A colleague from another department passed me on campus the other day, a week before the end of classes. “Hi,” I said as we approached one another.
“Glad the semester is almost over!” she exclaimed in response and walked on.
“Glad the semester is almost over”? What kind of greeting is “Glad the semester is almost over”?
Is this how people acknowledge each other’s presence in a fleeting moment of recognition -- with a declaration regarding the semester’s demise? I’m familiar with common phatic addresses of greeting: hello, how are you, what’s up, how’s it going, hey, nice day, looking good, nice weather we’re having and many others. But why would a nod to the semester’s conclusion be treated as a greeting?
“Glad the semester is almost over” is unique among all phatic exchanges in that it is not actually a greeting at all. “Glad the semester is almost over” is specific to one type of encounter, the academic exchange.
Greetings are phatic. That is, greetings serve no real rhetorical purpose other than to perform a social task or ritual that recognizes the encounter taking place among at least two individuals. Greetings are like small talk. They make the social moment easier to deal with. There is no reference point for the repeated phatic greeting other than its communal recognition (we all know what “hello” is supposed to do when two people meet). There is no real meaning in the greeting.
“Hello” conveys no information in and of itself. One does not walk away from the greeting with new information, only the greeting. In the moment of social encounter, two individuals coming into proximity with one another search for a way to -- even in passing -- acknowledge the other without conveying any information other than the expression itself. Hello. How are you? What’s up? How are things? Glad the semester is almost over!
“Glad the semester is almost over” would not be a greeting in any profession other than academia. “Glad the semester is almost over” marks the academic anxiety and apprehension about work (we work in semester blocks) and about not working (whew, the semester is finally over and I can go on with my life). Besides this interest in a semester’s length, academics excel at phatic expressions and greetings.
In hallways, at conferences and in the grocery store in town, when two academics come together -- and I am usually one of the two -- we greet each other in phatic expressions. Some traditional, professional phatic greetings found in many places of work include “Thank God it’s Friday” or “Hump day!” Academic phatic greetings, however, center on the supposedly rigid occupation of reading books for a living and working with students on a daily basis. This labor tension creates such a level of exasperation one can only exclaim upon seeing a colleague, “Glad the semester is almost over!”
Semesters begin and end. In the fall, we work with X number of students, and in the spring, we work with another X students. We likely go to some departmental meetings along the way, and maybe we are conducting some research during the semester when we have time. The important point about semesters is that they do not really end. Each one replaces the other. My only response -- when I have the chance -- to “Glad the semester is almost over” is “Yes, but another one will begin right afterward.” Is “Glad the semester is almost over” really an expression of joy that these 16 weeks have concluded and another 16 weeks will begin again?
Knowing that we will do the semester all over again after a short break, what does it matter that the semester is almost over, and why should I be glad? Or is “Glad the semester is almost over” a statement about how little academics -- who should have so much to talk about with each other given their political, disciplinary and social interests and concerns -- have to say to one another in any real fashion?
“How’s your semester going?” “Can’t wait for spring break!” “I am so busy!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “What are your summer plans?” “Busy, busy, busy!” “I have so much grading to do.” “Grading! Grading! Grading!” “Can’t wait for summer!” “What are you teaching next semester?” “Glad the semester is almost over!”
At conferences, phatic greetings including the endless discussion of the weather where one lives. “Does it get hot there in the summer?” “I bet the winters are cold.” With each new job I have been offered, friends who learn of the news respond by asking me about the weather in the new city I will live in. Such greetings do not actually express interest in weather or lack of knowledge over seasonal change (winter and summer are regular occurrences in most locations, after all), but signify the lack of interest in the topic (“Who cares, you have a new job!”) or lack of ability to respond with any real content (“You have a job/I have a job/I have nothing else to add”).
In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega stop talking for a brief moment while having dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. “Don’t you hate that?” Mia asks Vincent about the lull in conversation that has occurred.
“What?” Vincent responds.
“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?”
We do, however, feel that it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in academe. The uncomfortable academic -- always hyperbolic in his/her semesterlong anxiety of teaching -- does not know what to say when passing a colleague on campus or chatting in a book exhibit at a conference or spending a minute in the elevator as it proceeds to one’s floor. There’s an uncomfortable silence. What to do? Express something phatic. “How’s your semester going?” “Busy, busy, busy!”
Phatic academics do not only occur on campus or at events. Via the status update, we greet each other online phatically as well. Disaster and social unrest turn us into phatic machines: Ferguson, celebrity RIPs, Nepal, Baltimore. On a daily basis, there is no shortage of phatic posting. It’s not that such events do not deserve commentary (they do). It’s not that the events don’t move us to emotions (they do). It’s that the update is not a moment of commentary or discussion but rather a ritual or social gesture of digital greeting where content is not emphasized. The update is meant to greet the follower or friend, not engage them, since engagement typically can lead to blocking or unfriending. The update says phatically: “Something terrible has happened in the world; look at me.” The update is not content based, but is a social ritual of online posturing as greeting, the way “Hello” can be in the physical world or even “Glad the semester is almost over” can be among academics passing each other on campus.
Do you care what happened in Baltimore or that Joni Mitchell is in a coma? Probably. But the update does not convey any meaning regarding either event beyond the headline. The shared headline is the repeated phatic greeting that avoids content by only focusing on address. A phatic address such as “hello” or “what’s up” avoids content by focusing attention on the empty greeting and not the actual encounter. I say “Glad the semester almost is over” because I do not know what else to say. I repost Baltimore headlines because I do not know what else to say. I want to avoid the uncomfortable silence that should accompany some of the world’s worst moments.
This ritual is the social media equivalent of “Glad the semester is almost over!” I really do not know if my colleague is glad the semester is almost over. I know she has heard this statement repeated for what is likely many years as an address from one academic to another when neither knows what else to say. “Spring break is almost here!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “Things are really crazy this time of year.” Is she glad the summer is over? Is she outraged suddenly by the socioeconomic and racist situation in Baltimore that has led to a senseless death and consequent rioting? Does she actually care what I’m teaching this semester or any other? Are things really that crazy? As academics, we are supposed to, after all, meet a few times in the semester as a department and assess student work toward semester’s end. Then we plan for the next semester.
Phatic addresses are comforting. They allow us to pass over that awkward silence that arises among academics who spend their days with so much to discuss (their own work, classroom lectures, theory, administrative issues, politics, race, gender), but when confronted with the casual moment know only the at-hand phatic comment. “Glad the semester is almost over” comforts both sides of the conversation. Thank God I don’t have to actually inquire into your life; thank God I don’t have to respond. Thank God I don’t have to know what really caused certain things to occur in a certain city in America. Thank God I don’t have to deal with any yak or bullshit.
Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.
Were it so… that some little profit might be reaped (which God knows is very little) out of some of our playbooks, the benefit thereof will nothing near countervail the harm that the scandal will bring unto the library, when it shall be given out that we stuff it full of baggage [i.e., trashy] books.
-- Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, explaining why he did not wish to keep English plays in his library (1612).
On William Shakespeare’s birthday this year, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report, “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile in 2015,” which warned that “less than 8 percent of the nation’s top universities require English majors to take even a single course that focuses on Shakespeare.” Warnings about the decline of a traditional literary canon are familiar from conservative academic organizations such as ACTA and the National Association of Scholars. What increasingly strikes me, however, is how frozen in amber these warning are.
In a nation obsessed with career-specific and STEM education, there is scant support for humanities in general. Where are the conservative voices advocating for the place of English and the humanities in the university curriculum? One would think this advocacy natural for such academics and their allies. After all, when Matthew Arnold celebrated the “best that has been thought and known,” he was proposing cultural study not only as an antidote to political radicalism but also to a life reduced, by the people he called philistines, to industrial production and the consumption of goods.
We have our modern philistines. Where are our modern conservative voices to call them out? Instead, on the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education -- the most significant issue facing the humanities -- organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.
Worse, these organizations suggest that if one does not study Shakespeare or a small set of other writers in the traditional literary canon (moreover, in only certain ways), then literature and culture are not worth studying -- hardly a way to advocate for literary studies.
The requirements at my own institution suggest how misleading the ACTA position is, and how thin a commitment to the humanities it represents. With no Shakespeare requirement in the George Mason University English department, it is true that some of our majors won’t study Shakespeare. However, because our majors must take a course in a pre-1800 literature -- nearly all the departments ACTA examined have a similar requirement -- that means they’ll study Chaucer, or medieval intellectual history, or Wyatt, Sidney, Donne, Jonson, Milton, etc. (The study of Spenser, however, appears to me somewhat in decline; ACTA, if you want to take up the cause of The Faerie Queene, let me know.)
How can writers as great as these be off ACTA’s map? Is it because ACTA doesn’t really value them? Its Bardolatry is idolatry -- the worship of the playwright as wooden sign rather than living being, a Shakespeare to scold with, but no devotion to the rich literary and cultural worlds of which Shakespeare was a part. Hence, too, the report maintains that a course such as Renaissance Sexualities is no substitute for what it calls the “seminal study of Shakespeare” -- though certainly such a course might feature the Renaissance sonnet tradition, including Shakespeare’s important contribution to it, not to mention characters from Shakespeare’s plays such Romeo and Juliet or Rosalind and Ganymede.
ACTA also warns that rather than Shakespeare, English departments are “often encouraging instead trendy courses on popular culture.” This warning similarly indicates the narrowness of ACTA’s commitment to literary study. As anyone who’s ever taken a Shakespeare course should know, not only were Shakespeare’s plays popular culture in his own day (English plays were scandalous trash, thought Thomas Bodley), but also the very richness of Shakespeare’s literary achievement comes from his own embrace of multiple forms of culture. His sources are not just high-end Latin authors but also translations of pulpy Italian “novels,” English popular writers, folktales, histories and travelogues, among others. The plays remain vibrant today because Shakespeare allows all these sources to live and talk to one another.
Indeed, the literary scholars William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden point out that in this quality Shakespeare was typical of his age, for the vibrancy of the Renaissance derives in part from its hybridity. The classical was a point of departure, but neither Shakespeare nor Renaissance culture was slavishly neoclassical. Modern English departments, in their embrace of multiple literary cultures, in their serious study of our human expression, evince the same spirit.
Conservatives have suggested that the hybridity of the modern English major is responsible for declining interest in the major. That claim cannot be proved. Anecdotes and intuitions are insufficient to do so. Data on trends in the number of majors over time can only show correlation, not causation.
And in terms of correlation, here are four more likely drivers of the decline in the percentage of students majoring in English: students are worried about finding jobs and are being told (wrongly, according to the actual statistics) that the English major is not a path to one; students now have many new majors to choose from, many no longer in the liberal arts; English has traditionally had more female than male majors, and women now pursue majors, such as in business or STEM fields, from which they used to be discouraged (a good change); political leaders have abandoned the liberal arts in favor of STEM and career-specific education and are advising students to do the same (even President Obama jumped on this bandwagon, though he later apologized).
Regarding this last cause, the voices of organizations such as ACTA and NAS could particularly help, since many of these politicians are conservatives, and leaders of these academic organizations have ties to conservative political circles. In doing so, conservatives could help reclaim a legacy. In 1982, William Bennett, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, urged colleges to support the humanities against “more career-oriented things.” By 1995, Bennett had become disgusted with what he saw as an overly progressive agenda in the humanities. Picking up his marbles and going home, Bennett urged Congress to defund the NEH. More recently, Bennett agreed with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory that the goal of publicly funded education should be to get students jobs. “How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” Bennett asked.
Shakespeare was generous in his reading and thinking. We can be, too. Literary scholars may disagree on many things -- on the values to be derived from a particular literary work, on the ways it ought to be framed, on which literary works are most worthy of classroom reading. But such disagreements are just part of the study of the humanities in a democratic society. When we support the humanities, we support an important public space to have these disagreements. We also support Shakespeare -- who really isn’t going away from the English curriculum -- and the study of literature more generally.
The ACTA study, as far as I can tell, was mainly met with silence. That’s because the study is a rehash of an earlier one from 2007, itself a rehash of the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. No one cared, because most people have moved on from the culture wars, and for many of our political leaders, culture itself doesn’t much matter anymore. Culture wars have become a war on culture. In that battle, all lovers of literature should be on the same side. Advocating for the humanities, even as we argue about them, is walking and chewing gum. We should be able to do both at the same time. I appeal to conservative academic organizations that we need to. The one-sided emphasis on majors that lead directly to careers and the blanket advocacy of STEM fields are far greater threats to the humanities than sustainability studies. And without the humanities, there is no institutionalized study of Toni Morrison. Or pulp fiction. Or Sidney. Or Shakespeare.
Robert Matz is professor of English, with a focus on English Renaissance literature, at George Mason University. He currently serves as senior associate dean for George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
This is not the best of times for faculty members. Many of the problems they face are beyond their control. And yet there are some they can address, especially if they are fortunate enough not to belong to the growing numbers of non-tenure-track, part-time, contingent faculty, but to those who can reasonably expect a secure future in the academy.
First and foremost is how they can transcend the barriers dividing them in finding the best way to serve their students, coming together not just as scholars in the same field and comrades in arms against administrators they perceive as soulless, but as a community of teachers. How can they achieve this by expanding their concept of what is, in fact, “their department”?
For one thing, how might they expand their thinking about the goals of their disciplinary departments themselves? For another, how can they go beyond a focus on their respective departments to contribute to the mission of the wider institution of which they are a part (and which, by the way, pays their salaries)?
We might begin by asking: Are faculty members taking an overly provincial approach, both intellectually and professionally, to their respective departmental programs? Insofar as an undergraduate major is focused on what a student will need to enter a graduate program, it is more properly seen as vocational training than as an integral part of a liberal arts education. Majors with relatively heavy requirements lead to a level of specialization that may be desirable for some students, but unnecessary and premature for others, many of whom will never seek a graduate degree in the field of their major. It is always possible to serve the interests of those heading to graduate school in the field by providing special curricular enhancements.
Faculty members should also consider how undergraduate departmental majors can connect more organically with one another and with the wider curriculum of the institution. This interest is not served simply by creating new interdisciplinary programs, since too often these have simply resulted in a proliferation of departmentlike entities and have failed to create greater intellectual coherence in the undergraduate experience as a whole. So, for example, in the place of separate ethnic studies programs and departments, one might instead see greater multicultural sophistication in the United States history curriculum, not to mention stronger collegial ties among faculty -- and hence students -- in the departments of history, anthropology, sociology and literature. The outcome might also yield a course or courses deemed desirable for all undergraduates.
If, in the spirit of John Donne, we wish to believe that no department is an island entire of itself, that every department is a piece of the main, we are no longer in a position to follow Donne’s next move and argue that if a single program be washed away (presumably, by the administration), the institution is less. As an institution continues to add programs without ever subtracting any, the curriculum comes to take on the aspect of a zombie movie in which the living cohabit with the undead and much frantic bumping into one another ensues.
On occasions when faculty come together for the lengthy, intensive process of an institution-wide “curriculum review,” the outcome too rarely justifies the time and energy expended. (I believe comparative research would show that, in general, the more elite the institution, the more modest the results.) Aside from their ritual dimension, such processes commonly involve the kind of logrolling especially familiar to political scientists, in which faculty members approach “general” or “distributional” requirements in terms of how their respective departmental interests are being served.
And yet, there have been some curriculum reviews that actually aim to make the student experience intellectually coherent, providing room for varying interests and passions while creating a student community that reflects the mission and identity of the institution. And apparently succeed in doing so. Some of us in the foundation world have been in a position to encourage this process, supporting those who are doing the real work.
How might graduate programs also better serve their students’ interests? Leaving aside the question of preparing graduate students for careers outside the academy altogether, graduate programs need to consider preparing them for the range of institutions within the universe of higher education in which they may find themselves. This means focusing on preparing students as teachers and not just as researchers, especially since their students’ chances of getting positions in research universities are clearly shrinking (though, even in such universities, better preparation as teachers would stand them in good stead).
Given that teaching assistantships are an important way of financially supporting graduate students, departmental faculty must decide whether they are viewing those students as junior colleagues or as cheap labor. This choice clearly influences how graduate students see themselves, as well as how well equipped they are for their working lives after graduation. Is responsibility for helping them develop as teachers being farmed out to teaching and learning “centers,” which are all too often teaching and learning “peripheries”? Or are there the strong collaborative ties between such centers and departmental faculty that are essential to the professional development of graduate students?
Some graduate programs are stepping up to this particular plate; more need to do so. Perhaps one way of getting their attention is to present them with the following choice: either (1) broaden the graduate program to properly prepare admitted students for a wider range of careers in higher education and beyond, or (2) limit the number of admitted students to those who are either likely to find jobs in research universities or who are interested in graduate education for its own sake and harbor no expectations about how the program will advance their future careers. Departments choosing the second option would have to find other ways for senior faculty members to occupy their time, which might possibly involve teaching undergraduates.
To put these two options in terms of reproductive biology, some species follow what is termed the R-selection strategy, in which a large number of offspring are produced and few are expected to survive. On the other hand, species that pursue the K-selection strategy produce fewer offspring but invest in them heavily, which results in their relatively high survival rate. Graduate departments, being (generally) composed of human beings, should presumably follow the strategy characteristic of our species.
And if, to continue the biological metaphor, we take note that evolutionary theory in general has come to emphasize cooperation as well as competition, we want to be sure that academics, as a population, are not so focused on departmental rivalries and individual career ambitions that they fail to have a sufficient regard for the common good.
A final point: the case for tenure is most commonly made in terms of academic freedom, which is certainly important. But the argument for tenure would be further strengthened if tenure were seen to reflect a deep mutual commitment between a faculty member and an institution -- a mutual commitment that truly serves them both.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.
In coining the word utopia, Thomas More was making a pun. The villain of Wolf Hall was, in real life, a learned man who wrote for people who could recognize a joke in Greek when he made one. The island republic of social perfection depicted in his most famous book was a good place (eu-topia), obviously. But it existed only in the imagination: it was also, literally, no place (ou-topia).
Alternating currents of optimism and skepticism crackle in the space between syllables. The ambivalence vanishes with “dystopia,” which, like dysentery (“bad bowels”), has nothing to recommend it. But there is more to dystopia than has been encoded in its etymology. The word usually implies utopia’s evil twin: a social order of perfect oppression, designed to bring the greatest misery to the greatest number.
The places Kate Brown writes about in Dispatches From Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (University of Chicago Press) are not all examples of hell on earth, by any means, but each bears the scars of some catastrophe that the visitor is bound to know about before arriving: the ghost town of Chernobyl, for example, or the basement of a hotel in Seattle full of the belongings of Japanese-American residents relocated to internment camps during World War II. The author introduces herself as “a professional disaster tourist,” though her day job is as a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her two previous books grew out of research on Russia and Ukraine during the Soviet era. Dispatches From Dystopia pursues many of the same interests while also working reflexively to consider the genres available for writing about place and memory: professional historiography, of course, but also personal narrative and travel writing.
“Many writers presume that the site of action is a given,” she notes, “as if places were neutral containers of human interaction rather than dynamic places in their own right.” At the same time, scholarly prose is often written from the vantage point of the proverbial “man from nowhere.” Make that “person from nowhere,” rather -- anyway, a voice that, while not omniscient, remains as rigorous and impersonal as possible.
“In their quest to explore the human condition,” Brown writes, “historians can hide behind their subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project their own sentiments and feelings. Let me put that another way: in my quest to explore the human condition, I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project my own sentiments and feelings. The third-person voice is a very comfortable one in which to reside. Permanently. The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between the author and the subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession that is situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”
Such intimacy brings the potential for extreme embarrassment. Brown prefaces the lines just quoted by saying that her hands are sweating as writes them. Her early ventures into first-person scholarship met with resistance, expressed in well-meant warnings such as, “You won't get a job with that dissertation” and “Other scholars will assign you, but not cite you.” Which is understandable, because other risks besides personal and professional awkwardness can follow from experimentation of the kind Brown undertakes. The existence of “borders between the author and the subject” at least reduce the dangers of twee memoir -- and also of prolonged metaepistemic inquiry (how can the knower know the knower, much less the known?) that scorches the earth with tedium.
So for the first several pages of Dispatches From Dystopia I braced myself, only to find that Brown is the rare case of someone who can incorporate a number of registers of narrative and reflection within the same piece of writing, shifting among them with grace and quiet confidence. Her essays might be called position papers: topographical surveys of historical sites, with the mapmaker’s own itinerary sketched in.
The trips to erstwhile Soviet republics are not, she makes clear, a search for roots. A product of “the industrial heartland of the United States at a time when it was the world’s most prosperous and powerful country,” she is unaware of any German, Jewish or Slavic branches to her family tree: “I could hardly have been born farther from rural, famished, collectivized, heavily politicized, bombed and terrorized Right Bank Ukraine” -- the subject of her first book -- “a place that stands in my mind as the epicenter of 20th-century misery.”
But another essay suggests the advantages of this presumed naïveté. People she met granted the author a place in post-Soviet society “as an honorary child…. If I accepted this role passively, relinquishing my status as an autonomous adult and the critical rationality of a researcher, they often let me in, if fleetingly, for a closer look. By becoming childlike -- susceptible, disabled and dependent -- I became a temporary member of their community, which in the Soviet Union was defined by an understanding of biological vulnerability, mutual interdependence and obligation.”
Other expeditions require different personae. Her trip to what’s left of the city of Chernobyl elicits another kind of identification with people who have been there. Expecting a scene from opening days of the Gorbachev era -- irradiated but frozen in time -- she finds that everything that can be sold has been hauled off to market: “Even the knobs on the kitchen cabinets were gone. Even the time capsule schoolchildren buried in the 1970s had been looted. (I know because I was hoping to dig it up and loot it myself.)”
Brown’s first-person reflections are embedded in narratives and place descriptions that are more intricate and varied than a reviewer can even begin to suggest, and certain issues and motifs link the essays in ways that would probably reward a second reading. Each piece, like the volume as a whole, is an example of nonfiction that uses the first person, rather than just indulges it. The learned essay and the personal essay are different creatures and attempts to create a hybrid are often problematic at best. But Dispatches From Dystopia proves it can be done.
With the release of his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, journalist Fareed Zakaria became the latest commentator to join the robust debate over whether the purpose of college is to promote professional advancement or personal growth. The debate typically contrasts the self-betterment offered by the liberal arts -- usually meaning the humanities and social sciences -- against the workforce merits of applied disciplines, such as engineering. One side argues that universities ought to nurture educated, complete human beings, while the other calls for marketplace utility. The conversation has long tottered over this line, and there it remains stalled.
But perhaps it’s time finally to advance past the stale juxtaposition of the humanities versus the applied disciplines. After all, is it really the case that one is soft and the other exacting? In many ways, they’re equally complex. And while each proffers distinct rewards, the two sides have much to gain from each other if we move past these entrenchments.
A Common Complexity
Naturally, the study of an applied discipline like engineering is a steep academic challenge. The study of any complex system is difficult. To build a good airplane, biomaterial or computer program, one needs to understand the dizzying intricacies of that object’s composition and context. Materials, environment, the forces of physics, time and logic -- all of these factor into an engineer’s grasp of her subject, and the task of mastering this complexity spurs intellectual development.
Yet the study of human culture and behavior is similarly complex. Just as the hard sciences demand the grasp of intricate systems, so do the liberal arts. In the case of the humanities and social sciences, however, these systems are an elaborate mesh of history, art, geography, biology and economics -- the strands that make up our world’s DNA. Thus, while a civil engineer learns about materials and soil types and local ordinances, a classics student absorbs how the legacy of the Roman Empire shapes everything from the letters we write to the architecture of our buildings and how we structure our water supply systems. This deep contextual understanding weaves through daily life.
To take a concrete example, consider the act of purchasing a gallon of gasoline. An engineer might recognize how the fuel powers her car’s engine, or how oil is extracted from the earth. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, might inform this engineer of the history and meaning of OPEC, the convoluted economics of energy and the context of global warming. She might recall The Nicomachean Ethics and conclude that taking personal responsibility for her actions means she should drive less, or consider how hunger for resources drives civilizations to colonize and conquer. These are obviously not facile mental endeavors.
In terms of rigor, then, it’s certainly the case that the liberal arts can be just as demanding as the applied disciplines. Why, then, is it so commonly believed that an English degree, for example, will leave a graduate trapped in the ivory tower -- or her parents’ basement?
The reason may be that, in many cases, applied studies feature a strong laboratory or workplace experience, while liberal arts classes are often framed by the traditions of the essay and exam paper. This difference in mode, this boundary between the abstract and the real, may largely account for the conceit that a liberal arts education doesn’t equate to a tangible outcome, or a tangible paycheck. However, liberal arts programs can counter this misperception by reproducing the lessons from engineering laboratories or business school co-op programs and adding an experiential component. By practicing the experiential liberal arts, they would better prepare their students to engage in the world.
The Experiential Difference
What would this look like in practice? Experiential liberal arts would combine the rigor of traditional academics with active participation in workplaces, laboratories or volunteer opportunities -- especially ones in a global context. These real-life elements would heighten students’ motivation, promote practice and self-reflection, promote contextual understanding, and encourage self-direction. In other words, the experiential component would be a vehicle that leads to deeper learning.
For instance, an English major might complete a co-op with a national magazine, applying ideas she encountered in a Technology of Text class to the creation of content for new formats in publishing. In doing so, she would cement academic information into owned knowledge. She wouldn’t merely internalize lessons -- she would live them. Likewise, since many students learn by translating theoretical knowledge into generative action, a philosophy major could parlay a co-op at the United Nations Human Rights Council into a research project on how the global economy is changing the sort of moral choices we face -- for example, making us question the ethics of using electronics built with exploited labor.
To be sure, ensuring that liberal arts students have access to high-quality internships that reinforce their classroom learning requires meaningful engagement between universities and employers. Creating substantive partnerships takes work, but the rewards are mutual. At Northeastern University, for example, one of our undergraduate history majors recently completed a co-op with the U.S. Commercial Service in Mexico, where he applied his content knowledge and research skills -- acquired through liberal arts classes -- to compose a report analyzing plans to expand the Port of Veracruz. His employer then used the analysis to determine whether this $19 billion project should move forward as planned, or with changes.
Similarly, another undergraduate applied his learning as an English major to design the customer support system and perform financial analysis for a cloud computing start-up firm. “Doing financial analysis is surprisingly similar to doing literary analysis,” he told us. “When you read a poem or a novel, your professor tells you to look between the text and dig as deep as you can to find out everything the author is trying to say. When you’re looking at a spreadsheet of numbers, you’re doing the same thing: What are these numbers trying to tell me?”
The Rewards of Experiential Liberal Arts
Indeed, the marriage of liberal arts skills with experiential learning yields advanced survival skills for the modern era: creative, critical and analytical thinking, deft communication, and the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, applying knowledge in unexpected situations. We can’t engage effectively with other human beings -- or institutions, or work assignments -- without these talents. Just as importantly, the experiential liberal arts imparts an appetite for ongoing study, training students to adapt their minds to new learning situations throughout their lives. This is invaluable in an economy that demands that workers make multiple career jumps and replenish their skills on a continuing basis.
But experiential liberal arts experiences shouldn’t be for liberal arts students only. Context, communication and a capacity for self-directed lifelong learning -- everyone needs these, including students in the applied disciplines. The most brilliant computer scientist has to thrive in the human milieu or risk irrelevance. The most trailblazing biochemical engineer should learn to weigh the social and cultural context of her work. By enhancing their courses of study with relevant content from the humanities and social sciences, programs in the applied disciplines would also better prepare their graduates to engage with the world and succeed in life.
The New Literacy
In fact, what the worn-out juxtaposition of the liberal arts versus the applied disciplines overlooks is that aspects of each are essential for living a full life, both professionally and personally. We wouldn’t say that grade schoolers should choose between learning how to read or how to add and subtract, so we shouldn’t fall into equivalent false choices in higher education. Both domains have relevance, utility and beauty, and both contain critical components of a new skill set -- a new literacy -- that students need if they’re to flourish in modern life and the global economy.
For example, consider analytics, statistics and coding -- three subjects often cited as vital for students to learn today. In many ways, the robust study of each involves drawing from concepts from both the world of liberal arts and the applied sciences. For example, one might integrate concepts from art and design into a course on analytics, so students can transform sophisticated quantitative analyses into elegant, intuitive data visualizations. Likewise, one might weave lessons from history and concepts in cultural anthropology together with technical instruction in Stata or SPSS to show more deeply how statistics can be used to investigate issues and challenges across a variety of domains.
Imagine how valuable -- and relevant -- an education students would receive if colleges and universities routinely approached the curriculum with this kind of harmonization in mind. Imagine how augmenting it with experiential component would enrich it even further.
Every scientist needs to ponder the context of her work and communicate its meaning; every liberal arts student should wrangle with the revelations of big data. Both applied disciplines and the liberal arts have much to share between them. By bleeding a little into each other, these two approaches to higher education would give every graduate a powerful, marketable education for today’s economy.
So let’s move past the false dichotomy that characterizes the current debate over the liberal arts and applied disciplines. Better to draw lessons from both, and agree that the most valuable education is one that works.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.