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November 23, 2004

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Whither the Liberal Arts? (Plus An MSU Shout-Out)

Cool article in the BoGlo’s Ideas section about the fate of the liberal arts education.


Indeed, if you look at the humanities today, there is considerable excitement and growth at places that don’t look or feel anything like Dartmouth or Harvard or MIT, for that matter. Michael Bub, for example, a star in literary studies and a leader in the field of disability studies, is based at Penn State University the kind of place that Gaita might say isn’t hospitable to serious scholars because it offers degrees in a range of decidedly non-liberal-arts fields. Or look at the development of a serious philosophy program at Texas A&M University, or at how H-NET, a series of websites and Internet-discussion groups created by Michigan State University, has created “communities of scholars” across the humanities and social sciences, and around the world.

Also noted:

“Garbage is garbage,” Menand said, “but the history of garbage can be scholarship.”
Posted November 23, 2004 at 1:15 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Society/Culture


I don't know if you knew this, RoSlo, but I used to work at H-Net, back in my Professorial Assistant days. Yeah, you can totally tell from my slammin' blog.

Shout-out to Dean, and Scott and Mike, my H-Net peeps!

Wow, this Menand quote mere lines above that one is also a beauty:

"Pulling up the drawbridge to protect our virginity" won't really work," he said, but "perhaps we can become a little bit pregnant and still respect ourselves."
I have to say, I increasingly feel the value of the liberal parts of my education, and wishing I had more, as time goes on. Defining it is not so hard if you look at the etymology: those arts that can be pursued by a Free Man--i.e. not something you would really ask a slave to do, in Ancient Rome, say. You might have asked a slave to keep your books for you, but it would be weird to philosophize with someone you thought of as chattel. Their version of slavery was a little different than our more recent American version though. . .

Lord, I'm happy they never made me take any vocational or quasi-vocational English classes. If I had to take a journalism class in college, it probably would have scared me away from the profession for another four years.

I'm momentarily hostile to the notion of building bridges between the liberal and vocational arts, as I spent one recent night engaged in the thankless task of defending formalist literary theory to a Southern Baptist engineering major.

Two points: first, liberal arts departments will never be moneymakers like Business, Engineering, and Natural Science. This has relatively little to do with enrollments and students' preferences and everything to do with external grants and endowments. The federal government, private corporations, and wealthy donors contribute disproportionately to those departments, for obvious reasons. So unless English departments start producing either Wharton-style billionaires who give a little back or the next medical, scientific, or technological breakthrough, they're always going to be charity cases.

Which leads to the second point: why should the university continue to operate studies of liberal arts at a loss -- that is, what purpose do the liberal arts serve? The old answer, recently resurrected by David Brooks (and others) and alluded to in this article (and by my 2001 MSU commencement speech) is that the liberal arts provide intangibles such as self-criticism and/or character building.

It's the and/or that gets us into trouble. Humanities departments -- perhaps especially literature departments -- are no longer much interested in teaching either aesthetic appreciation or character building. In fact, they are -- in my opinion quite rightly -- deeply skeptical of such projects. The problem, then, even for people within the discipline but especially for those outside of it, is how to conceive of the study of language, literature, and culture as an independent, autonomous discipline.

My answer is that the most important lesson the humanities have to teach is not the "building up" of character, or in lists of novels or ideas conquered, but rather the tearing down: learning to be skeptical of received ideas (whether cultural, political, familial, or metaphysical) and to question any claim to (or appearance of) immediate self-certainty. This is partly my own internalization of the ethos of literary theory, but at least for me, it begins with a certain Socratic skepticism about the nature of things as they appear and the desire to put appearances and history into question, whether to be replaced with some more genuine if hidden truth (the Socratic lesson) or simply to be bracketed as something either untenable or other than what it purports to be (which is to say, Nietzsche's or Derrida's).

Why might both powerful and ordinary people be skeptical of this approach? The same reasons why they always have been. This reminds me of the most unintentional funny comment in the article: something along the lines of "no one imagines Socrates taking early retirement." Any philosopher with a black sense of humor would note that in a sense, Socrates did take early retirement: after his trial, he could have chosen banishment from Athens. He chose hemlock instead. What we may be witnessing are the liberal arts choosing the hemlock. Which is not to say that it is a mistake in the least.

I suspect George Lakoff's expertise with re-framing would come in handy here.

Because right off the bat, it sounds like quite a scam, right? Universities once taught wisdom and virtue; now they teach doubt and skepticism. Pshh, thanks a lot!

But on the contrary: I think hard-eyed skepticism demands, and teaches, great courage. Anybody who's fallen away from faith in school, or really faced down some of the questions in their philosophy texts*, knows that deep skepticism isn't just a frou-frou exercise in, like, justifying threesomes. It's tough and it works you over.

*Aside: I was just browsing through my copy of Ethics, edited by Peter Singer, yesterday. Awesome book. It has selections from Dostoevsky, who I swear some philosophy profs basically place on the same level as Aristotle, Kant, et al.

Is there a way to frame that kind of courage positively? How do you articulate what the modern academy will give its pupils, not just take away from them? Not, e.g., "Come to Sloan University: We'll Demolish Your Faith in Everything and Leave You Feeling Unmoored!"

Regardless of framing, it seems that a prerequisite for this pitch to be successful is a parent class dissatisfied with the current order -- and therefore eager to see their children escape or transcend it.

So... basically, that global financial and political collapse that some people are predicting for the next ten years will at least have the upside of increasing enrollments in liberal arts schools*!

*The ones that haven't been captured and converted into Mad Max-style frontier citadels, anyway.

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