Students at the University of Pennsylvania recently removed a portrait of William Shakespeare from a prominent place in the building that houses the English Department. They dumped Shakespeare's mug in the Department Chair's office and replaced it with a photo of Audre Lorde, a black female writer.
Jed Esty, chair of Penn's English Department, apparently approved. "Students removed the Shakespeare portrait and delivered it to my office as a way of affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English Department," he wrote benignly.
In the same spirit of tolerance, Esty also wrote this:"We invite everyone to join us in the task of critical thinking about the changing nature of authorship, the history of language, and the political life of symbols." I have no idea what that means.
Meanwhile, at approximately the same time, Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire, eliminated its English major altogether. Colby-Sawyer has seen its enrollment drop from 1,500 students four years ago to just 1,100 today and has had a budget shortfall for the last three years.
What is the significance of these two unrelated events?
The lunatics are running the asylum. First, regarding the University of Pennsylvania, it is worth noting that it was students, not the faculty, who decided to take Shakespeare's portrait down and replace it with the image of an author of their own choosing.
There was a time when the faculty determined the curriculum and focus of a university department based on the common assumption that the faculty knew what was is doing.
But no more. Now the students dictate to the professors what is worth studying. Let's read more Audre Lorde and less Shakespeare, the Penn students decreed. And perhaps that's just as well. The English professors at Penn may not know any more about Shakespeare than the students.
The liberal arts are dead. Second, I think recent events at the University of Pennsylvania and Colby-Sawyer are signs that liberal arts education is dead. A liberal arts degree has become incredibly expensive even as its purpose becomes ever more difficult to articulate. Colby-Sawyer, for example, is experiencing annual budget shortfalls and shrinking enrollment. In the years to come, fewer and fewer young people will be willing to borrow $100,000 or more to attend a tiny liberal arts college in an obscure New England town. Even at the University of Pennsylvania, a prestigious university located in Philadelphia, fewer students can be expected to take out student loans to read a book by Audre Lorde.
Liberal arts advocates pitch the notion that they are educating students to live rich and meaningful lives. But they know that's not true.
In fact, when Robert Oden, a former liberal-arts college president, was asked whether Colby-Sawyer will survive, he gave this disingenuous answer. "I do not know enough to say yes," Oden replied coyly. "It's a highly regarded liberal arts college that has discovered a niche that distinguishes it."
The niche that distinguishes it! Oden did not identify which niche Colby-Sawyer fills, but perhaps it is this: Colby-Sawyer is one of the only liberal arts colleges in the United States that does not have a major in English.
Rob Wolfe. Colby-Sawyer Eliminates Five Majors to Stay Afloat. Valley News, December 9, 2016.
Olivia Sylvester. Students remove Shakespeare portrait in English dept., aiming for inclusivity. Daily Pennsylvanian, December 11, 2016.