Tag Archives: liberal arts

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Can We Salvage the Humanities?

For most of us who have gained richness in our lives through direct access to music, live performance, and academic study, the inadvertent theft of these forms of engagement has been nearly total and devastating.

Though there can be no single measure of the negative effects of the pandemic on our social and intellectual intelligence, the mind reels at what the final tally will be. We are mostly missing what was once the vast array of classroom opportunities, plays, concerts, and travel that survive only in the form of video facsimiles. Of course, the first task through this pandemic is to save lives and keep individuals healthy. Even against the myopia of many slow thinkers in government, that remains true. But for those Americans whose lives were on track to be given greater meaning through live performance, academic study, and direct mentoring, the inadvertent theft of these forms of engagement has been nearly total.

The humanities—fields of inquiry ranging from history to languages to literature and the arts—thrive when open and eager minds can share the same space. It’s our birthright to be with others. For students this means being in the presence of a wonderful instructor in any field that creates insight about what is possible and what’s at stake within human communities. The humanities remind us where we have been and where aspirations made visible can still take us.

For an educator, the pinnacle of this form is perhaps the seminar: a small room shared by 10 or 12 students and an instructor, all beginning the voyage of a shared conversation about the work of a groundbreaking creator of ideas.  We may never be more connected to thoughts that matter than as a participant discussing a writer or creative force bursting with revelatory insights. There may be ways to electronically approximate a meeting of minds. But most are often more performative than enlightening. Communication works better when folks share the same space and time.

It is especially heartbreaking to imagine all of the events, meetings, lectures and performances that have not happened in the last year.  In the United States alone this list would surely be in the millions. Scale down to one organization like a modest-sized college, and it would be in the thousands.

The effects of this cultural shutdown are beginning to be evident and especially costly for the humanities. Enrollments in the nation’s community colleges has dropped at the very moment when non-college adults are at risk for chronic unemployment. More disturbingly, stretched parents are having second thoughts about spending money on any undergraduate curriculum that offers a palette of experiences larger than is required to do a single job. Their concerns are abetted by nearsighted reporting in our media, with headlines like “College Majors With The Lowest Unemployment” or “College Majors With The Worst Return On Investment.”

The pandemic-hastened conversion of a student’s education into vocational training for an employment category is now fully underway, as schools and universities close programs in writing, philosophy, performance studies, history, foreign languages, music, dance, theater, journalism and rhetoric. Never mind that they have missed the more subtle point that a degree in history or philosophy may cultivate wonderful skills needed for innovative work. Writer Julie Schumacher reminds us what her English students can accomplish: “Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express.”

I doubt if any of us who have spent time discussing Aristotle’s pragmatism or Suzanne Langer’s insights on presentational art thought that we were wasting our student’s time. Indeed, for reasons I have mentioned before, reading Langer—a philosopher writing in the 1950s—would make any contemporary television journalist a little bit smarter. And Aristotle’s refutation of Plato’s suspicions about public opinion still gives us a clear rationale for striving to protect democratic norms.  In these times, with electoral losers brooding over dark ways to return to power, this should be a primary concern.  Indeed, we can’t afford to not have the humanities, which collectively help us imagine what a great society can ethically achieve.



Trust the Liberal Arts

                              Gitenstein  Library,  TCNJ

There is a tendency to want the university to be a trade school rather than a place to cultivate analytic competency.

Parents who usually accompany their high school juniors or seniors on a campus tour are quick to seek reassurance that a given degree will lead to a job.  It’s a natural concern. No parent wants their teen to follow a dead-end career path. There are reasonable estimates that perhaps as many as one-third of college graduates start their working lives in jobs that do not use what a good BA or BS degree would allow.

The standard parental hedge against under-employment is to usually steer high school graduates toward professional majors in college that sound like job categories: for example, a marketing major rather than a history major, accounting rather than art history, finance rather than philosophy. There is a tendency to want the university to be a trade school rather than a place to expand intellectual competence.

In my own field of Communication Studies its a virtual given that visiting parents will want to see our campus television studio.  No one bothers to ask about the library.  The reason is obvious.  The studio seems like a workplace; parents are reassured. By contrast, the library looks less useful as a space where one simply “studies,” whatever that is.  Nice, but less tangible.

A door at Oxford University representing Astronomy and Rhetoric, two of the seven original Liberal Arts.

My own view is that parents could better help their teens by flipping these priorities over, for several reasons. One is that the job a young student imagines today is not likely to exist in the same form in five or ten years. The title may be similar, but the intellectual skills will change.  We still have librarians. But if they are going to assist patrons, they now need to be creative users of digital media.  In addition, the nature of information is less linear; library staffers need to have minds that will bend in different ways.   And, for the record, film and television majors do not spend most of their time inside a studio. They are usually out in the community shooting material.

Choosing a brand of soap may be easy, choosing a path for oneself and a family needs the advantage of high and wide horizons.

Parents are too quick to dismiss the value of a liberal arts degree.  The widespread view is that it is a kind of intellectual smorgasbord focused on disciplines the faculty may like to teach, but have less relevance to the “real world.” They are wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, the original and still relevant meaning of a “liberal arts education” is the education of a free person.  Even in these days of fraught politics, many if not enough students are fortunate to have the resources to construct a life for themselves that will open up their options. American life presents a huge ranges of potential choices. And while choosing a brand of soap may be easy, choosing a path for oneself needs the advantage of high and wide horizons. It makes sense to enlarge the circumference of the area of what we know. This also has the subtle but real advantage of enlarging the circumference of the expanding borderlands of the unknown.  We are actually smarter for knowing the limits of our knowledge. Probes that have led a person to explore everything from logic to anthropology make us more empathetic and curious partners, parents, consumers and citizens.

I recently listened to the recorded rants of David Koresh, the Waco, Texas religious leader who sacrificed the lives of 79 members of his sect to the bullets and fire of federal ATF agents. His failed life is an extreme case.  Even so, it seems likely that this high school dropout with a primitive theology would have been less lethal had he possessed the wider parameters of a decent education.

Second, the processes learned when studying sociology, psychology, reasoning, human communication or music are eminently practical in increasing a person’s choices later on. For example, most students who get undergraduate degrees in philosophy do not wither away, as some might think, nor do they typically become professional philosophers. My experience is that they tend to be whip-smart analysts of data and trends. The same could be said for a host of people trained in the fields of American literature, contemporary American history or interpersonal communication.  These days, education is more about understanding systems and processes than static facts.  So analysis and criticism—the essence of most Liberal Arts disciplines—is the perfect match for fields that want innovators, creative disruptors, and problem-solvers. The most evident self-starters I see on my own campus seem to be writing for the campus paper, producing plays and videos, or organizing special-interest clubs. They are not intimidated by engagement with members of a diverse community.

The value of these analytical skills was affirmed in a conversation with the parent of an applicant a few months ago.  At an open house she mentioned that she worked on wall street for an investment firm, noting that they were especially interested in hiring people whose paths through college didn’t necessarily include majors in a business curriculum.  She was suggesting that her firm wanted people who understood human and organizational problems, not just economic equations.