Johann Neem argues at Inside Higher Education that the liberal arts have no economic value, that they are intrinsically tied to the achievement of a free, affluent society that is relieved of the burdens of scarcity and open to the fulfillments of leisure. This argument frustrates me in several respects (beyond the degree to which it commits rhetorical self-immolation in the present political dispensation in the United States).
1. I hate the idea that marking something off as a ‘public good’ sprinkles magical affluent-society fairy dust on it and relieves us of the burden of arguing competitively in relation to other public goods against a limited base of resources. There are other scarcity-based considerations beyond neoclassical economics to keep in play–sustainability isn’t just for environmentalists. Neem acknowledges that we’re not in the same affluent circumstances today as some misty GI-Bill public-goods-laden moment in the recent past but I think he overlooks that we never were. This sort of framing of the liberal arts as a contemplative refuge from the world, including its material circumstances, has a deep history–and a deep history of being in denial about the material and economic predicates of its own existence and about the ways in which the cultural and social capital of a liberal education were just as much aimed at securing a material and economic existence in the world as the education of bricklayers and accountants.
2. I hate the binarism here–that it’s either all market/entrepreneur/econocentrism/jobs or none at all. Excluded middles, fuzzy states, etc. Leisure, play, happiness, a holistic personhood, are worth rehabilitating as objectives of a sane, satisfied, wealthy, successful society. We don’t have to go the whole hardcore Huizinga route of insisting that play is never never ever practical, worldly or useful. We don’t have to rob an entrepreneur of their humanness or citizenship by the fact that they are involved with filthy lucre–or for that matter, accept the further implication that anyone who does narrate their own encounter with the “liberal arts” as having an instrumental outcome has betrayed that education, that the person so educated must always describe their experience as having no ends, providing no concrete usefulness, always outside the world. Among other things, this exempts the liberal arts from encountering on its own ground one of its persistent challengers, the argument that a liberal education is best derived from practice, experience, usage, materiality, that a practical education is or can be the very best kind of liberal education. This debate has persistently recurred at every moment that proponents of the liberal arts have tried to describe it as outside the world, above material or economic concerns, improvident or useless, contemplative or monastic, and a liberal arts education even in Neem’s terms cannot possibly sidestep or exclude this challenge by ruling it out of bounds without betraying its own deepest convictions. Meaning, learn to live with the person who asks, “What good is this learning?”, “what is its economic (or other) value?”, “does any of this actually work out in lived experience?” because they are asking questions that the liberal arts ought to ask of itself without even being prompted to do so. This is another Cartesian deathtrap we have to get ourselves out of: there is no salvation to be found in retreating back into the refined world of the quadrivium and sending all the dreary tradespeople off to vocational schools.
3. Arguing for restoring the public sphere and ‘freedom’ in this sense via focusing narrowly on education and the liberal arts looks self-interested (monetarily and otherwise) coming from academics. Because it’s too specific, too institutional, and too incurious about the possibility of other practices, institutions and dispositions that might get to the same end objective. If this is what we want, we need to be relentlessly looking at the big picture and stop seeming to just want to keep our own paychecks and practices intact in their current form. Maybe the liberal arts and their freedoms will thrive in some other habitus or institution yet to be, if that’s the thing to care about. Maybe if what we’re concerned with is the erosion of the idea of the public, then that is what we should be caring about first, second and last, with liberal arts education only one small possible component of a renovation of that great idea.