How workers killed the liberal arts

The original purpose of liberal arts has been co-opted by a focus on utility, writes Andrew Taggart.
The original purpose of liberal arts has been co-opted by a focus on utility, writes Andrew Taggart.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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“Work is fundamental to who you are and who you will become,” Bates College president Clayton Spencer told freshmen who had just arrived at the small liberal arts college in 2013. And, she continued, “I hope you realize by now that you have been working all of your life.” These freshmen, she assured them on that autumn day, were about to embark on their “college careers,” which would soon usher them into their professional careers.

Nothing may seem out of the ordinary about Spencer’s remarks, but from the vantage point afforded us by history, we can see how unusual it is for a liberal arts college to ground its existence in work.

The liberal arts, until relatively recently, were regarded as “liberal” to the degree that they taught students that some things in life, being good in themselves, were not done because they were useful or necessary but entirely for their own sake. The liberal arts took as its purpose that of introducing students to a space of freedom beyond expediency, practicality, and utility. Work, therefore, had nothing to do with it.

Sadly, pretty much all that was liberal (or “free”) about the liberal arts has since withered away, and now they live on mostly in name only, and only so long as they’re deemed useful.

How did the liberal arts meet their death?

Newman’s university and the last formidable defense of the liberal arts

During the early and mid-nineteenth century in England, old liberal arts universities such as Oxford and Cambridge were forced to confront a new philosophy and a rising need. The new philosophy was utilitarianism, the new need was for a mass public education geared toward training young persons in the relevant skills of the day. The former insisted that the good was utility, the latter in the establishment of professional schools. As a newly appointed rector of a new Catholic university in Dublin in 1852, John Henry Newman was invited to give a set of lectures on the aims of the university in his time. What he provided was probably the last formidable defense of the liberal arts before their demise.

In the Idea of the University lectures, Newman argues that the chief purpose of the liberal arts is neither to engage in novel scientific experiments (for there are research institutions committed to doing just this) nor, strictly speaking, to be professionally useful, but to cultivate each student’s intellect so that he or she can comprehend how the various forms and fields of knowledge fit together into a whole. The aim is not novelty but breadth of comprehension; not inventiveness but the exercise of judgment. Newman thought that theoretical knowledge of this kind spoke to a “direct need of our nature”—a need, we might say, to discover who we really are as well as how the world really works. Newman wrote that it is “the boast, or at least the ambition, of Philosophy” to have “mapped out the Universe.” Knowledge of this kind, therefore, just is good—good in itself well before it is useful.

He went on to say that cultivating each student’s intellect would also prove to be beneficial for society: “training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself, best enables him [also] to discharge his duties in society.” Individuals whose intellects had been improved by rigorous study would be able to think clearly, speak eloquently, and converse with general understanding and thus would be, at least in those respects, better citizens.

After arguing both that the liberal arts are intrinsically good and that they’re good for society, Newman carefully spelled out how they were also useful: People capable of rational inquiry, able to see vital connections, and accustomed to seeing how a wide array of things could fit together into a whole would be able to fulfill their professional duties afterward with “a power and a grace.”

In our age where knowledge work in Silicon Valley is highly valued, Scott Hartley’s popular book The Fuzzy and the Techy: How the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World attests to this, showing that “fuzzies” (or those coming from liberal arts backgrounds) are needed in startups just as much as “techies” (or those from STEM). And Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class—and How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life made the case back in 2002 that individuals working in creative industries (and presumably, therefore, those coming from liberal arts backgrounds) would drive the “new economy.”

In crucial respects, Newman’s argument advanced in 1852 was not just different but also more ambitious than that of Hartley and Florida’s in our time. He was not suggesting that the liberal arts are justified by dint of their utility, but rather that their reason for being is both the acquisition of general, overarching knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect. It just so happens that being engaged in these things for their own sake tends to also be economically beneficial to oneself as well as good for society at large.

Pieper’s Elegy and the death of the liberal arts

The demise of the liberal arts as a good in themselves is directly linked to the way that society thinks about work.

In his short yet powerfully insightful 1947 book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the German philosopher Josef Pieper posed a seemingly innocent question: “Are there such things [today] as liberal arts?” He wrote the book shortly after World War II, when West Germans, he wrote, were “engaged in the re-building of a house, and our hands [were] full.” So, he asked, “Shouldn’t all our efforts be directed to nothing other than the completion of that house?” Surprisingly, he didn’t think so, yet he worried, and with good reason, that activities not tangibly directed to rebuilding society would be regarded as otiose and hence subject to mockery.

The key to Pieper’s diagnosis of the post-World War II human condition is the idea that human beings have become defined by their work—by the useful, the socially beneficial, and the functional—and so are products and purveyors of what he calls the “servile arts.” In this world of “total work,” everything must be undertaken in the name of “work,” and because of this, there can remain no space of inquiry distinct from and higher than the demands of work. Contrary to the vision that Newman had defended, now even intellectual engagement, if it was to be justified at all, could only be justified as “intellectual work”—not as contemplation for its own sake—and only so long as it proved to be socially beneficial. In this worldview, work is indeed fundamental to “who you are and who you will become.”

What the liberal arts had for the longest time held open was a space in which human beings could discover that they were more than “functionaries” or “workers,” a space devoted solely to the contemplation of higher things. Now this sentiment cannot but sound highfalutin, nostalgic, “useless,” “indulgent,” unambitious,” “idle,” “lazy,” and most especially “wasteful.”

While there are scholars still insisting that the liberal arts’ value lies in its development of critical thinking, which is spoken of in terms reminiscent of Newman’s intellectual cultivation and encouragement of active citizenship, the purpose of this critical thinking is most often framed much differently than it used to be. By the time I went to college in the late 90s, I had grown accustomed to hearing that developing strong critical thinking skills would make me highly employable.

Witness Chris Teare, who is here interviewing John Ager, a consultant with Kepner Tregoe and an advocate for critical thinking in the workplace, in Forbes:

Teare: Based upon your experience with professionals in various businesses, what would your recommendation be with regard to the undergraduate educations of college students?

Ager: My recommendation would be to ensure undergraduate educations teach methods of inquiry and of communicating findings. My eldest daughter’s liberal arts education did just that, and she is translating that into a career in data analytics.

At the end of the interview, Teare confides: “I know that my own liberal arts education has enabled me to succeed not only in secondary and higher education, but also once upon a time as a television anchorman. I have always needed critical thinking skills in education, but TV news sometimes required nothing other than the ability to read a teleprompter. Of course, if the teleprompter broke, and I had to ad-lib, or was conducting an interview live, I had nothing but my liberal arts critical thinking skills until the next commercial arrived.”

The liberal arts, which once advocated free thought for its own sake, have now been put to use instead as a way to prepare us for a compressed life of creative office work.

The year 2050 and hope for the liberal arts to reclaim its place in our lives

If the world of 2050 turns out to be even more bewildering than that of 2018, then we’ll need a reinvented version of the liberal arts more than ever.

In an excerpt from his new book, historian-turned-futurist Yuval Harari describes a world that, by 2050, is defined by “accelerating change,” a welter of information and misinformation, and unforeseeable technological inventions. No longer, Harari thinks, can education be focused on the acquisition of information (since new information will constantly arise, old information becoming obsolete) or on skills training (“we don’t really know what particular skills people will need” or how quickly human skills might be replaced by machine learning).

Instead, Harari suggests that lifelong education should be grounded in sense-making (the ability “to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world”), the capacity to come to a “comprehensive view of the cosmos” (which is reminiscent of Newman’s view), the need for self-reinvention (given how rapidly reality could continue to turn over), and, most of all, the search for self-knowledge.

Self-knowledge, he implies, is part dispositional and part content-rich. As he explains:

Dispositional: “To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best, and feel at home with the unknown.”

Content-rich: “To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the 21st century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you.”

As I read Harari, I find myself thinking that the promise of the liberal arts may lie not far off into the future. Might he not be urgently pointing us to the need for a revitalized liberal arts education—this one lifelong, more spontaneous, more flexible, and more supple—that would encourage each of us to know ourselves as well as our place in the general order of things? And might not the goal, this time, be not just to find our way through, but to find our way home to genuine freedom?