TV REVIEWS : Liberal Arts Education Is Focus of the ‘Firing Line’

As an example of how our cultural-political terms get warped with time and abuse, the conservative William F. Buckley is devoting the next four editions of “Firing Line” to the topic of liberal arts education--its goals, purpose and survivability. Neither term, at least as they’re used in the pop media Zeitgeist, are what they seem here.

(The first part of “Liberal Education on the Firing Line,” titled “What Is Liberal Education?” airs at 1:30 p.m. today on KCET-TV Channel 28. The following three segments air at the same time on subsequent Saturdays.)

Buckley has put together the four panel discussions along the lines of what appears to be political correctness. The liberal arts program under discussion is not some new pedagogy bent on innovation, but one devoted to teaching the classics of Western civilization with intellectual rigor.

But what also emerges in the four, 30-minute talks is that the old has been so out of fashion that, like platform heels, it’s new again. And what hovers over the talk is a quiet despair that learning for learning’s sake is a radical project in a country where universities have generally become career-training centers.


Buckley finds that his guests for “What Is Liberal Education?” and “Who Should Be Liberally Educated?” contend with many of his assumptions, even as they agree on liberal arts’ ideals. Princeton University professor and African-American scholar Cornel West reminds everyone that a study of history must be seen from the present, and our recognition of racism. St. John’s College president John Agresto frequently runs up against Buckley, from the host’s assumption that little St. John’s is a reclusive school to Buckley’s implicit point in the second part that America should close its colleges off to some people. Mount Holyoke College President Elizabeth T. Kennan argues for the virtues of the all-women college, but otherwise stays quietly on the sidelines.

Given Buckley’s politics and the topic, surprisingly little time is devoted to the current campus controversies regarding speech codes and what some view as the left dictating to the student body. The third section, “Why Does College Cost So Much?,” is much more practically minded, and also very bloodless. Here, university analyst Robert Zemsky unconvincingly argues that colleges are on their way toward containing costs, cutting staffs and becoming more affordable.

The finale, “Class of ’93 With Honors,” puts three products of liberal arts schooling on display, and the honors students make a good case for keeping the tradition alive. Martin L. Duncan argues that his Morehouse College is a training ground for young, black male confidence. Davidson College’s C. Leigh Hamrick says that size is everything in the classroom--the smaller the better. St. John’s Jeffrey S. Seidman champions classical schooling without professors talking down to you. It’s the only way, he insists, to stir and nurture the young intellect.