Thursday, January 20, 2011

The burden of the liberal arts

The best way to improve the standing of the liberal arts is to stop defending them. Or so says the director of the newly created Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College. Losing students everywhere, threatened by the rise of for-profit colleges, in danger of being severely cut back even at research universities, the liberal arts don’t need explanation and defense. They need rethinking. “I believe that liberal arts education needs to rethink its scope and definition for the 21st century,” Mary Crane argues. The possibility that the gran ripensamento of the last forty years might actually be behind the liberal arts’ decline never darkens her mind.

A Shakespeare scholar appointed to “foster[] innovative programs in the liberal arts” at the Jesuit school, Crane wants more and more of what students are already in flight from. After all, why should the humanities be central to a liberal arts education? “As fields like cultural studies and area studies blur the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences,” she says, “the center of gravity may have shifted in productive ways that we need to acknowledge.” Because, you know, the demand for cultural studies remains “innovative” after four decades.

On Crane’s own evidence—she quotes Louis Menand as saying so—the decline in liberal arts enrollments began in 1970. This was the same year that the term cultural studies was first introduced to the Modern Language Association. The critic Benjamin DeMott reported on a conference he had attended at Richard Hoggart’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Hoggart, of course, had coined the term six years earlier in founding the center. His was the best paper at the conference, DeMott said:

Professor Hoggart’s claim was that conventional English teachers’ attitudes about proper taste, good literature, high culture, the degraded life of the masses, etc., are, on the whole, disabling; they prevent teachers from using the full resources of mind and feeling in the labor of clarifying immediate experience. The way to know the truth of (for example) the consumer ethos, Hoggart proposed, is to move toward it, to invite classes into an encounter with the thing itself, and to press teacher and student alike to record and interpret the encounter with alertness to nuance, sensitive, imaginative consciousness.[1]The phrasing had not yet been reduced to formula, but the innovation is recognizable nevertheless in DeMott’s description. Students in cultural studies classes are “invited” to “move toward” the “immediate experience” of culture—not cultural artifacts, but the “thing itself.” DeMott’s example is particularly telling. Not human greatness nor even human depravity but the “consumer ethos” is what the student might “know the truth of.”

When Crane warns, then, that the humanities should not be treated as a synonym for the liberal arts—that they should not be “conflated with a Western intellectual tradition”—she is fostering innovation along deeply rutted paths. Since the early ’seventies, “we” have tried to save the liberal arts by abandoning them. Perhaps it is time to take a different path.

And perhaps the advice of someone else who taught in the Boston area some years ago might be more likely to reverse the decline, and even to attract students who are tired of calls to “rethink” their intellectual heritage. In 1907, after resigning his professorship at Harvard, William James returned to Cambridge to address alumnae of Radcliffe College. “Of what use is a college training?” he asked the women who had already gone through it. His answer was succinct. It should, he said, emphasizing every word, “help you to know a good man when you see him.”[2]

Not even someone of his distinction could get away with saying something like that today. But James, who introduced real innovations into American culture and did not merely talk about fostering them, felt no pressure to call into question the Western intellectual tradition in order to establish his fides as an academic reformer. The teacher of the liberal arts, he said, must give his students a “sense of human superiority.”

To accomplish this much, his curriculum “not only consists of masterpieces, but is largely about masterpieces.” Not just literary criticism’s famous “close reading” or the “close and small-scale cultural reading” that Hoggart urged as its replacement, the method of the liberal arts is what James called the “sifting of human creations”—that is, the study of “human efforts and conquests” as “so many quests of perfection on the part of men. . . .” James explained:You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar [its original meaning], art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.Instead of pushing the humanities to the margins, James suggested that even scientific and technical subjects might be recentered as humanities. By sifting human creations, by distinguishing greatness from celebrity, “we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time,” he said, and “we acquire standards of the excellent and durable.” A liberal arts education “ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, and a disgust for cheapjacks.”

Such an education might even prove useful in what Mary Crane calls “our era of globalization,” in which we still prefer a good plumber to a bungler and an honest president to a liar. She imagines a liberal arts education “freed from the burden of defense,” and released into dwindling significance. William James understood that the liberal arts might lead to a different sort of freedom—the freedom to accept the burden of human judgment.

[1] Benjamin DeMott, “Cultural Studies,” PMLA 85 (March 1970): 308.

[2] William James, “The Social Value of the College-Bred,” in Writings, 1902–1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York: Library of America, 1987), p. 1242–49. Originally published in McClure’s Magazine in February 1908.


Leo Wong said...

It is the films of Yasujiro Ozu who help me see a good woman when I see her, and I do not need cultural studies to learn from them. "The sifting of human creations!" Else why does Professor Somiya in Late Spring write about Friedrich List and read Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (in English) while on vacation with his daughter? In bringing everything to the consumer level, we have become very small indeed.

PMH said...

Today William James would not get an interview at the MLA.

Who would recognize even as worthy?

No judgement. Teach the conflict!

Alex Shippee said...

I had a philosophy professor that brought The Illiad and The Odyssey to his honeymoon. Him and his new wife read it together while visiting the Greek Isles. It was inspiring to hear that lit. had a very real place in his life.

Dick Stanley said...

Could the decline in enrollment be explained as simply that students don't like to read or write and, according to this study, at least, they no longer are encouraged to do either?