Friday, January 23, 2009

Liberal Arts as Entertainment

Jared Callaway led me to this article in the New York Times by Stanley Fish about the future of liberal arts education. Fish predicts that the utilitarian trajectory of education--how will this major help me get a job--will eventually squash the liberal arts in all but high end universities like Harvard and such. Of course, as Adam Smith did not anticipate the persistent irrationality of the consumer, Fish doesn't take into account (or at least doesn't mention) ideological traditions like conservative Christian colleges where certain ideas in tension with the broader culture stand at the very center of their identity. They will live a long time.

But from my very early days at IWU, I was told that although we call ourselves a liberal arts institution, we more have to trick our students into liberal arts types things. We're not really about the liberal arts, but, in effect, we slip our students a Mickie for their own good. I was told this by the Dean at the time, although not in those words!

I believe no culture in our times will be great without the liberal arts. A purely pragmatic society is a sick society, or at least one more akin to unreflective animals than to great humanity. But I acknowledge that the benefits are not immediately or transparently seen. And they are certainly not desired by the majority. It is hard to argue for the liberal arts in terms of immediate pay off. Most students do not go to college to get the liberal arts and institutions that focus on them without giving consumers a sense of "job acquisition" will close, will fail.

It doesn't matter that the liberal arts are valuable, are important. Those who have left the cave can shout to the top of their lungs, and they will still be killed, eaten for supper. People won't pay for it, and your college is down the tubes. As a word of warning to IWU, our prosperity is toast if we become too "principaled" in this area. The institutions that we would be imitating are the ones in financial crisis. A word to the wise is sufficient.

The vast majority of humans need to be tricked into virtue, brainwashed, because it is not the default tendency. Homo sapiens is a herd animal. It does not naturally think of the greater good over the pleasure of its group or, in the West, the pleasure of itself as an individual. You will find money to fund weapons development. You will find money to fund pressing medical developments....

... and the ignorant Philistines who run the world will make fun of those who want to use government funding to build a telescope in Chicago. They are ignorant... and they run the world, will always run the world. Plato's Republic was a dismal failure when he tried it on a real king in the making. Why be selfless when you're the king?

Linebackers bring pleasure to millions and they are paid millions. It is the nature of things. Latin teachers give pleasure to dozens and they are pain dozens. So shall it be.

I do believe that one of the things that has made America great are the tax deductions we give for charitable giving. We have made a utility out of giving to things whose profit to you would not otherwise have been apparent. It is the non-instrumental pursuit of truth--truth for its own sake--and the non-instrumental expression of feeling (art for its own sake) that make us truly human and that make a society great. And they have made us great. The pay-off is immense, although not immediately quantifiable.

As for the all powerful rabble, give them the liberal arts as entertainment. You can get someone to leave their X-box long enough to see The 300. We can trick them into thinking about hard choices in a movie that presents them. This has always been the case.

Entertainment can be a catalyst for self-reflection and for inadvertent learning. Bread and circuses--that's what I'm talking about. Give them the liberal arts on a sandwich and sneak in history and science as part of the circus. Let's start a conspiracy for the betterment of humanity!


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thank you.

James F. McGrath said...

That's one of the things I love about LOST and the Matrix films. They got people interested in philosophy and/or literature that they might not have otherwise.

::athada:: said...

Is this how we are to rise above our self-interest (or "enlightened" self-interest")?

Or is that simply in the self-interest of the academics and do-gooders in non-profit institutions?!

Ken Schenck said...

I believe even evolutionary sociologists are arguing that altruistic tendencies create an advantage for the survival and thriving of a species, including the human species. Species that work together thrive better than those that don't.

Some of these thoughts lie behind my considering most humans little more than other animals, and those who are noble, who are self-reflective and self-critical, who are creative, as more authentically human.

To put it in theological language, Christ gives us the consummate example of what humanity can be. But the majority human state is fallen, ignoble, unaware of itself, and "conservative" (meaning resistant to change).

::athada:: said...

That's a great insight.

I'd love to see some cross-discipline collaboration at IWU on this issue of self-interest, "enlightned" SI, and other-interest. To have an economist talk about observed behavior, a sociologist about culture & group behavior, a theologian about God's work in humanity, and a biologist about the physical reality of the survival of species.

I think it would help both professors and students avoid ideological tunnel vision. Not to name any names, but from my experience...

Beth B said...

In the "dark ages" immediately following the fall of Rome and the rule of the barbarians, there were outposts of culture and scholarship called monasteries. They preserved scripture, history, philosophy and art of the past while making their own unique contributions to those areas.

If Alasdair MacIntyre is correct, we are again in a dark age of competing and crumbling intellectual systems, where pragmatism rules. Where will we find ourcontemporary "monasteries?" Who will be our contemporary "monks?" I would hope that there would be other bastions of the liberal arts besides the Ivy league schools! What if they could be churches?