The Reluctant Pragmatist

Is making a practical case for the liberal arts necessary, or a trap? Attendees at St. John's College conference differ in their opinions.


October 17, 2014
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Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi's "The Seven Liberal Arts"

SANTA FE – The liberal arts have long been subject to criticism and even ridicule from those who don’t see their immediate value; the debate over utilitarian versus broad education is ancient. But there’s something particularly pernicious about the current climate, it seems, with threats to funding models for such programs in some states, for example.

So how do advocates respond? Do they continue to extol the intrinsic virtues of the liberal arts or do they adopt the opposition’s rhetoric, making a case for their usefulness?

Is that dichotomy even valid?

These questions are at the heart of a conference here this week called “What is Liberal Education For?” St. John’s College is hosting the gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Santa Fe campus (its original campus is in Annapolis, Md.), but the topic is as timely as it is perennial. The last 18 months have seen blows to the liberal arts (President Obama knocking art history majors, for example), but also high-profile calls for public and private reinvestment in them, namely the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' “The Heart of the Matter” report.

In a session Thursday called “Liberal Education: Changing Conversations,” St. John’s faculty, along with alumni and outside academics, discussed the ongoing challenges to the liberal arts, and each made a case for their value.

Kathleen Longwaters, a Ph.D. candidate in Asian cultures and languages at the University of Texas at Austin who previously worked in medical research, for example, found previously unnoted parallels between “The Misery and Splendor of Translation” by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and Plato’s Meno. While Plato asks if virtue can be taught, she said, Ortega y Gasset asks if anything can be translated. Although they were written millennia apart, the structural similarities between the two works are striking, Longwaters said. But they’re easily missed by one taking a “narrow, discipline-bound view,” reading each as an independent, original work.

More broadly, Longwaters argued, the liberal arts encourage making connections across time and disciplines – the kinds of connections needed for real “understanding” to occur. She said the liberal arts provide a “historical consciousness” revealing one crucial fact: “that we do not know all that we think we do.”

Barbara McClay, associate editor of The Hedgehog Review, which is affiliated with the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, graduated from St. John’s Annapolis campus in 2012. She said that a broad education – even in a “specialized age” – liberates people from the kind of abject utilitarianism of Adam Smith’s pin factory, described in Wealth of Nations. And even Adam Smith had mixed feelings about such specialized work, she said, noting that he elsewhere acknowledges that unchecked division of labor makes humans “monsters.”

In short, McClay said, pin factories may be good for the market, but they’re bad for people. A liberal arts education, however, offers some respite by allowing “a person to exist outside of his or her particular job.” That’s important because “most of human life isn’t lived for work,” she said. “Most human questions aren’t work-related.”

Longwaters supported that claim, saying that the liberal arts provide important ethical training. She linked the importance of ethical reasoning skills to the recent news that a health care worker in Texas traveled on a commercial airliner soon after she had cared for a patient with the Ebola virus. The nurse did not know she was infected with the disease at the time, but later tested positive.

But the most interesting and controversial case for the liberal arts came from Rob Goodman, a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at Columbia University. In a speech called “Metaphor and Innovation: A (Reluctantly) Instrumental Case for the Liberal Arts,” Goodman said he disliked having to adopt a utilitarian view of broad education. But he said it might be necessary to beat “instrumentalist” critics of the liberal arts at their own game – or at least in their own language.

“At this cultural moment the idea of ‘uselessness’ is inspiring a lot of anger in a lot of people, and it’s important to explore why,” he said.

Goodman, who is writing a book on Claude Shannon, known as the father of information theory, said the key to bridging the gap between the two camps might be to show that “useful” work is often rooted in the kind of critical thinking that happens at colleges such as St. John’s. The small, private college in Santa Fe's foothills has a set Great Books-oriented undergraduate curriculum -- no real electives -- that's heavy on math and science, as well as the humanities and social sciences. It offers liberal arts degrees only.

"When a technological innovation enters the world, it enters the world wrapped in metaphor,” Goodman said, noting that the original desktop computer was designed to resemble an actual desktop, right down to the “files” and “trash can,” for user-friendliness. That reliance on metaphors can be a good thing, he said. But metaphors left unexamined also can constrain innovation. He noted the failed “Magic Cap” operating system that took the desktop notion “too literally,” requiring many more steps than were necessary to accomplish simple tasks, all to keep with the original metaphor.

Goodman said he didn’t want to base his argument entirely on technology, or suggest “that the iPhone is the height or pinnacle of civilization." But, he continued, “My point is that [deconstructing] metaphors is a cognitively demanding task,” which takes “a lot of critical thought.”

Several audience members, including Victoria Mora, vice president for advancement at St. John’s in Santa Fe, appreciated Goodman’s argument. But they said it seemed to subscribe somehow to the argument that the liberal arts aren’t useful in and of themselves. Instead of “reluctantly” making the case for the liberal arts, Mora said, more advocates should be “shamelessly” declaring their utility.

“The liberal arts are in no way incompatible with a life and work that is satisfying and productive,” she said.

More shameless than reluctant, Colin Willis, a senior at St. John’s, said he felt wholly prepared to do whatever he wants upon graduation. (At the moment it's medical school.)

He, too, suggested that advocates for the liberal arts “bring back together” the notions of broad education and useful education, arguing that they’re not wholly separate endeavors.

“After four years here maybe I don’t know how to build an airplane, but I feel like I can jump in with both feet,” he said. “I may not be able to do it [technically yet] but I don’t feel like I’m doing something totally abstract here at St. John’s, either.”


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