Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Liberal Arts: Dead or Alive?

Everyone likes to declare something dead. Conservatives rejoice at the diagnosis so the idea can be lamented and progressives celebrate as they stomp it more fully into the dirt. The two parties then wag fingers at one another as the curmudgeon cackles with joy in the corner. Liberals, however, with fervor wish for everything live and it is this type of optimist who tells me that the Liberal Arts are alive and well. I want this to be true: it is not. I make this diagnosis from the observation that the Liberal Arts have no reason to exist.

I uncontroversially suggest that every thing which exists has a reason to exist, a cause. Since the Liberal Arts today lack a cause, a reason to exist held broadly by the people, where one finds them, one finds not culture but artifact. What cause does Western Civilization today have which might necessitate the Liberal Arts? Do we have a concept of any ideal to which the Liberal Arts and only the Liberal Arts will bring us? Earlier ages had purposes in mind for education: concepts like καλόν, ἀρετή, humanitas, and honor, and archetypes like the Christian man, the Renaissance man, the chevalier, the courtier, the aristocrat, the man of letters, the gentleman, or the citizen. Werner Jaeger from the introduction to his Paideia:

...the process of educating man into his true form, the real and genuine human nature. That is the true Greek paideia...It starts from the ideal, not from the individual. Above man as a member of the horde...stands man as an ideal. [Jaeger, xxiii-xxiv]
Does there exist then, in our society anything remotely resembling an ideal of man, or are we condemned to Plato's vision of the democratic "emporium of constitutions" which tempts man in a thousand different directions? In light of the above ideal and archetypes, our own vague notions seem soft and pitiable. The concept of negative liberty implies little about the ideal for man. Equality is no more vivid a concept: equal to one another but as what? Justice to us means mostly that no one ought to be aggressed against, which tells us precious little about what man ought to do. Now I'm not criticizing our ostensibly libertarian government, only observing that socially we seem to lack a motivating principle for education. Does the model of the citizen move anyone today? If the low voter turnout and the high rate of representative reelection indicate anything, it seems to me that we've contracted out civics to a class of administrators. Some ideal must remain, though, surely.

Two seem to prevail. The first is success, a word which we sometimes use as a respectable-sounding byword for power and money and sometimes as a stand-in for honor. Yet by neither success nor honor do we mean τιμή, a sense of one's cut and rightful place in society based on some merit or fulfillment of an ideal, or honoria, esteem for public service, but a vague unqualified approbation. By success we mostly mean status, which of course implies hierarchy and which today is synonymous with celebrity. It won't need much explanation to say that celebrity and the Liberal Arts have little in common.

The other ideal toward which we seem to strive is itself infamous: happiness. How often have we seen television film scenarios in which a surly conservative father castigates his son for not pursuing the proper profession whereas the good, liberal father tells him, "Whatever makes you happy." Without reference to a particular ideal, though, this is tantamount to relativism, and as such what seems so may be: that anyone who is doing well by his own standards is doing well enough. Of course this non-judgmental  approach might originate in benevolence, say, acknowledging someone's limitations and honoring them for achieving what success they can. We call such charity, or once did. On the other hand such relativism may be just that, relativism, and therefore feed into the burgeoning multiplicity of "values" among which no one is better than any other.

Perhaps if we lower our standards a bit and consider less popular ideals we may find some which might justify the Liberal Arts. Let us turn to the arts themselves, for surely they will be our refuge. The American PBS begins its television programs with the entreaty to, "Help everyone explore new worlds and ideas." To be frank: What? So "new worlds and ideas" are good for everyone? Not old ideas? Can ideas actually be new? What do they mean by "world?" Is this the best that anyone can come up with, or is this pitiful slogan the only accord we have on ideals?  Speaking of slogans, a most venerable statement has been trotted out as one. See image, left. What can Plato's famous statement possibly mean without context, though? Virtually anything, of course. Music lovers have simply recruited Plato amongst their ranks, heedless of his philosophy.

Perhaps the National Endowment for the Humanities will light the way. For starters, what does it mean to be an "independent federal agency?" Independent of what? Anyway, let us give them a chance to justify the humanities.

Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans. The Endowment accomplishes this mission by awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers. [link]
Well that's something, but it's just a hodgepodge of words. What's wisdom? Why does democracy demand it? Why do they use democracy and republic interchangeably? What are the "lessons of history?" Is that how history works? Why does excellence in the humanities strengthen the republic? Does promoting excellence strengthen the republic by creating wisdom? Why do they say serve and strengthen? Is there a difference?

It doesn't seem like they have any actual ideas, but they plan on achieving strength and wisdom by giving grants to "top-rated proposals," which I suppose are those which will bring about the most wisdom and strength, because money will fix everything. But wait, there's less, for the NEA wants to:

  • strengthen teaching and learning in schools and colleges
  • facilitate research and original scholarship
  • provide opportunities for lifelong learning
  • preserve and provide access to cultural and educational resources
  • strengthen the institutional base of the humanities

These are not ideals, or at least not beyond "learning for the sake of learning." Teaching and learning and research and scholarship and lifelong learning and resources and the "institutional base of the humanities." Are you inspired yet?

Let us at least see how they define the humanities, since they attempt to:

"The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life." --National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965, as amended
Is not limited to? Are they serious that this list is not inclusive enough? Still, that's not their most egregious error, which is prefacing their list with "the study and interpretation of." I can't imagine a more meaningless premise, that you are "doing the humanities" just by "studying" and "interpreting," regardless of where you start, what you do, and where you end up.  I cannot pass over the ridiculous which follows: humanistic content and methods? What on earth? We apply the humanities to reflect our diversity? What gobbledygook.

Whatever we think of the NEA, it offers means, not ends. That may be well and good, but still then, from where will we get a reason for the liberal arts?

Undoubtedly there exist in many people true and proper ideals which kindle the liberal arts, but they do not endure in society as a whole. It is this degradation, and not laziness, lack of funding, or rampant philistinism which has sapped the humanities of its vital energy. Jaeger again:

Since the basis of education is a general consciousness of the values which govern numan life, its history is affected by changes in the values current within the community. When these values are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes inoperative. [Jaeger, xiv]
The educational process does not die at once but is weakened until it devolves into pedantics and nostalgia and eventually is replaced. Too the process is not one which can be flicked on like a switched or programmed into a course of study, but must be lived and seen to be alive. It must be the culture.

We can only justify the liberal arts with concrete ideals about what man is and what he ought to do. Detached from them, these arts are neither liberal nor humanistic. The fact that we have so little art which reflects ideals tells us more about the state of the humanities than do the charters and funding of the nation's massive, grinding educational apparati. Like education, art without purpose is just so much pretend and pretense. Artists make no meaningful art because they have no ideals toward which they can struggle, no vision of man, God, or life which gives context to his otherwise self-orientated world. The Liberal Arts and Humanities kindle and cultivate in the individual, and urge him to recognize in others, an ideal, without which remains nothing but the bare world.

Jaeger, Werner. (Highet, Gilbert. trans.) Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Oxford University Press. 1939.

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