The guardians of the liberal arts, like Mary Crane, have made the same mistake as the Jewish socialists and Yiddishists who emigrated to this country in the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. In the epilogue to World of Our Fathers (1976), Irving Howe tried to explain their mistake, while also minimizing it:
Dawidowicz would have nothing of it. Jewish secularists, she told Howe, had no one but themselves to blame for Jewish secularism’s failure to survive. “The fault was that the secularists valued secularism and socialism over Jewishness and Jewish continuity,” she said. The Jewish content of what the securlarists “wanted to transmit—or were competent—to their children was too meager to be meaningful to sustain any Jewish identity, since it lacked the original grounding in Jewish traditional life that the first generation of Jewish secularists had had.”
The guardians of the liberal arts have made exactly the same mistake. They themselves are securely grounded in the tradition of the liberal arts—they know the languages and literatures so well they can dispense with them—but they have small interest and less intention of giving their students anything approaching the same grounding. Like the early Jewish secularists in this country, they cannot see that it is their very grounding in the tradition that enables them to “blur [its] boundaries.” Their revolt against the liberal arts belongs to the liberal arts.
But not their students’. Since they are strangers to it, the students can only revolt against their estrangement from the tradition. Who can marvel that, just as the children of Jewish secularists drifted away from Jewish life, students have drifted away from the liberal arts. For them, blurring the boundaries has meant they are unlikely to learn very much at all. Their teachers, the guardians of the liberal arts, valued something else, including their own self-image as enlightened revolutionaries, over the liberal arts and the continuity of liberal arts education.