerging adults and use the power of thinking to its utmost in addressing the problems of truth, goodness, justice, and love. At these seminar tables, there needs to be a passing on of the rich and subtle arts of reasoning, questioning, dialogue, reflection, and so forth.
"Outcomes" and "accountability" have a place, but are not the great fix that contemporary trendsetters have made them out to be. We need to retrain each other and our successors in how the liberal arts can be adapted to public education.
The core activities of the liberal-arts seminar cannot be measured well by the predominantly short-term, performance-based approaches that outcomes assessment pushes on us. Such approaches may fit into computers better, may make the transition to corporate jobs more seamless, may make the not-so-liberally-educated public temporarily impressed in terms of accountability, and may make managing large volumes of adjuncts easier for managers.
The outcome of a good liberal-arts seminar, like the outcome of a good family, is a long-term matter. We are teaching our children and their generation. We need to aim for people who years from now can analyze, question, interpret, reflect, and draw on the past in what may be new, very trying situations.
There is widespread agreement that public education since the 1970s has not been good enough. But do we really think we are going to improve learning with the current trend of more computers, tests, and accountability, alone?
What we liberal-arts teachers have been through in the past two decades has drained us of our richness. Almost all our resources have been siphoned off into technology and mechanization. If there is no richness left, how will making us more accountable help?
Surely, the answer is to restore the richness.
Francis Conroy is a professor of philosophy at Burlington County College in Pemberton, N.J.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor