Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Academic Humanist's Apologia

For some time I have been watching with interest as people have debated the place that the liberal arts (to which I have dedicated my professional life for more than a decade) have in modern education.  I believe in the value of the liberal arts, personally, but I think there are legitimate reasons why other people don't.  I think the future of the liberal arts looks better as we artists learn to relate better to others, including those who see us as a waste of space.

Articles like this one are too true for comfort. That said, I don't believe that people like Alan Bloom (cited in the article) are right to blame moral relativism for the death of the humanities. On the contrary, the real reason we care about things like justice is that they differ palpably (and relatively) as different people identify and apply them in different historical circumstances. The virtues are interesting to us precisely because they are not monolithic, uniform, or absolute. We are drawn to them because they are relative.

They are also not guaranteed to make anyone wealthy or "productive" (in the modern sense). They require time, hard work (ponos), and a high tolerance for failure (when you think you know what justice means and the result is blatantly unjust: you must have the acumen to notice this, acknowledge it to yourself and others, and move forward to something new). They teach us how to be happy, not how to have lots of stuff or be "leaders" (which seem to abound in modern society the same way the A-grade does: we are all super-intelligent leaders, so we all wear the same clothes, spout the same platitudes, compete for the same jobs, and expect the same material "rewards" from our moral education).

If people decide that the humanities are not worth paying for, then I will be sorry to lose my chance to be a professional humanist. But I will not stop reading, thinking, or cultivating the humanist virtues that I regard as essential components of my moral integrity. I don't do these things merely to make a living. I do them because I love them. I am a humanist first and foremost because I love humanism, not because I expect to make a comfortable living teaching, reading, and writing in the manner of some really fortunate humanists before me. 

Personally, I think part of the problem is that we are currently living in an education bubble similar to the housing bubble that just exploded. Contrary to the rhetoric we often hear bandied about these days, not everyone needs to take a university degree to contribute meaningfully to society. Not everyone needs to take a degree in humanism to appreciate what it has to offer. Not everyone needs to study ancient Greek and Latin to benefit from reading and interpreting the classics. I know this. I currently teach many people who have never had experiences like mine. They will most likely never read all the books I have read (as I have not read all the books read by all the professors I have ever studied with). My purpose as an educator is not to make these students into clones of myself, professional humanists seeking employment with their local university, but to introduce them to the wide variety of tools humanism has come up with over the centuries to enable happy, virtuous living. I don't need to make piles of cash to do this. I don't even require guaranteed benefits (for myself or my dependents). I would never force anyone to take my classes. I would not advise anyone to take out massive loans in order to enroll in them.

I think the value of the humanities speaks for itself clearly enough to remain relevant even if they kick us from the university (so that they can have all the money for more sports and administrators, not to mention all the super-fancy facilities: some students apparently cannot have a real learning experience without an indoor climbing wall, jacuzzis, multiple restaurants, dorms that look like the Ritz, etc.). 

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