In the past decade, criticism of the state of undergraduate education in America has come from many directions and in many and various forms, from Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, to Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's 1984 report To Reclaim a Legacy. In his book Tenured Radicals, Roger Kimball derided current instruction in the humanities as "a program of study that has nothing to offer...but ideological posturing, pop culture, and hermeneutic word games." And given the intense demands of global competition, others have wondered if liberal arts programs in general should be replaced by more practical, job-oriented courses of study. Has the age-old tradition of education in the liberal arts been betrayed in our lifetime? Is it destined to become a stale vestige of the past? What value can be attributed to it in an era of rapidly escalating change?
In Community of Learning, Francis Oakley, the president of Williams College, makes a strong case for the values and achievements of the liberal arts in providing a sense of historical continuity and a broader framework in which to come to terms with the problems of the modern world. Noting the "dyspeptic presentism" and "disheveled anecdotalism" characteristic of a good deal of the recent criticism, Oakley attempts to place it in historical perspective. He asserts that the single most important factor shaping the American undergraduate experience today is the unparalleled demographic upheaval of the past thirty years, the nature of the response it evoked, and the energy, imagination, and adaptation going into that response. And, reaching back to a more distant past, he insists that the tradition of education in the liberal arts has always been a highly tension-ridden one and that from its very conflictedness has derived much of its enduring vitality. Weaving together historical perspective and recent statistical data, he evaluates current worries about a "flight from the humanities" on the part of students or from teaching on the part of academics, and addresses such hotly debated issues as curricular coherence, multiculturalism, and the alleged politicization of undergraduate studies.
Coming at a time when the age-old tradition of education in the liberal arts is beset by anxious questioning, Community of Learning is a bold affirmation of its established strengths and current efficacy in helping provide students with a grasp of the past, a comprehension of the present, a sense of self, and an enhanced ability to cope with the complex demands of an era of unprecedented change.
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From Publishers Weekly:
About the author:
Francis Oakley is President and Professor of History at Williams College.
In his affirmation of the liberal arts tradition, Williams College president Oakley ( Creation ) stands out refreshingly from the many recent critics of the quality of undergraduate education. Demographics, he maintains, play an important but largely overlooked role in the perceived problems of American colleges and universities; the rapid increase since 1960 in the number of institutions of higher education means that the prestigious research universities and liberal arts colleges no longer "set the tone for the whole enterprise."p. 102 In his intense "appraisal of the present discontents," Oakley reaches back to the ancient wellspring of the liberal arts tradition, viewing the evolution of American higher education from this sensible perspective as nonlinear in direction and of enormous influence in all parts of the world. Although he notes that the past can be a burden as well as a blessing, Oakley optimistically believes common ground can be found in the historically tested liberal arts approach. His ironic stance, scholarly credentials and comprehensive outlook give weight to his urging that colleagues "lean into the prevailing intellectual wind" and not succumb to negativism and cynicism.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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