The idea that higher education makes you a better person in some respect has long been its soft underbelly.
The proposition makes most current faculty and administrators uncomfortable, especially at the smaller teaching-centered colleges that are prone to invoke tropes about community and ethics. The discomfort comes both from how “improvement” necessarily invokes an older conception of college as a finishing school for a small, genteel elite and from how genuinely indispensible it seems for most definitions of “liberal arts”.
Almost every attempt to create breathing room between the narrow teaching of career-ready skills and a defense of liberal arts education that rejects that approach is going to involve some claim that a liberal arts education enlightens and enhances the people who undergo it in ways that aren’t reducible to work or specific skills, that an education should, in Martha Nussbaum’s words, “cultivate humanity”.
This is part of the ground being worked by William Deresiewicz’s New Republic critique of the elitism of American higher education. One of the best rejoinders to Deresiewicz is Chad Wellmon’s essay “Twilight of an Idol”, which conjoins Deresiewicz with a host of similar critics like Andrew Delbanco and Mark Edmundson.
I see much the same issue that Wellmon does, that most of these critiques are focused on what the non-vocational, non-instrumental character of a college education was, is and should be. Wellmon and another critic, Osita Nwanevu, point out that there doesn’t need to be anything particularly special about the four years that students spend pursuing an undergraduate degree. As Wellmon comments, “There is, thankfully, no going back to the nineteenth-century Protestant college of Christian gentlemen. And that leaves contemporary colleges, as we might conclude from Deresiewicz’s jeremiad, still rummaging about for sources of meaning and ethical self-transformation. Some invoke democratic citizenship, critical thinking, literature, and, most recently, habits of mind. But only half-heartedly—and mostly in fundraising emails.”
Half-heartedly is right, precisely because most faculty know full well that all the substitutes for the older religious or gentlemanly ideals of “cultivation” still rest upon and invoke those predicates. But we can’t dispense with this language entirely because we have nothing else that spans academia that meaningfully casts shade at the instrumental, vocational, career-driven vision of education.
The sciences can in a pinch fall back on other ideas about utility and truth: their ontological assumptions (and the assumptions that at least some of the public make about the sciences) are here a saving grace. This problem lands much harder on the humanities, and not just as a challenge to their reproduction within the contemporary academy.
I wrote last year about why I liked something Teju Cole had said about writing and politics. Cole expressed his disappointment that Barack Obama’s apparent literacy, his love of good books, had not in Cole’s view made Obama a more consistently humane person in his use of military power.
I think Cole’s observation points to a much more pressing problem for humanistic scholars in general. Intellectuals outside the academy have been and still are under no systematic pressure to justify what they do in terms of outcomes. As a novelist or essayist or critic you can be a brutal misanthropist, you can drift off into hallucinogenic dream-states, you can be loving or despairing or detached. You can claim your work has no particular instrumental politics or intent, or that your work is defined by it. You don’t have to be right about whether what you say you’re doing is in fact what you actually do, but you still have a fairly wide-open space for self-definition.
Humanists inside the academy might think they have the same freedom to operate, but that clashes very hard with disciplinarity. Most of us claim that we have the authority that we do because we’ve been trained in the methods and traditions of a particular disciplinary approach. We express that authority within our scholarly work (both in crafting our own and in peer reviewing and assessing the work of others) and in our curricular designs and governance. And most of us express, to varying degrees, a whiggish or progressive view of disciplinarity, that we are in our disciplines understanding and knowing more over time, understanding better, that we are building upon precedent, that we are standing on the shoulders of someone–if not giants, at least people the same size as us. If current disciplinary work is just replacing past disciplinary work, and the two states are essentially arbitrary, then most of our citational practices and most of our curricular practices are fundamentally wasted effort.
So if you’re a moral philosopher, for example, you really need to think in your own scholarly work and in your teaching of undergraduates that the disciplined study of moral philosophy provides systematic insights into morality and ethics. If it does, it shouldn’t seem like a big leap to suggest that such insight should allow those who have it to practice morality better than those who have not. This doesn’t mean necessarily that a moral philosopher has to be more moral in the conventional terms of a dominant moral code. Maybe the disciplinary study of morality and ethics leads scholars more often to the conclusion that most dominant moral codes are contradictory or useless. Or that morality is largely an arbitrary expression of power and domination. Doesn’t really matter what the conclusions are, just that it’s reasonable to think that the rigorous disciplinary study of morality through philosophy should “cultivate the humanity” of a moral philosopher accordingly.
But if you’ve known moral philosophers, you’ve known that there is not altogether much a notable difference between them and other academics, between them and other people with their basic degree of educational attainment, between them and other people with the same social backgrounds or identities, between them and other people from the same society, and so on, in terms of morality and ethics. It seems to me that what they know has strikingly little effect on who they are, how they act, what they feel.
Many humanist scholars would say that reading fiction gives us insights into what it means to be human, but it’s pressingly difficult to talk about what those insights have done to us, for us, to describe what transformations, if any, we’ve undergone. Many historians would argue that the disciplined study of history teaches us lessons about the human condition, about how human societies navigate both common social and political challenges and about what makes the present day distinctively different from the past.
I’m often prepared to go farther than that. Many of my colleagues disliked a recent assessment exercise here at the college where we were asked about a very broad list of possible “institutional learning goals”. I disliked it too, mostly because of how assessment typically becomes quantitative and incremental. I didn’t necessarily dislike the breadth, though. Among the things we were asked to consider is whether our disciplines teach values and skills like “empathy”. And I would say that yes, I think the study of history can teach empathy. E.g., that a student might through studying history become more able to feel empathy in a wider and more generative range.
The key for me is that word, “might”. If moral philosophers are not significantly more moral, if economists are not significantly more likely to make superior judgments about managing businesses or finances, if historians are not significantly better at applying what they know about past circumstances to their own situations, if literary critics don’t seem altogether that better at understanding the interiority of other people or the meaning of what we say to one another, then that really does call into question that vague “other” that we commonly say separates a liberal arts approach to education from a vocational strategy.
No academic (I hope) would say that education is required to achieve wisdom. In fact, it is sometimes the opposite: knowing more about the world can be, in the short-term, an impediment to understanding it. I think all of us have known people who are terrifically wise, who understand other people or the universe or the social world beautifully without ever having studied anything in a formal setting. Some of the wise get that way through experiencing the world, others through deliberate self-guided inquiry.
What I would be prepared to claim is something close to something Wellmon says, that perhaps college might “might alert students to an awareness of what is missing, not only in their own colleges but in themselves and the larger society as well”.
But my “might” is a bit different. My might is literally a question of probabilities. A well-designed liberal arts education doesn’t guarantee wisdom (though I think it can guarantee greater concrete knowledge about subject matter and greater skills for expression and inquiry). But it could perhaps be designed so that it consistently improves the odds of a well-considered and well-lived life. Not in the years that the education is on-going, not in the year after graduation, but over the years that follow. Four years of a liberal arts undergraduate experience could be far more likely to produce not just a better quality of life in the economic sense but a better quality of being alive than four years spent doing anything else.
I think I can argue that the disciplinary study of history can potentially contribute to the development of a capacity for empathy, or emotional intelligence, an understanding of why things happen the way that they do and how they might happen differently, and many other crafts and arts that I would associate as much with wisdom as I do with knowledge, with what I think informs a well-lived life. But potential is all I’m going to give out. I can’t guarantee that I’ll make someone more empathetic, not the least because I’m not sure how to quantify such a thing, but also because that’s not something everybody can be or should be counted upon to get from the study of history. It’s just, well, more likely that you might get that than if you didn’t study history.
This sense of “might” even justifies rather nicely the programmatic hostility to instrumentally-driven approaches to education among many humanists. Yes, we’re cultivating humanity, it’s just that we’re not very sure what will grow from any given combination of nutrients and seeds. In our students or ourselves.
This style of feeling through the labyrinth gives me absolutely no title to complacency, however. First, it’s still a problem that increased disciplinary knowledge and skills do not give us proportionately increased probability of incorporating that knowledge into our own lives and institutions. At some point, more rigorous philosophical analyses about when to pull the lever on a trolley or more focused historical research into the genesis of social movements doesn’t consistently improve the odds of making better moral decisions or participating usefully in the formation of social movements.
Second, I don’t think most curricular designs in contemporary academic institutions actually recognize the non-instrumental portion of a liberal-arts education as probabilistic. If we did see it that way, I think we’d organize curricula that had much less regularity, predictability and structure–in effect, much less disciplinarity.
This is really the problem we’re up against: to contest the idea that education is just about return-on-investment, just about getting jobs, we need to offer an education whose structural character and feeling is substantially other than what it is. Right now, many faculty want to have their cake and eat it too, to have rigorous programs of disciplinary study that are essentially instrumental in that they primarily encourage students to do the discipline as if it were a career, justified in a tautological loop where the value of the discipline is discovered by testing students on how they demonstrate that the discipline is, in its own preferred terms, valuable.
If we want people to take seriously that non-instrumental “dark side of the moon” that many faculty claim defines what college has been, is and should remain, we have to take it far more seriously ourselves, both in how we try to live what it is that we study and in how we design institutions that increase the probabilities that our students will not just know specific things and have specific skills but achieve wisdoms that they otherwise could not have found.