Monday, February 27, 2012

The Unservile Arts

An interesting article by Andrew Delbanco on the endangerment of liberal arts in the college context. It really does seem that liberal arts at the college level is in very bad straits. In any case, just some random thoughts on the subject:

(1) College is an extraordinarily inefficient way to teach workers what they need in order to work. The best way to teach workers what they need to do is to give them on-the-job training, or to make use of a workshop-and-licensing system. Sending someone to college so that they will be a more productive filer of papers is truly absurd; and right now the only thing that a college degree really signals to most businesses is that you can stick with something for a few years.

Likewise, you don't get a competitive and productive workforce by sending them to school; you get a competitive and productive workforce by making it worth the time and effort it takes to work competitively and productively, and by giving them the resources required to do so. We do, in fact, do this, in part by putting an immense amount of pressure on people to get things that most people can only get by being good workers; and school does, in fact, contribute directly to this by teaching people to sit at desks and do work, and the like, but this direct contribution is minor. Education mostly contributes indirectly, by turning out people who can do things and make things that make other people more competitive and productive.

Everyone should remember the Gilbert & Sullivan song about the modern major-general, which was making precisely this point.

(2) Our current system of higher education has all the features typically associated with an educational system on the verge of breakdown. Educational institutions go through phases of intellectual stagnation and institutional breakdown. 'Intellectual stagnation' here does not mean that no original or good work is done, but has to do with the conditions required for it: education stagnates to the extent that valuable ideas are more and more costly in terms of time, effort, or resources, either on the part of the student or on the part of the teacher, thus making actual education increasingly difficult, or inconsistent, or expensive. Serious intellectual life may not freeze completely, but it slows, wasted on things that are sterile -- like journal articles that are never cited, or paperwork that simply takes up time -- or on things that misfire because people aren't prepared to use them -- like teaching methods that, fine in themselves, don't work well with students who actually need several more years of study before they will be prepared to read or write at a college level. Institutional breakdown, on the other hand, is economic in character. As Randall Collins has argued, our current educational system exhibits symptoms of both. This is not always easy to see because we pour such an extraordinary volume of people through our academic system, and put such extraordinary pressures on the people going through, that we still come up with some very good things, just by luck and numbers and brute force. But simply looking at good results isn't a way to determine the quality of the system -- and on closer look there's a lot of deterioration. People are overworked; degrees glut markets; expenses rise without real improvement; and so forth. In our case, one of the major problems is that the people who have real power are (1) not educators; and (2) don't care about education itself, and treat it only as a means to something else entirely. The first isn't necessarily a problem; non-educators have sometimes been the greatest reformers of educational systems. But the second is a pathology that destroys an educational system.

(3) Which raises another point: the reason we call them 'liberal arts' is that they are the things that by nature are suitable for free persons. This is why utility is a secondary issue in liberal arts: the point is not to make people useful, it's to make them more free. Merely useful people are mere slaves, and if you think that the point of education is to build a competitive and productive labor force, you are saying that the point of education is to make people more effective instruments of other people -- which is, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, what a slave is. Now, we are all going to be someone's instrument for something, and our ability to be such is an important element of society; but what distinguishes the free citizen from the mere slave is that the free citizen is not merely a productive and competitive worker, but someone who can do things simply because they are excellent things to do, without any regard for profit beyond that. This is something that admits of more and less; something is a liberal art precisely in the way that it can make you more of that kind of person. This is the unspoken problem of the instrumentalist view of education: people who place instrumental usefulness above all things are evil -- and I mean that quite literally, since they subordinate the moral to useful, and treat people as mere means -- and while having an instrumentalist view of education does not automatically make you that kind of person, it does make you complicit with such people. It is a morally corrosive view.

Note, of course, that this does not imply that education can't have as one of its goals giving people what they need to be productive, competitive workers. But if you are judging everything in education on whether it is conducive to this end, you are advocating an educational system in which people are treated like tools and not like people -- in other words, a machine for enslavement.

(4) Of course, part of the problem with liberal arts is due to the academics who are supposed to teach them. 'Liberal arts' have always been those arts or disciplines that are suitable by nature to free people, but with the older meaning of the term they were envisioned as literally skills -- things like being able to add, or understanding how to use geometry, or being able to write and deliver a speech. This was well-defined. The more modern usage is not well-defined at all, and includes all sorts of content that may or may not give skills in the sense that used to be meant. And the result is that what you get is very much more of a mixed bag, and it's harder to tell whether you're getting quality. But it's still possible to do so. And the capacity of these things to improve one's character as a free person should always be foremost in one's evaluation. Jane Austen is worth learning because people who read Austen are people whose lives have value that is independent of their usefulness as labor. Other things, like (say) Zombie Studies, may not be as good as Austen for this while still contributing to this to some extent.

(5) But through it all we should remember that the liberal arts simply don't depend on the collegiate system; it depends on them, whether it acknowledges that fact or not. If the whole college system were to go bottoms up, people would still practice the liberal arts. There are real benefits to having educational institutions that support the liberal arts, but those institutions aren't essential to the arts. And I think this ends up being important. One reason why the liberal arts struggle is that so many people think of them as something you only do in college. This is clearly false. But as long as it is not recognized as false, people will never appreciate how much of what we call civilization is actually constructed entirely out of the liberal arts, or how much the liberal arts are a part of their lives when they aren't merely serving someone else's demands. Do you want people to appreciate the liberal arts? Start reminding them that their minds and hearts are free, and that they themselves show their true value in acts of liberty rather than in acts of servility.


  1. E.R. Bourne10:36 AM

    Brandon, is point 4 largely responsible for this? Is the relative ease with which the liberal arts are being eliminated largely due to people's popular conceptions, in many ways true, of colleges teaching classes like Zombie Studies? I want to say that this would still be happening at least to some extent because people now only see value in terms of usefulness, but what would be people's attitudes toward college if they thought it was transmitting Western civilization in the form of art, literature, history, philosophy, etc. instead of just teaching gullible children how to be obsequious soldirers for post-modernity?

  2. branemrys11:15 AM

    I don't think it particularly helps, but I don't think it's largely responsible for it. I actually think that, while it feeds into a sort of vicious cycle, these sorts of things are symptoms more than causes; Zombie-Studies-type courses are responses to the problems of trying to teach under the kinds of expectations people already have. And it should be said that some such courses are actually ingenious solutions, and that a good teacher can actually do some significant teaching in courses of this sort. But I think large segments of the population see 'transmitting Western civilization' as a pompous label for 'teaching things no one will ever use outside the class'.


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