Playing the Odds

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.

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10 Responses to Playing the Odds

  1. mch says:

    To this insightful, important essay, let me add: scale. “The” liberal arts always imagines itself in some face-to-face community. In just the last two days, I have had three conversations immediately relevant to my point. One with my hairdresser, with whom I discussed (she actually raised the topic) the new museum space in town (she had visited it; I still have not, though my husband practically lives there). One with the two young men (yes, men) who clean our house every week (they are suspicious of Occupy, disappointed in Obama, sweetly defensive of their maybe mildly racist parents); one with a student working here this summer as a research assistant — a full scholarship student (white, Scottish-surname, from CA — go figure) — who was absorbed in a NYR of Books until I interrupted him in the library with my hello.
    Hell, I’ve had ten conversations, at least, in the last few days (when I’m not writing or tending my garden — the activities I chiefly define my summer by — I do get out), were I to include every conversation with this or that person I know casually.
    Let me use the lovely young men who come to clean. They cleave to me — I am a nice professor lady, after all — as I cleave to them — they are these lovely, smart, hardworking, and imaginative young men, whose thoughts about the world I am eager to hear. (The teacher in me self-censors: don’t interject, just listen; reply in a way that respects their views but suggests, perhaps, a different way of thinking…. What games of self-censorship are they playing, I wonder?)
    None of my experiences unusual, I think, in or out of academia — on a certain scale, one small enough that not too many intermediaries intervene. But a scale that also presupposes worlds beyond, and is longing for them.

  2. Leon Conrad says:

    Thanks for posting one of the more thoughtful and insightful pieces about the Liberal Arts approach to education – it’s my contention that if humanities and STEM faculties saw the common basis of their approaches and built jointly on those; if educational practice became more integrated, it would be – by definition – integrative. It would help a person integrate the practical and the theoretical, the objective and the subjective, the personal and the social, to transcend these and more dichotomies. If educational practice consciously strove towards finding ways of exploring ways of balancing conflicting views, through dialectical enquiry, then the practice would be more likely to achieve what you state the aim of any education worth its name should be – an education that ‘increase[s] 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.’
    The question remains – how do we achieve this in practice? It’s a question I engage with actively in my own work as an educationalist and educator (; – and in which I find the most fulfillment, but I’m painfully aware I can’t have all the answers and would love to hear from others who are walking the same path, to share ideas and learn from each others’ experience and practice.

  3. In the provinces says:

    Part, I think, of what you want to see in a liberal arts education is achieved in the act of good teaching. Professors who visibly love their subject, who display enthusiasm in talking about it, writing about, discussing it, are demonstrating to students that there are other values in life than purely instrumental ones, such as earning a living–not that earning a living is any way to be despised, of course. Scientists can demonstrate such an attitude, too, and the very best do so. But it’s harder for them, because the intellectual gap between the classes they teach undergraduates and the scientific research they do is noticeably greater than that between the undergraduate curriculum in the humanities and social sciences on the one hand, and scholarship in these disciplines on the other.

  4. CarlD says:

    I like very much how you’ve located a big chunk of the problem in (sometimes defensive) disciplinary siloing and a general bunker mentality (austerity again). I regularly wonder how colleagues who demonize the business school without actually talking to anyone over there, or being curious about what they’re up to, then think they’ve got the keys to the big picture. To me the wisdom bus we want to throw ourselves and the students in front of is the making connections bus – connections to other people, other practices and priorities, other data sets, and so on. That’s where we’re not just a tech school, whether it be for business or engineering or history. I do think that if we could get clear about this, we could improve the odds of students getting hit by that bus by doing cross-disciplinary, integrative studies more intentionally. But, who will teach the teachers?

  5. Mark S. says:


    Great post and lots to think on. I have two comments, one small, one larger (and a question).

    First, I don’t think we need to have whiggish interpretations of our discipline to a) defend it and b) justify citations practices. We could either be a) keeping traditions of thought alive or b) finding ways to describe an every-changing world. The first should be self-explanatory. For the second, since the world is always changing around us, it could be argued that previous knowledge is not being built upon (and therefore less useful then current knowledge) but instead it no longer helps us to describe/understand/explain current experience. Therefore we need to cite previous traditions and scholarship to show how we apply it to these new situations. Progress doesn’t really apply here no?

    Secondly, I would love to see how you would design curriculum that has “much less regularity, predictability and structure”. It seems that you are saying that classes need to be taught (broader curriculum developed?) so that they are not meant to produce Historians, Political Scientists, Philosophers, etc. While a small percentage may go onto to become these things, undergraduate education needs to be about something else. My questions is how can we get there and what does it look like to NOT have classes and curriculum developed around a discipline? How do we take away regularity and structure and still (possibly?) keep rigor?

    BTW, I ask not because I don’t think it is possible but instead to pick your brain on this.

  6. DavidS says:

    Like many of your essays, this is very good, but too complex to give a quick reply to. Instead, I’ll just point out a confusing typo.

    “[I]f you’re a moral philosopher … you really need to think … that the disciplined study of moral philosophy provides systematic insights into morality and ethics. And if it does, it should 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.”

    You mean “shouldn’t seem”, right? I can imagine that the study of moral philosophy could make the field seem less useful (experts on quantum mechanics, or Goedel’s theorem, generally view their subjects as less practical than new age authors do), but I don’t think that is what you are arguing.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh! Thank you. That’s a typo. I will fix it.

  8. thm says:

    One argument for disciplinarity in the context of a non-instrumental approach to education is that the act of delving deeply into a subject matter is itself an intellectual skill, one which we expect liberally-educated adults to posses, and one which one learns by doing. This does not address whether our contemporary set of disciplines is optimal in any way, as long as there is some set of disciplines within which a student can delve deeply.

  9. CCPhysicist says:

    I’ve always felt that this is a false dichotomy. The liberal arts (narrowly construed to leave out math and some of the sciences) provide “career-ready skills”. An engineer works with clients who are usually regular citizens (city council, business owners, developers) or for a boss who is often not an engineer. Writing and presentation skills, as well as social knowledge, are critical at that level. Similarly, a doctor has to relate to patients, not just other doctors.

    Maybe faculty from the “other side” need to go to alumni meetings for the engineering or medical college and see what those folks say after 10 or 20 years on the job and build that into their thinking about how to improve the quality of the people who graduate from their university.

  10. The problem is what is a “better person”? Those hooligans that ran secret prison torture camps in Europe after 9/11 that came from US higher education from an institution that believes it only recruits the “best and brightest” (the CIA amongst others)? Is this the genteel elite? “… the study of history can teach empathy …” Only to those who might one day be in need of it. The US traditionally sees itself as invincible and thus its elites, q.v. the export of “democracy” to e.g. Iraq, have no notion of empathy as other, smaller and less equipped, communities have. But even inside – the US with its world-wide record in prison population should seriously consider if the “soft underbelly” in its higher education is not actually a thick layer of mold.

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