Saving the Liberal Arts

Scholars at conference on whether liberal arts need saving focus on evolving threats, including diminishing attention spans, mounting consumerism and a desire by administrators to quantify everything.

May 20, 2016

CHICAGO -- It's a familiar question: Do the liberal arts need saving? The answer here Thursday at a conference on the topic -- yes -- was familiar, too. But keynote speakers at the opening of the conference at the University of Chicago focused less on the question itself than on from what and whom a broad education needs rescuing.

And their concerns went beyond the usual suspects of politicians, administrators and the introduction of identity studies (though ample blame was still reserved for the first two), to both deeper cultural factors and more practical ones -- such as how the liberal arts are quantified.

For Talbot Brewer, professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Virginia, the liberal arts need saving in part from the “black mirrors” so many of us are glued to each day. Cellular phones, computers and, especially for children, television, facilitate a kind of “reverse-Weberian,” late capitalistic assault on our collective attention, he said. The effect is that we no longer know how to interact with the meaningful, valuable media that take time and effort to understand -- that is, the bulk of what makes up the liberal arts.

Calling attention a “vital resource,” Brewer described it as “the medium of passion, of friendship, of love. The sign of our presence to one another, both in intimate spaces and in public. The antidote to listlessness and heedlessness.”

It’s also the prerequisite “for any concerted activity, including the activities of reading, viewing, critical thinking, writing and intensive conversational exchange that are central” to the liberal arts, he said.

So amid the clamor of “manipulative messages when there suddenly appears something quite different, something called literature, or art, or philosophy, it is not easy to open ourselves to this newcomer,” Brewer continued. “The attentional environment has not encouraged the traits required for properly appreciating engagement -- the habit of devoted attention, and of patience and generosity in interpretation, the openness to finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life [and] the expressive conscience that insists upon finding exactly the right words for incipient thoughts.”

The liberal arts need saving, then, he said, from the kind of de facto private education we’ve all received in the form of advertising for as long we’ve been watching television and using the Internet.

This kind of capitalism doesn’t just threaten the liberal arts, in Brewer’s view, but our collective sense of self. It’s a “selfhood that is distinctive of our culture -- the self divided against itself, repelled by and yet impaled upon its own longings.”

Noting that John Maynard Keynes described humanity’s real and permanent problem as what do with our lives once we no longer need to expend them in meeting basic needs, Brewer said the liberal arts were the answer.

Brewer joked that his thesis was somewhat “sweeping and reckless,” but nevertheless linked it to a second, equally weighty claim: that economic productivity of the sort championed by Frederick Winslow Taylor has in the last two centuries come at an extraordinarily high human cost -- a cost that’s just now beginning to visit the academic workplace. And a peculiar moralism has imbued Taylor’s exaltation of maximum efficiency over time, Brewer added, so that in playfulness or even a desire for self-direction, “Americans tend to see nothing but laziness and irresponsibility.”

In this model managers also assume a kind of “moral mandate,” Brewer said, which can now be observed on his own campus. For example, he said, Virginia’s Board of Visitors proposed -- unsuccessfully -- to apportion faculty raises to numerical research scores awarded by the productivity indexer Academic Analytics. The faculty was less successful at fending off a mandate by the university’s regional accreditor that each degree-granting program devise some kind of numerical measure of its effectiveness.

“For my department, that means two new graphs per year,” Brewer said. “But I suspect that soon an enterprising official at our regional accrediting agency will take a close look at these graphs and realize that most of them are bogus. … And while academic departments might then be made to excel in the efficient production of some measurable outcome, they will become even less hospitable to the liberal arts.”

Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at Chicago, also described challenges to quantifying the value of the liberal arts. It’s good news, she said, that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and other bodies have begun collecting better data on who’s studying the humanities -- and the finding that community colleges awarded some 40 percent of their degrees to humanities students in 2014 is especially heartening.

It “would be all too easy for such community college programs to slide toward narrow vocational education, thus creating a class-based two-tier system, where liberal education is increasingly an opportunity for elites,” she said. “This has not happened, and it’s very important to prevent it from happening.”

Yet available data focus primarily students who major in the humanities, Nussbaum said, missing the real point.

“We should not measure the impact of the humanities simply by counting numbers of majors,” she said. “The whole design of the liberal arts system is that courses in the humanities are required of all students, no matter what their major. … Students can major in computer science or engineering, but in such a system they are also required to take general liberal arts courses in history, philosophy and literature. This system has striking advantages, preparing students for their multiple future roles in much more adequate way than a narrow single-subject system.”

Nussbaum adapted her remarks from the introduction to the second edition of her book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press). It’s seen a surprising amount of interest abroad, she said, including in countries with no liberal arts tradition and in which students are single-tracked into studying only their major. So opportunities to simply study the liberal arts -- not necessarily major in them -- are important, too, she said.

For Nussbaum, there are three main arguments for a liberal education: its ability to shape citizenry in a democracy -- ever more important in an increasingly global society -- along with its ability to foster innovation in business and help us understand our lives.

To the last point, she said, “We all seek a deeper understanding of love, death, anger, pain and many other themes treated in great works of art, literature and philosophy. No matter how we earn our living, we all need to confront ourselves, our own life and death.” While it’s easy to forget about these deeper themes when one is young, she added, “it’s then that an initial acquaintance plants seeds for fruitful later rumination.” It’s no surprise that one major growth area for the humanities is in continuing education for adults, for example, she said.

Conversations about the liberal arts sometimes center on “unprecedented” threats, and indeed there have been a host of attacks on these disciplines from politicians in particular in recent years. While both Brewer and Nussbaum expressed concerns about negative influence on the humanities and other fields from skeptical lawmakers and metrics-driven administrators, they avoided claims of urgency. Instead, both scholars said the humanities have always been under threat because they are by nature threatening to institutions. What’s important is recognizing current threats, or at least their "contours," as Brewer put it, so they may be combated effectively.

“Socratic questioning is unsettling, and people in power often prefer docile followers to independent citizens able to think for themselves,” Nussbaum said. “Furthermore, a lively imagination, alert to the situations, desires and sufferings of others, is a taxing achievement; moral obtuseness is so much easier. So we should not be surprised that the humanities are under assault, now as ever. The battle for responsible democracy and alert citizenship is always difficult and uncertain. But it is both urgent and winnable, and the humanities are a large part of winning it.”

During a question-and-answer period, one attendee asked why conversations about the liberal arts inevitably “drift” toward the humanities. Brewer said that for him, the humanities disciplines within the liberal arts are those that best get at the biggest questions he’s trying to explore. Nussbaum, meanwhile, said it was important for her as a humanist to interact with other kinds of scholars outside the humanities; that’s one reason she moved to Chicago, she said, where she holds a joint appointment in law.

“I wanted to be changed by them as much as I wanted to change them,” she said of her new students and colleagues.

At the same time, Nussbaum said, she differs with many proponents of the humanities who argue that they’ve been derailed and demeaned by popular culture and identity studies. Such critical studies have a legitimate place in the broader liberal arts spectrum, and are only detrimental when studied in isolation, she said.


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