THE BLOG

Reinventing the Liberal Arts

04/20/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
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The Liberal Arts are the poor relation of the contemporary university. They are the last to be funded, the first to be cut. Faculty salaries lag other units with growing disparity. Students are voting with their feet in a mass migration to professional school programs -- Business and Law above all.*

Many undergraduates who follow their native inclination by staying with the Humanities or Social Sciences take out the insurance policy of registering for at least a few Business courses while taking pains to keep their computer skills up to date. Among this latter group, some wind up finding employment in the beckoning lands of money and status. That may be intentional or a last recourse after a few years of scraping by on a pittance in precarious jobs.

These practical decisions reflect the academic ethos of the colleges and universities where they study. The people who run our institutions of higher education have nearly all bought into the dubious proposition that the selection of a major should involve a cost/benefit calculation of tuition paid versus projected earnings. That principle indeed has been embodied in federal guidelines at the instruction of Barack Obama and Arne Duncan. Legislators and regents give the movement impetus. Administrators read the writing on the wall and act accordingly to burnish their credentials while demonstrating their acumen as modern managers. Of course, the obligatory ritual bows are made at Commencement time to the grand mission of uplifting the spirit and enlightening minds. Very few take those hortatory words seriously.

Only students in Honors programs, and a few true individualists, elude the all-consuming embrace of the purveyors of 'vocationalization' and of pop culture. Defenders of the Humanities, in some cases, have resorted to the argument that immersion in the Liberal Arts produces superior critical minds whose value is appreciated by prospective employers in the financial/business/consulting worlds. That happens to be true. However, the effect is to undermine the very principle and purpose that is their lifeblood.

(If Liberal Arts majors really are dedicated to reaching the top in the world of finance they are advised to write their Senior Thesis on Meyer Lansky rather than Montaigne).

How to resurrect the Liberal Arts -- especially the Humanities? Those who fret about their decline typically fall back on the claim that they nurture the whole person for a lifetime in ways that cannot be quantified. They go on to assert that the best, tried-and-true method for doing so is engagement with the Great Books -- and the great thoughts they contain. This may not be a winning strategy, though. Moreover, I would offer the heretical thought that it is not even the most desirable approach to accomplishing the stated end.

One reason is that young people today are inescapably the products of their culture in terms of how they understand the world and prepare themselves for life. That outlook emphasizes the concrete and immediate rather than the abstract. It devalues philosophy in any form or mode. It is weak on aesthetics. Time tends to be compressed and organized in packets instead of being fluid and accommodating. This is not to say that students are "philistines" or coarse materialists in some stereotypical sense. It is merely an admission of what the current state of psychological and social affairs is.

The implications are profound. For it means that the old Humanities studies grounded in the conviction that full devotion to prolix texts is the most productive route to enhancing our humanistic instincts. As one very bright student told me, "I don't live like they did in Brideshead Revisited." How did she handle the leisurely pace and refinements of the show itself? "Reluctantly -- my parents forced me to watch a rerun."

This is not reason to jettison the classics. The Great Books, or at least some of them, have their place. Rather, the point is that the eternal issues they present can be formulated and approached in ways that (1) incorporate valuable material from the Social Sciences (and even Natural Sciences); and 2) include as points of reference more contemporaneous content. After all, most of the writers of the classics were acutely aware of and affected by events in their own times -- and they had a specific audience in mind.

***

The autobiographical literature on the emotional and moral experience of war, for example, is a neglected source for insight into the human condition as it applies to organized violence. Witness by self-aware participants is invaluable. So is that of those who have engaged in other acts of brutality and abuse of their fellow humans. Yet it is entirely by happenstance that Liberal Arts majors will encounter it in their four plus undergraduate years. A somewhat greater number may read Jared Diamond's superb account of the permanent war culture of the Papau New Guinea highlanders, The World Until Yesterday (2012).

Why aren't these materials obligatory in any Liberal Arts curriculum? Why aren't they connected in direct ways to the experience of Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, our black torture sites, in the concerted assault on our constitutionally grounded civil liberties out of fear and a desire for vengeance, or the campaigns of deceit that accompanied them all? Where have the Liberal Arts been during these dark days? Where academia? Silent as the grave -- when they are not overtly complicit, as has the American Psychological Association along with numerous anthropologists and linguists. The United States has become a country where war and official violence are part of the fabric of our lives -- as normal as Sunday afternoon football. Yet, academia pretty much ignores it.

The near universal failure of our universities to confront the compelling ethical and political issues intrinsic to our actions in the "war on terror" means that a generation of Americans will have their understanding shaped by the patriotic war porn of American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty. The timidity and fearfulness of academics is deeply rooted. There is no evidence that those who studied the Great Books have been any less craven and escapist than those who didn't. The same flight from responsibility and moral engagement is seen in academia's near universal unseeing attitude toward sexual attacks on women on campuses. The even tinier number of people who have faced up to this scandal tells us that the Great Books humanists were again deafeningly silent.

"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human liberty. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves" William Pitt

"In the collective life of today's University, humanism's leitmotif is petitioning for transgender restrooms in every corridor." Anonymous

*****

These comments have neglected the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of great literature such as Paradise Lost. The same might be said for Don Quixote and Faust and The Divine Comedy -- three additional great works which I never could bear plowing through. The last mentioned was the most impenetrable. For one thing, the cast was just enormous. The sensation was of reading a Russian novel whose numerous personages changed from chapter to chapter. No wonder Dante needed Virgil as a "spotter." Perhaps an updated version that substituted more modern figures for those depicted would make the work more accessible.

Surely, there is no shortage of candidates to populate Inferno. Suitable nominees for residence in Paradiso are not as readily identifiable. There is always Barack Obama -- although keeping in mind how difficult it is to cook for one, we may have to send along Michelle and Valerie Jarrett.

It would indeed be "philistine" to dismiss the classics as peripheral or obviously expendable. I suggest, though, that their appreciation is primarily a matter of literary taste. I am skeptical of the argument that a deep and prolonged involvement with those classics is a sine qua non for cultivating an appreciation for the soulful aspects of human existence or an appreciation of the moral and practical dilemmas that face us. Some persons will benefit in those respects from intense study of the Great Books -- others will be alienated from the whole enterprise.

The same might be said with even greater force for religious texts -- among which Augustine's Confessions and City Of God stand out. Augustine seems to have an uncanny affinity for the "born again" crowd who are keen on denying others the frolic that they rambunctiously had in their youth. Repentance is accompanied by the haunting, dread thought that someone somewhere is enjoying himself. In truth, Augustine did more than any other individual to institutionalize Christianity's fundamentally anti-humanist theological creed -- a detour around Christ's teachings that the church already had taken.

Another repellant feature of Augustine was his incitement to the zealous monks who rampaged through North Africa and the East destroying pagan temples, terrorizing Donatists, crushing the remnants of Gnostic communities and burning synagogues. Flying squads of black clad mad monks swept through targeted districts -- intoxicated by their own incessant loud chanting. The calculated aim was to win converts by displays of power and militancy that intimidated the populace. Agitation and coercion were the methods. Augustine, as Bishop of Hippo, personally blessed these nasty forays to extend the Charity of Christ, i.e. boost the number of converts. That was the principal basis for his "just war" theory -- not defensive response to an inter-state threat. Encouraging a campaign of violence would create "facts on the ground' that could serve as a bulwark against any successor to the apostate Emperor Julian who might threaten the Christian Dominion -- however far it had strayed from Christ.

"I would not have believed the Gospel had not the authority of the Church moved me" Contra Epistulam Fundamentic. 410 ch.5

The Church as temporal power as well as spiritual power was their Caliphate -- not to be rendered to some other Caesar. (This is the stated goal of today's American Dominionists -- one of whose pastoral leaders is Ted Cruz's father. The defining concept of dominionism is "that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns"). Since Jesus' prophecy of the imminent coming of the Day of Judgment had been shown to be inaccurate, the here-and-now had become inseparable from the hereafter. Augustine, possessing the mind of a shrewd political strategist -- among other attributes, understood that securing the power of the state to instruct and to coerce was crucial for the Church's long-term success.

The point is not that Augustine isn't worth reading. Rather, Augustine highlights how important it is to move beyond a deep thinker's own frame of reference in considering his ideas. Too often, this is not done because the emphasis is on introducing the great man's thoughts rather than elucidating their meaning and value for the recurrent issues of human existence. And, too often, moving outside that thinker's frame of reference means simply comparing and contrasting with another philosopher/theologian -- as in his case. The consequence is that intellectual exploration remains at the level of abstraction in disregard for the insights that originate within other fields of inquiry.

Consider the current ripple of interest in the perennial question of whether atheists or non-believers can lead moral lives. This formulation is as biased as it was when the same question was broached in the 18th century. It is Great Books bound circa 1800. As such, it is oblivious to historical evidence, to anthropology, to psychology, to zoology, to comparative religion, to everything that we have learned since our minds were freed from the bondage of theology and metaphysics.

*At some of the elite Ivy League schools, the percentage of students majoring in Humanities subjects has plunged into the single digits. Nationwide, only English -- the traditional fall-back major -- remains in the top ten. Political Science is the only Social Science. I do not count Psychology for reasons noted above. So, too, Economics whose concentration on econometrics has meant a devolution into a branch of applied Mathematics; moreover, most of its well-funded researchers are devotees of the market fundamentalist cult (neither a science nor an art).