The Value of a Liberal Arts Education – February 6, 2011

These days the liberal arts curriculum and especially a degree in English literature are treated as objects of fun—“And the English major asks, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ ” They are considered a kind of intellectual thumb-twiddling and waste of four years. But when I went to the university in the latter half of the 1960s, a degree in the “humanities” still had some respect.

We were following a tradition, laid down three or four generations earlier, that a university career spent reading history and literature, with an overview of philosophy and the sciences, gave a person an understanding of human nature and civilization. Such a “well rounded” person was prepared to administer the higher functions of business or government: seeing and interpreting complex issues, relating them to historical cases, applying insights about human goals and emotions, responding with intellectual integrity. The liberal arts degree was not the sum of a person’s education, but instead prepared the mind for a lifetime of further development through reading, thinking, and intelligent conversation. Not an end point but a beginning.

The curriculum was already slipping when I inherited it. On acceptance to the College of Liberal Arts, I was mailed a list of books to be mastered between my high school graduation and matriculation as a freshman. Included were such light reading as The Bible, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Das Kapital, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and so on.1 About a year’s worth of deep study to cram into three months that were supposed to be fun. Needless to say, I didn’t read a tenth of the books and my classmates probably not even that.

The texts we used in class, when they cited examples from Greek philosophy and Roman history, used English translations from the classics.2 I noted that older books, prevalent in the generation before mine, offered the original Greek or Latin in the text with the translation only in a footnote. And in my grandfather’s generation, at the end of the 19th century, the author would give only the untranslated original: if you didn’t read Greek or Latin, that was your fault not the author’s.

But the last years of the 1960s were also the flowering of the antiwar and civil rights movements and the rise of campus radicalism, which demanded “relevance” in the curriculum. Why teach all that ancient, dead, white history when the important history is being made right outside the door? We were also seeing the rise of a new “scientific” approach to the humanities through curricula like sociology and psychology, which tried to concentrate the study of human nature and civilization as rules rather than let the student form his or her own understanding from wide reading of literature and history.

At the same time, university education was taking on a distinctly vocational tone. Literature and history were for teachers.3 Those who wanted to write were sent to the school of journalism. Modern business managers went to the school of business administration. Modern government workers went to study political science, which soon got its own school of public policy. These prepared you for a profession in the same way that pre-law, pre-med, or engineering prepared you for a technical career. Skill at reading and writing—let alone thinking—was relegated to a few elective courses.

In my own course of study, English literature, the “scientific” approach developed into a form of textual criticism known as deconstruction. Although I never studied deconstruction—which flowered a decade or more after I graduated—and never hope to, I have some understanding of its principles. In my generation, we worked under the “New Criticism,” which treats the book as a “found object” and focuses on the text itself. What the author has to say about the work as the creative force behind it (“Now what I really meant to do here …”), and explanations of how the book might apply to the wider world, were ruled out of court. The key point is what the author has actually put on the page and how the reader responds to it.4

Deconstruction, as I understand it—and it should be noted that I’m hostile to the whole notion, and so may state it wrongly—goes well beyond the New Criticism’s hands-off approach to a meaning. The work and the meaning of the very words it uses are the creation of a mind fixed by the socially determined values and perceptions dominant at the time of creation. Similarly, the work was received and interpreted in its own time by minds fixed by those same values and perceptions. So the work, any work, is an “historical object,” fixed like a fly in amber.

According to deconstruction, there are no “universal truths” and no “great books,” like the ones on my college reading list, because every book is dependent for meaning on the society that created it. Shakespeare does not rise above the Elizabethan court’s politics and manners. Homer does not rise above the Bronze Age warrior ethos. We might learn a bit about those societies from their works, but even then, because of these hanging veils of perception and value that cloud the meaning of words, we won’t really understand them.5 And we certainly won’t learn anything universal about human nature and civilized action. All books are flawed at their birth.

The trend away from universal human understanding goes further. If you believe that the “scientific” methods of sociology and psychology establish a modern and untainted view of human nature and social forces, then you don’t bother to go back to history and literature to learn and know about people. Since all books are flawed, you think you will obtain the greatest insights from those created in the time and place of your own experience: current literature and politics.6

I believe this premise is flawed. Human minds are not isolated, locked away in the air-tight bubbles of their society’s limited views and values. (Of course, someone who wants to manage other members of his own society like cows on a feedlot might find that isolationist view very attractive: people are a lot easier to manipulate if you limit the options for thought and action.) I believe humans and their developing natures form a continuum, from prehistoric hunter-gatherer, through agrarian village to hydraulic empire, with episodes of raiding and revolution along the way. Human minds and feelings haven’t changed so much in the last 5,000 years that life in the past is unknowable to us moderns.7

There are enduring thoughts. Not the only thoughts, to be sure: history and literature allow for amazing diversity, and the intelligent reader is invited to choose and so make up his or her own world view. But among the books that have been valued down through the ages, each has something to teach us. Oedipus is mankind struggling against fate.8 Antigone is the individual struggling against the state.9 It is easier to understand and remember these lessons if you know the story than by reading some dry, theoretical description of mental states in a psychology text.10

The premise of the old liberal arts degree was intellectual freedom. Read widely, think deeply, and make up your own mind about what it means to be human and live in a society. Proponents of the liberal arts saw themselves as the inheritors of and contributors to an enduring tradition. Proponents of the modern view see the end of tradition and creation of a new, universal, and everlasting “scientific” truth—one that they think they will control. But when you knock all the walls and building blocks flat, you become subject to strange and uncontrollable winds.

1. Notice all those “the’s” in the titles? These were books distinguished by their status as singular monuments to important thought.

2. I had two years of Latin in my public high school—and mine is probably the last generation to get this kind of education—along with four years of French and two years of Russian. In my last year at the university I took two terms of Greek as an elective and dropped it halfway through the second term: translating the opening chapters of Xenophon’s Anabasis (“And then we marched out …”) felt too much like the drudgery of Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

3. Actually, future teachers were sent to the college of education, where they studied pedagogy first and subject matter like literature and history second.

4. This fit well with my own experience of writing. At age 16 I had written a science fiction novel—475 typewritten pages—and was already familiar with the creative process. The author does not always intend what he or she creates. You write a passage that seems good and appropriate at the moment of creation, and then only later do you realize, “Oh! This action ties back to what happened in Chapter 2!” or “So the loss of the sword is actually a symbol of his failing confidence as a man!” You don’t always plan this stuff; it just happens in your subconscious. And so the book stands there, and the reader either gets it or not. The author is not the final authority about what there might be to see in the complexities of the story.

5. Consider the recent proposal for a revised edition of Huckleberry Finn that would replace the ubiquitous “n-word” with “slave.” The n-word has in our day become such an expression of scorn and hatred that no reasonable, fair-minded person can utter it. In Huck’s day, which was the childhood of Mark Twain, it was a simple descriptive. (Consider also that the n-word identified Jim by his skin color, which was a fact of life, while “slave” would imply the permanence of a condition that Jim wanted desperately to change.) Huck would have been amazed at the emotions the n-word has accumulated by the early 21st century. Language does indeed change. Words do slip around. My point is that sensitive and thoughtful readers can pick up on these changes with relative ease and proceed to an understanding of the work.

6. Or, as one irate audience member said at a panel discussion I once attended: “What other basis for a story is there than class war, race war, and gender war?” What indeed—if you happen to believe that human beings are only little wind-up dolls trundling around the racetrack of current political thought?

7. The current intellectual climate is even less certain about what is and is not knowable. Many people believe there is no unified society at all, but only affiliations based on gender, race, ethnicity, and class. They believe only women can discuss and write about feminist issues, and even when these matters are explained at the hands of the best female writers, no man can really understand them. Similarly, no one can speak to or understand the black experience but another person of African-American heritage. Such willful blindness creates a rich field for antagonism.

8. If you don’t know the story of Sophocles’ play and know only of the Freudian analogy, you might think Oedipus hated his father and was sexually attracted to his mother. Nothing could be more wrong: when Oedipus found out how ignorance of his parentage had led him to kill his father at a crossroads and marry his mother upon coming into town, he gouged out his eyes in horror and despair.

9. I once had a coworker whose college education came about six years after mine. I made a passing reference to “Antigone,” and got only a blank stare from him. “Sophocles?” I prompted. “The Theban plays?” And he just smirked. Reading these works—or at least reading about them in a survey course—was part of bonehead freshman English when I was in college. A dozen years later, they had been whisked away as part of the despised “dead white” tradition.

10. See “Hungry for Stories,” from December 19, 2010, in Various Art Forms.