Who needs the liberal arts?

There have been several interesting posts in recent weeks exploring this question of the liberal arts and their relevance to us.

Alan Jacobs reviewed an article by Patricia Viera on why literature matters and found it wanting:

It is not possible to come up with an adequate “defense of literature,” because “literature” doesn’t exist: too many wildly different kinds of plays and stories and poems and songs fall under that useless rubric. Defenses of specific works, or specific authors, or even specific ways of reading specific works or authors, might be possible and useful; but nothing broader than that.

And maybe we should remember also these words from George Orwell: “There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”

At Christ and Pop Culture, Geoffrey Reiter defends the oft-maligned English major (as someone with a BA in English, I appreciate this) :

In other words, far from being an abstraction or a liability, a liberal arts major in today’s difficult economic world might carry some distinct value.  Yet a major in English or Philosophy is hardly a guarantee of an instant job interview or an easily viable skill-set.  First, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, many employers will be skittish about hiring people who do not have a specific major in their fields.  Nervous about bottom lines and immediate results, they might shy away from someone who lacks the direct training necessary for their arenas.  Moreover, while liberal arts degrees will tend to cultivate critical thinking or creative problem solving, they will not necessarily createthose qualities.  Such majors may very well attract students who are already incisive thinkers, but students with limited interest in exploring the realms of thought raised in humanities courses will be no better prepared for the job market than they would have been if they majored in more pragmatic degree, and they will probably have had a miserable time at college along the way.

On a more fundamental level, the aspect of the conversation that I find most troubling is the trend of identifying college education as primarily a means toward securing a job upon graduation.  As Christians, ought we to regard our college degrees in this manner?  Of course, the university as we know it did not exist in biblical times; yet both the Old Testament and the New Testament clearly indicate that God places a high value on education.  In one of the most fundamental passages of the Pentateuch, Moses delivers God’s educational charge to the Hebrew people:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV)

Education in God’s word is indeed not merely an occasional occurrence, but a habit, a way of life.  Luke’s gospel, when translating verse 5 of this passage, recognizes that the Hebrew word “heart” also encompasses the discreet Greek concept of the mind and translates the passage, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (10:27, italics added).  Nor is loving God with our heart/mind limited to learning the Bible (though Scripture is always the foundation of godly knowledge); the Bible itself frequently cites or alludes to other literatures, and the individuals in the Bible absorb this knowledge without drifting into dangerous syncretism.

Next, Samuel Goldman, also writing at The American Conservative, highlights one recent report from the National Association of Scholars as an example of how not to defend the liberal arts:

Bennett begins by asserting that “Plato… remarked that the two most important questions in society are ‘Who teaches the children?’ and ’What do they teach them?’” Unfortunately, Plato “remarks” no such thing, at least in any of the works known to me (I invite readers to correct me if I’m wrong). I suppose that the phrase could be a reasonable, if rather simplistic summary of Plato’s thought about education. But the actual source appears to be a Michelle Malkin column. The phrase also appears, without a specific citation, on a number of cut-and-paste quote sites. Misquotation happens all the time, of course. But it’s a bad start for a defense of traditional education–particularly one that claims that Bowdoin students aren’t learning enough about Greek philosophy.

Klingenstein’s letter reflects a more serious problem. It is addressed to “to all Bowdoin alumni, but in particular to those over the age of, say, fifty to fifty-five, a line that more or less demarcates old Bowdoin from new.” I cannot imagine an appeal more likely to alienate readers outside movement conservatism. By appealing explicitly to nostalgia for mostly white and (until 1971) all male “old Bowdoin”, Klingenstein places the report right in its critics’ crosshairs.

One additional resource worth looking at is the series of videos on academics and work hosted at Canon Wired.

It seems to me that the liberal arts require a fundamentally different turn of mind to be justified. To a modern, they are almost impossible to support, hence the current discussions about possibly charging less in tuition for engineering degrees and similar programs and higher tuition for the humanities. If education exists as job training, why should a person study literature unless they plan to make a living as a teacher? Wendell Berry saw all this coming 20 years ago when he wrote his essay “The Joys of Sales Resistance.”

Actually, as we know, the new commercial education is fun for everybody. All you have to do in order to have or to provide such an education is to pay your money (in advance) and master a few simple truths:

I. Educated people are more valuable than other people because education is a value-adding industry.

II. Educated people are better than other people because education improves people and makes them good.

III. The purpose of education is to make people able to earn more and more money.

IV. The place where education is to be used is called “your career.”

V. Anything that cannot be weighed, measured, or counted does not exist.

VI. The so-called humanities probably do not exist. But if they do, they are useless. But whether they exist or not or are useful or not, they can sometimes be made to support a career.

VII Literacy does not involve knowing the meanings of words, or learning grammar, or reading books.

VIII The sign of exceptionally smart people is that they speak a language that is intelligible only to other people in their “field” or only to themselves. This is very impressive and is known as “professionalism.”

IX. The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have.

X. The mark of a good teacher is that he or she spends most of his or her time doing research and writes many books and articles.

XI. The mark of a good researcher is the same as that of a good teacher.

XII. A great university has many computers, a lot of government and corporation research contracts, a winning team, and more administrators than teachers.

XIII. Computers make people even better and smarter than they were made by previous thingamabobs. Or if some people prove incorrigibly wicked or stupid or both, computers will at least speed them up.

XIV. The main thing is, don’t let education get in the way of being nice to children. Children are our Future. Spend plenty of money on them but don’t stay home with them and get in their way. Don’t give them work to do; they are smart and can think up things to do on their own. Don’t teach them any of that awful, stultifying, repressive, old-fashioned morality. Provide plenty of TV, microwave dinners, day care, computers, computer games, cars. For all this, they will love and respect us and be glad to grow up and pay our debts.

XV. A good school is a big school.

XVI. Disarm the children before you let them in.

To understand the value of the liberal arts, we need to accept the notion of “the good life,” and recognize that one’s life cannot be separated from one’s means of making a living, but neither can it be defined exclusively in terms of one’s profession. With the careerist assumptions so many of our nation’s leaders bring into their thought on education, it is very difficult to justify the existence of the humanities.