The most important question any of us can ask is : “What constitutes a life worth all the considerable bother?” To help us answer this question, we have generally had the liberal arts to turn to. So why then are the liberal arts disappearing from the academic landscape?
It’s sad, because a liberal arts education can train people in how to think critically, creatively, and systematically about a variety of complex problems, and it’s increasingly important in modern society and in the modern economy to train not merely in specific kinds of technical expertise – though that is also important – but as a general problem solver.
Of course the ultimate value of a liberal arts education is not reducible to its utility. On the contrary, I would pay any necessary price to continue my lifelong study of literature, philosophy, poetry, music, and art.
You remind me of NASA and the early space program. From the get-go, NASA felt a need to justify the huge expenditures involved in sending a man to the moon, by pointing out all the practical discoveries and innovations that flowed directly or indirectly from the expenditure of all those billions.of dollars. This practicalization being no longer as powerful a tool as it once was in holding sway over American public opinion, the American space program is slowly disappearing – and with it the spiritual quest it once represented. Will private quests replace the disappearing, or already disappeared, public quests? What is your guess?
Hmm, this is a very interesting question and it’s not easy to answer, in part because I think things are changing very rapidly. For the last 15 years what I have seen is society focusing its attention on “disruptive” individuals – people who effect great change very quickly, in keeping with an individual vision. This jives well with the individual heroic myth in the European tradition.
I think this is a heroic age in the sense that it is characterized by great opportunity and danger, and rapid changes in fortune. and I do think that individuals generally have to act in such times out of their own depths. Creative individuals must be, as Nietzsche put it, an “aus-sich-rollendes Rad” – a wheel rolling out of its own center.
Joseph Campbell frequently quoted a French Arthurian epic from the High Middle Ages in which the Knights of the Round Table set off to find the Holy Grail, and, the author tells us, each went into the forest at the place of their own choosing, where the forest seemed darkest and there was no path, for they thought it would be a disgrace to enter by another’s way.
The male psyche, as evolved, requires of every male, I think, that he find a heroic path and, following it, come to view himself as a heroic figure. Absent such a vision of himself, he either lashes out or withers and dies. It would be interesting, I think, to juxtapose this statement with mass murders and the opioid pandemic. (Do we need more white horses and vision quests?)
That is a very striking formulation. I think what you say is true for the European tradition, where individuation of the ego is the hallmark of psycho-spiritual maturation, but the process of growth may take a different form in, for example, Asian societies, where personal development is characterized as the relinquishment of the ego, in the service of conforming to the established order, whether it’s the dharma or the Tao. From this comparative framework, one society’s maturity resembles another society’s state of juvenile arrest.
If we do affirm the fact that we need more vision quests, then it seems to me we’re also saying that we believe in the inherent wisdom and decency of the human heart, and we have faith that when people go courageously to the inner depths, they’ll come back with something of collective value. When I think about it that way, it’s really challenging.
The liberal arts — at their best — teach you how to think critically. (May I say that they teach you how to tell fake news from real news?) They give you a stance from which to observe and think about the larger world. They teach you that you are part of a long tradition, whether that be in the arts or science, and that your individual contribution is made upon the contributions of those who came before you. In the arts, they teach the power of the imagination and, at best, enable you to enter imaginatively into the minds and experiences of others. Thus, they foster human connection.
I have to believe that the liberal arts are fundamentally subversive to the larger culture because they teach people to question. So naturally they appear to be dying right now, but they will come back once people are desperate enough for non-material sustenance.
The academic landscape had been small plots of fertile ground, meticulously tended. It made sense for a small segment of each generation to be educated for insight rather than vocation. But when vast tracts of less fertile land are cleared for an all-inclusive academic landscape, the mission has to change. Some – perhaps most – people need vocations. This is not to say that the liberal arts are only a luxury for elite snobs. Being encouraged to think, finding purpose amd meaning in life, exploring the heights of civilization amd culture – these should be widely taught and shared – and at the top of the academic pyramid, they still are.
For far too many, a college or graduate degree is a misapplied, irrelevant and inflated certification required for job entry. Also, it is the basis of a “higher education” industry that profits obscenely on counterfeit educational credentials. We may be witnessing the death throes of the human workforce, with AI and automation soon to replace us. Then, perhaps we can get off the treadmill/diploma mill and be the humanists rather than the drones we have become.
I would have to agree with that. I would also like to quote BF Skinner, who said, “education is what remains when everything you’ve learned has been forgotten.” Education changes, largely for the better, how you think about the world. You may not notice it until you are exposed to people who have little to no education. Current times make clear that quality thinking has never been more important– or lacking.
I’m glad I went to a liberal arts college. Most people think of college as practical preparation for a career, but for me it was mainly an experience with intrinsic value–four years of rich living that established a template for how I’ve tried to live ever since.