A lifetime of events has occurred in the span of less than a year: COVID-19 declared a global pandemic in March, George Floyd killed in May, and crises of economy, education, and mental health ensuing by August. By the time that the 2020-21 academic year began, it was evident that it would be important to hold time and space on the calendar for reflection, perhaps even for creative and constructive ideas. In conversation with faculty members, the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Richmond launched a Webinar series, “Responding to Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and Racism.”
After kicking things off with a discussion of protest and racial unrest featuring former Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer, which over 170 virtual guests attended, we recently hosted a discussion on the role of academic disciplines in the education of informed, 21st century citizens and leaders. Of the 180 guests, alumni in attendance rallied behind the premise that a liberal arts education matters, especially in these times. But is that education, by necessity, any different now from in the past?
Yes, and no. First, front-and-center during our webinar was an ancient quarrel, one between liberal and practical education. We might think of this as an American debate, but by the 5th century BCE, the political establishment of classical Athens opposed longstanding, disciplined, and conservative training to rhetoric and creative arts. The meaning of these categories has evolved, but there are some illuminating points of continuity. The Athenian schooling by trade, memorization, and tradition, is something like our practical training. By the classical period, some felt that newer training, including the art of persuasion, was ruining society (see, for example, Aristophanes’ Clouds), similar to those today who criticize the left-leaning of academic faculty.
For the potential impracticality of the liberal arts in America, look no further than the disagreement between Booker T. Washington, who painted a picture of the poor Black child combing over French grammar in the middle of a field in need of ploughing (Up From Slavery), and W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois, who “[sat] with Shakespeare and he winces not” (Souls of Black Folk) while segregated American lacked the desire, courage, or morality to embrace so-called Negroes, was cited often throughout the webinar, which was provocatively titled, “The Academic Disciplines: What Stay
Read more: https://diverseeducation.com/article/194167/