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Essay on meaning of a life grounded in the liberal arts

A Question for Every Answer

June 23, 2014

                the lyf so short, the crafte so long to lerne
                                      --Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Parliament of Fowls”

Let’s begin with the Ivy League-educated Barack Obama: “But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” Apparently what was good enough for him is no longer good enough for factory workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where he delivered that speech — though, to be fair, he did go on to apologize for the remarks).

And, of course, President Obama is not the only public figure who has the liberal arts in their sights. Governor Patrick McCrory of North Carolina made it clear that if he had his way the State of North Carolina would fund only the sort of education he deemed practical: "If you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job." His Republican colleague in Florida, Rick Scott, was equally blunt: "If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so." (All quotations are from Inside Higher Ed.)

The liberal arts are taking it on the chin and, since they were on their knees anyway, they have been an easy target. Over and over the voices raised against the liberal arts (and the humanities wing of them in particular) complain that they leave their students ill-prepared for gainful employment; that focusing on the liberal arts prevents students from studying the subjects they and the nation truly need developed; that they are for the idle wealthy (a particularly sharp-edged version of these arguments is available at the blog of the American Enterprise Institute, “Harvard, We Have a Problem: Too Many Liberal Arts Majors”).

Apparently, people have been listening.  The evidence has been clear for some years that the liberal arts and especially the humanities side of them are fading from the cultural scene of 21st-century America. One study found that, since 1990, 39 percent of colleges identified as liberal arts colleges have vanished.  Another study found that humanities majors now constitute fewer than 10 percent of all college majors in the U.S.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, so why should the liberal arts? “All things must pass,” George Harrison sang all those years ago, and even Shakespeare, that centerpiece of many a liberal arts curriculum, in one of the sonnets that seemed to claim immortality for poetry, recognized that his art is term-limited, concluding his wonderful Sonnet 18 with this couplet qualifying the shelf life of art: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, / so long lives this and this gives life to thee.”  There will come a time, that couplet acknowledges, when no men breathe and there will be no eyes to see. To everything there is a season and perhaps the season of the liberal arts has turned.

So if the liberal arts are sinking into enervated senescence, are passing the way of all the generations, I would like to linger for a few moments looking back over my life to muse on why I have spent the last four decades deep in the liberal arts, that is, on why the liberal arts mattered. Not that my life has been all that interesting (or, at least, not that my life would be interesting to anyone else), but the liberal arts are all that interesting and I would like to gesture toward that interest by way of my experience, as a way to suggest what we may all too soon be missing.

It all really did begin for me in a lecture hall in the old Main Building at New York University, on the east side of Washington Square Park. Dingy, drafty, somewhat grimy, windows smeared with the grease of years of students within and exhaust and smoke without. Wooden seats scarred and discolored and often cracked.  The course was “Primitive Oral Heroic Poetry,” and the professor was the late Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. The reading list included Gilgamesh, Homer, The Book of Dede Korkut, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Bantu warrior poetry and Beowulf. It was the Anglo-Saxon poem that prompted the performance that determined my life. Professor Bessinger had been describing the poetics of the Anglo-Saxon verse and especially the power of the alliteration that is a central feature of that verse, when he paused in his lecture to dwell on the strength of the linked words, to suggest to us that alliteration could still be a powerful tool in the hands of a master poet. And he proceeded to recite, to intone really, from memory a section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam that concludes with a particularly thrilling use of alliteration:


Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasped no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Bessinger had a magnificent deep baritone and he spoke those lines as if they were coming from the center of his being — modulating and pausing and letting the emotional sense of the words linger out the vowels across the metronomic pressure of the metric pulse, coming to those last consonants with a devastating finality that rendered perfectly the desolation Tennyson’s words evoke.

At that moment I determined that I wanted that experience, that I wanted to live in words so deeply that they would become so a part of me that I could summon them immediately and without premeditation. I wanted to know a poem so well that it would be with me whenever I wanted or needed it. And it was precisely because those words of Tennyson’s in the voice of Bessinger so feelingly captured the experience of grief — the world going on outside the grieving consciousness of the bereft does seem “ghastly” — those words so beautifully rendered the individual experience and thereby provided a kind of general access that any and all could share, that those words did that much was what I intuited, what I felt in my marrow, at that moment in the silence of the stunned classroom (at least in my memory all of us sitting in that faded lecture hall shared the sense of awe in the presence of a poem coming to life in the air). Although I had not yet experienced the sort of grief out of which Tennyson’s poem grew, I knew then that it had a shape and a sound and that when that sort of grief did descend on me I would recognize it.

I had been infatuated with certain poems before, mostly poetry I had seen mentioned by my heroes (the Beatles and Bob Dylan particularly): Ginsberg, Whitman, Blake were the main ones. And late in Richard Nixon’s first term I came across “The Hollow Men” and thought it spoke directly to the world being mangled in plain view. But Bessinger’s summoning of the spirit of Tennyson’s poem in the mingled air of that Main Building lecture hall determined for me the course of my life, determined that for the next 40 years (and, no doubt, for the years remaining to me and my memory and mind), poetry, stories, plays — Literature (with the upper-case to designate my reverence for "the best words in the best order") would be the central obsession of my consciousness.

So what has this obsession given me? I am not wealthy, though my family and I live far better than most of the people with whom we share the planet. But wealth was never my object. All the bromides that are generally marshaled on behalf of the liberal arts clamor for attention here. Critical thinking; tolerance; flexibility of mind; problem-solving; and the rest of them that sound so vacuous up against the voices we heard at the beginning of this essay. Yes, I suppose, I do think more critically than I would have had I never taken English and philosophy and political science and psychology … all those classes that constituted my undergraduate liberal arts education. I am certainly more aware and tolerant of differing views. I am certainly more aware of different cultures and different times and places and peoples from the people, places and times among which I have lived.  And it must be admitted that whatever critical thinking and tolerance and recognition I have been able to practice have been practiced, have been honed, have become habitual to my way of being and those habits were planted in those long-ago classrooms on the edge of Washington Square Park.

But those habits aren’t why I have remained immersed in the world of words and ideas. And those habits, thankful as I am to have them, are not what kept me in those classrooms in the first place and are not what have kept me in their long, long stretching, encompassing aura since. The real reason is pleasure. The pleasure of having my mind tickled into action by the vibrations of words sprung into patterns “where more is meant than meets the ear.” The pleasure of having within my reach congeries of words that render a life, that render living, more completely and more profoundly and more compassionately than hours of my groping for my own formulations could ever hope to achieve. I can’t tell you how often, confronted by a student, a colleague, an adult acquaintance whose ways of being in the world have clearly been marred by something in the past, how often in such moments Larkin’s supremely packed line has come to mind: "an only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never." I’m not sure how English speakers have managed for all the centuries of our language without that line.

Unaware of what President Obama would discourage years later, I did take an art history class once. After four decades I’m not sure how much I remember beyond a detail here and there. Our textbook was Gardner’s — or was it Hansen? It was red and large (as large as the Riverside Shakespeare that I also had to haul around that semester — that I do remember). Did I learn critical thinking in that class? Among the defenses mounted on behalf of art history in response to Obama’s dismissal was the usual: Art history teaches critical thinking. Among the details I do remember from that course is that I learned how to look at paintings from the 15th century, one painting in particular. That course taught me really to see Bellini’s "San Francisco nel deserto." And I was fortunate that I lived in the city where the Frick sits and so Bellini’s painting was available in all its magnificence whenever I could make my way to the Upper West Side (with a student ID, the suggested entrance fee was minimal if not waived).

I learned that beyond the shimmering magic of the light and shade and nuances of light and shade Bellini deploys across the canvas, and beyond the minute detail of the natural world surrounding the enraptured saint, beyond or really within all of that splendor the painting speaks in a series of languages that course taught me to hear, as it were. The rabbit poking its head out of the lower corner of the canvas, the donkey standing patiently, the long-legged shore bird, the cracked rock, all of these perfectly captured natural objects carry meaning in a register beyond the surface register of accurate detail. And that course taught me to look for those kinds of meaning. That course deepened my experience of that painting and, as a consequence, of all painting.

This is, I suppose, critical thinking. Once you begin to see linear and atmospheric perspective and chiaroscuro and all the technical arsenal whose names I’ve forgotten but whose presence I’ll never forget … once you learn to see you can look and see a great deal more than what immediately meets the eye. If that is what the art historians mean by critical thinking, they should declare it. Because it is valuable precisely because it deepens one’s pleasure in the world we share. And that is what the liberal arts do. They are life-affirming, life-enriching, indeed, life-enabling forms of human engagement with the world (in addition, of course, to their indispensable value as preparation for any number of successful career tracks). Especially at this time in the history of our culture, we must champion the liberal arts as modes of being, really, in the world that have the power to transform those who are fortunate enough to experience them into more articulate, more thoughtful, more comprehensively human citizens. The liberal arts provide an education for life.

I don’t think I’m just being idiosyncratically pessimistic to worry about the future of the liberal arts in our culture. And I find myself, as this worry settles itself in my mind, looking back. I have spent what I consider to be many profitable hours reading over the lectures and notes of Thomas Frederick Crane (first professor of romance languages and first dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, where I work), particularly those thoughts of his he committed to paper concerning the college he helped found. And among the aspects of Crane’s reflections I would hope to carry forward into the uncertain future spreading before us are those virtues, values, habits of mind … whatever we call them … those qualities of a liberal arts education I think have been at the core. Perhaps others would name them differently, but here is what I name them: curiosity, generosity, diligence, care, patience — above all, patience. Patience is what Crane meant when he said that a liberal arts education is “a process that for better or for worse will continue as long as our lives, and any scheme of collegiate education will be a dismal failure which does not implant the seeds of later fruitage.”

As I was working on this, I finished rereading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Rereading it constitutes one of the great reading experiences of my life. Beyond its own nearly unfathomable wonder, reading it in the context of writing this and of what this essay gestures toward in the world around us has given the novel an added poignancy for me. It is a novel whose central actions, if actions they can be called, are two: some 390 pages into the novel, a woman, the lady of the title, notices another woman and man in a room, not doing anything, just in the room and the composition the man and the woman make in how they sit and stand carries a profound meaning for the observing woman. Later that woman, goaded into thought by her observation of the other woman and man, will spend an entire night and James will spend an entire chapter describing her night and all she does through that night is to sit in a room thinking while the candles gutter toward dawn, “she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes; and for a long time, far into the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing-room, given up to her meditation."

That is from the third sentence of the chapter and she does not move from that chair for another 13 pages. Would any novelist, any writer, any film-maker or television producer, would any artist now venture to devote a substantial portion of her or his work to a woman sitting still and thinking? Would any such artist have that prolonged session of sweet, silent thought count as the central action of her work?  For that matter, would any of us actually sit in a room in stillness and silence and darkness for hours on end given up to the wandering meditation of our minds? James is thought of as a novelist who adheres to reality, but is such a reality possible for us?

The qualities of the liberally educated that T. F. Crane believed in and that the education he helped create here at Cornell inculcate were, above all, qualities of curiosity and patience, circumspection and attention, what I gather some now call mindfulness, a useful word in my taking of it to mean: having your mind at full play in its engagement with the world.  No form of education yet devised is better at bringing the mind to the fullness of its capacities than the education offered in the liberal arts. Without the patience instilled by immersing oneself in the mind-stretching range of the liberal arts, we are reduced to jittering appendages to the plastic devices in our hands, dried leaves scattering to the whims of market and fashion, addicts to money and status and consumption. Without the liberal arts how will we ever in our information saturated and buzzing stimulated overloaded reality actually sit still long enough to hear our own minds at work?

Bio

David N. DeVries is associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University.

 

 

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