A particular nostalgia is at work in academic discussion. We still talk about of liberal education, the liberal arts, and the humanities as if they remain viable activities in higher education, threatened, yes, and losing ground, but open to revival. Universities have grown ever more “corporate,” students flock to business and vocational programs, the sciences get all the money, parents want kids to major in job-related fields, and humanities professors have social sciences interests (race, imperialism, sexuality), but commentators nonetheless regret the impact of those trends on liberal education as if it were still an active conception.
The latest example is a thoughtful essay by Gilbert Meilaender in The New Atlantis, “Who Needs a Liberal Education?” In it, Meilaender makes several accurate observations.
- He notes that any discussion of higher education should divide the wealthy and few elites such as Williams and Wesleyan from all the other institutions: “None of these trends, problematic though they are, really threatens the continued existence or well-being of the very best (and most highly endowed) colleges and universities.”
- He acknowledges how feeble are arguments for the usefulness of liberal arts coursework to future careers: “These courses may broaden a bit the horizons of people being trained to be future workers, may help those future workers learn to write coherent sentences . . .”
- He cautions against overplaying the universal value of humanistic study: “It may simply be true that education in the liberal arts is not intended for or needed by many students.”
- And, against much educational wisdom, he praises specialization: “The would-be student in the liberal arts is well advised to look for schools where the specialized academic disciplines are valued and cultivated — and equally well advised to steer clear of schools touting new interdisciplinary initiatives. This also means that much of the criticism of academic “specialization” one hears all too often from purported advocates of the liberal arts is missing the mark. No one’s knowledge is narrower than that of the non-specialist, who knows a very little about a very lot.”
These are cogent assertions, and they carry us beyond expressions of resentment and accusation leveled often by my humanities colleagues against the spirit of the age.
But when Meilaender turns to the liberal arts themselves, explaining what they are for, we see that the issue is closed. His projections are noble and serious, but as you read them you can’t help comparing them to the sensibility of American undergraduates, college administrators, and younger humanities professors.
- “Not the world as we would like it to be but the world as it is in truth is what the student of the liberal arts seeks, and the natural sciences will not let us forget that.”
- “The liberal arts should help us to understand the truth about our lives — which means, in part, the truth of our contingency and neediness, and, ultimately, our dependence on the divine.”
- “It seeks not power but wisdom, not to change the world but to know it in truth.”
- “If the ultimate aim of education in the liberal arts is to draw us out of ourselves, to teach us the language of praise and gratitude . . .”
Needless to say, this approach runs squarely against the dominant trends within the humanities for the last 40 years. You will find few tenured and untenured English professors to agree with Meilaender’s summons. All that talk about wisdom and gratitude and transcendence wouldn’t evoke anything more than an indulgent chuckle from colleagues who know so much better, having read Marx, Derrida, Foucault, Butler, and Said.
A dean would nod his head in support, throw a serious air over his countenance, and then sigh, because the budget looks bleak, other departments are calling, and the admissions office warns of a smaller applicant pool. He likes the idea of using religious language to draw in more students, but, at most, considers it pleasant window dressing that appeals only to a small niche group.
Undergraduates would hear those high-sounding phrases as precisely that, somber invocations coming from far away. They inhabit a world of 150 text messages per day, nonstop pop music, consumer goods, and career insecurity. Nothing in youth culture echoes the virtuous aims of liberal education, and in their schooling they have heard much more about achievement and “helping others” than about knowledge and taste and humanitas. Some of them go to church, but only a few of them connect faith with learning. They have other interests, and they’ve been conditioned by 18 years of TV, Web, social media, peer pressure, hiphop, and Burger King against education for education’s sake.
Parents have a simpler reaction. They look at tuition and the job market for youths and wonder where the payoff for education-in-transcendence will come.
Our culture reinforces each attitude. We are awash in vulgarity and superficiality. Even as more high culture is available than ever before (YouTube has great stuff from the 1950s), much more mass culture is, too, and it swamps the better offerings entirely. Johnny Carson used to have authors and their recent books on The Tonight Show nearly every episode, a new novel by Saul Bellow or John Steinbeck was a national event, and Time Magazine profiled Thelonious Monk. Now, we have Stephen Colbert yucking it up for a few minutes with an author in a way that trivializes the work, the series (Mad Men, The Wire, etc.) has replaced the novel as our national mirror, and Time profiles Kanye West. And according National Endowment for the Arts, rates of attendance at traditional performances has plummeted:
Attendance at musicals saw the first significant drop since the 1985 SPPA [Survey of Public Participation in the Arts]: a 9 percent rate of decline from 2008 to 2012. Non-musical play attendance fell at a 12 percent rate over the same period. Museum-going also saw a decline: 21 percent of adults (or 47 million) visited an art museum or gallery in 2012, down from 23 percent in 2008.”
The trend is clear. The humanities need public interest in high culture, and it isn’t there. The fields can only survive in a society that respects its best objects of study, one that pays attention to novelists, philosophers, composers, and critics. If the wider culture doesn’t honor the difference between The Odyssey and Mad Men, academic culture can’t support it. People have tried to maintain the disciplines, to keep them relevant, by claiming Mad Men and other popular creations as part of their work, emphasizing critical thinking and astute interpretative postures on these middle-brow materials. But the food is too thin, and undergraduates and administrators know it.
We are left with a different starting point. As George Steiner once put it in conversation, “The humanities have had 23 good centuries—don’t get greedy or upset that it happens to be coming to an end.” Let’s no longer say, “How can we save the humanities?” Instead, let us admit, “Liberal education is over. What do we do now?”