Friday, January 21, 2011

Blurring the liberal arts

The guardians of the liberal arts, like Mary Crane, have made the same mistake as the Jewish socialists and Yiddishists who emigrated to this country in the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. In the epilogue to World of Our Fathers (1976), Irving Howe tried to explain their mistake, while also minimizing it:

Jews in America would remain Jews; their institutions would survive, flourish, and multiply; their religion would be kept alive by a phalanx of sentinels, and it could be chosen by anyone, [born] Jewish or not, who was drawn to its promise. But very little of what held the immigrant Jews together—the fabric of their ways, the bond of common tradition, the sharing of language—was able to survive much beyond a century.In fact, the Jewish institutions that survived were religious institutions with foundations sunk deeply into the Jewish religious tradition. The ventures established by Jewish secularists as the maskil alternative to religious institutions—the Yiddish newspapers and theaters, the workmen’s circles, the educational alliances—all disappeared with the secularists themselves. In a letter to the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, Howe was more candid. “We secularists lost the battle,” he said sadly—although he added: “through no fault of our own.”

Dawidowicz would have nothing of it. Jewish secularists, she told Howe, had no one but themselves to blame for Jewish secularism’s failure to survive. “The fault was that the secularists valued secularism and socialism over Jewishness and Jewish continuity,” she said. The Jewish content of what the securlarists “wanted to transmit—or were competent—to their children was too meager to be meaningful to sustain any Jewish identity, since it lacked the original grounding in Jewish traditional life that the first generation of Jewish secularists had had.”

The guardians of the liberal arts have made exactly the same mistake. They themselves are securely grounded in the tradition of the liberal arts—they know the languages and literatures so well they can dispense with them—but they have small interest and less intention of giving their students anything approaching the same grounding. Like the early Jewish secularists in this country, they cannot see that it is their very grounding in the tradition that enables them to “blur [its] boundaries.” Their revolt against the liberal arts belongs to the liberal arts.

But not their students’. Since they are strangers to it, the students can only revolt against their estrangement from the tradition. Who can marvel that, just as the children of Jewish secularists drifted away from Jewish life, students have drifted away from the liberal arts. For them, blurring the boundaries has meant they are unlikely to learn very much at all. Their teachers, the guardians of the liberal arts, valued something else, including their own self-image as enlightened revolutionaries, over the liberal arts and the continuity of liberal arts education.


Alex Shippee said...

Great point. Teachers may know their material well, but if they don't make a concerted effort to package it in a receptive way, then the liberal arts will flounder.

How can we affect some positive change? Thank you for posting.

Unknown said...

Thanks. This adds an interesting dimension to recent thoughts about the vespertinal sadness of a certain highly cultured professor of my acquaintance. In his days as a young Turk he zealously pushed the change in focus his department from English Literature to Cultural Studies. How exciting it seemed at the time, how meager the fruit.
An inverse H.S.Mauberley.