Practice What We Preach?

I’ve been reworking an essay on the concept of “liberal arts” this week. One of the major issues I’m trying to think about is the relatively weak match between what many liberal arts faculty frequently say about the lifelong advantages of the liberal arts and about our ability to model those advantages ourselves. In quite a few ways, it seems to me that many academics do not demonstrate in their own practices and behavior the virtues and abilities that we claim follow on a well-constructed liberal arts education. That is not necessarily a sign that those virtues and abilities do not exist. One of the oldest known oddities surrounding teaching is that a teacher can guide a student to achievements that the teacher cannot himself or herself achieve. Good musicians can train great musicians, decent artists can train masterful ones, and so on. Nevertheless, it feels uncomfortable that we commonly defend liberal arts learning as producing competencies and capacities that we do not ourselves exhibit or even in some cases seem to value. The decent musician who is training a virtuoso performer nevertheless would like to play as well as their pupil if they only could, and tries to do when possible.

Let me give four examples of capacities or skills that I have seen many faculty at many institutions extol as good outcomes of a liberal arts education.

First, perhaps most commonly, we often claim that a liberal arts graduate will be intellectually adaptable, will be ready to face new challenges and new situations by learning new subjects, approaches and methods on an as-needed or wanted basis.

Second, many of us would argue that a well-trained writer, speaker and thinker should be able to proficiently and persuasively argue multiple sides of the same issue.

Third, faculty often claim that a liberal arts graduate will be able to put their own expertise and interests in wider perspective, to see context, to step outside of the immediate situation.

Fourth, many liberal-arts curricula require that students be systematically engaged in pursuing breadth of knowledge as well as depth, via distribution requirements or other general-education structures.

So, do most faculty in most colleges and universities model those four capacities in their own work and lives? My impressionistic answer would be, “Not nearly enough”.

Are we adaptable, do we regularly tackle new subjects or approaches, respond well to changing circumstances? Within narrowly circumscribed disciplinary environments, yes. Most active scientific researchers have to deal with a constantly changing field, most scholars will tackle a very new kind of problem or a new setting at some point in their intellectual lives. However, many of us insist that learning new subjects, approaches and methods is an unforgiving, major endeavor that requires extensive time and financial support to work outside of the ordinary processes of our professional lives. That’s not the kind of adaptability we promise our graduates. We’re telling them that they’ll be better prepared to cope with wrenching changes in the world, with old lines of work disappearing and new ones appearing, with seeing fundamentally new opportunities and accepting new ways of being in community with others. And I really believe that this is a fair promise, but perhaps only because the major alternative so far has been narrowly vocational, narrowly pre-professional, training, which very clearly doesn’t prepare students for change at all. We win out by default. If students and parents increasingly doubt our promise, it might be in some measure because we ourselves exemplify it so poorly. Tenured faculty at research universities keep training graduate students the same way for professorial work even as the market for academic labor is gutted, for example, and largely leave those students to find out for themselves what the situation is really like.

Most of us show little or no aptitude for or zest for arguing multiple sides of an issue in our own advocacy within our communities, and only a bit more so in our work as scholars. Ad arguendo is a dirty phrase in most of the social media streams I read: I find that it is rarer and rarer to see academics experimenting with multiple branches of the same foundational line of thought, or exploring multiple foundations, for either the sheer pleasure of it or for the strengthening of their own most heartfelt case. Indeed, I see especially among some humanists a kind of anti-intellectual exasperation with such activity, as something one does reluctantly to manage social networks and maintain affective ties rather than as a demonstration of a deeply important capacity. The same goes for putting ourselves in some kind of larger perspective, of understanding our concerns as neither transcendently important nor as woefully trivial. We promise to show our students how to make connections, see their place in the world, to choose meaningfully, and then do little to strengthen our own capacities for the same.

Do we have our own “distribution requirements”? At the vast majority of academic institutions, not at all. Is there any reward at all for learning about other fields, for learning to understand the virtues and uses of disciplines other than one’s own, for generalism? Any imperative to do so? No, and in fact, many faculty will tell you that this isn’t possible given the intensive demands on their time and attention within their own fields of study and their own teaching labor. But if it’s not possible for us, how is it possible for our students? Most liberal-arts faculty teach in institutions that maintain as one of their central structural principles that it is readily possible for a student to move from advanced mathematics to advanced history to studio art to the sociology of elementary education in a single week and to do well in all of those subjects. If we think that is only possible for one brief pupating moment until a final irreversible choice is made, we ought to say so, and thus indemnify ourselves against the demands we make of our students. That would sit uncomfortably alongside all the grand claims we make about learning how to think, about the idea that a major isn’t a final choice, that you can do lots of things with a liberal arts education, however.


Liberal arts faculty have got to much more effusively and systematically demonstrate in our own lives and practices what we say are the virtues of a liberal arts education. Or we have to offer a trickier narrative about those virtues, one that explains how it is that we can teach what we cannot ourselves do. Which might also raise another question: are we actually the best people to be doing that teaching?

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6 Responses to Practice What We Preach?

  1. Mark S. says:

    Really cool post and I can’t wait to see your full essay!

    As an aside I think that 1 is the hardest for me – I think I can do a number of things and be adaptable – and I am in certain situations – but I wonder if I have the personality and risk aversion for it.

    Anyways, I have two questions on this.

    1) Isn’t some of this mitigated by the use of an entire curriculum and an entire faculty/department? Sure, maybe I am not the person to give a student a good look at certain types of thinking but the guy down the hall or the gal across the quad is. So while I take your point, having breadth in your faculty also seems important.

    2) It also seems that the major reason why we may not see this is the way in which career incentives are laid out in academia (as you have talked about elsewhere of course). Some of that has to do with the individual professor, some her training and senior colleagues, but much else is also administration or outside forces that control funding or demand certain things. Research, for instance, usually has to have a disciplinary home to be published and therefore prolific researchers would find it hard to practice what you say and still be prolific researchers.

    You have to have a careerist bent to be able to teach the liberal arts but this bent as it currently stands takes one away from the ideal you mention and toward specialization, making it harder to be an effective educator in the liberal arts. So as it stands you have to be careerist then be able to throw this off at some early enough point so that you can become a better practitioner of the liberal arts. I find myself willing to do this but I have yet to hit the jackpot, so to speak. These two things may not be unrelated.

  2. Withywindle says:

    Are liberal arts faculty unwittingly models for something else which is good in a different way, however? That is, it’s easy enough to say they’re a model for bad things in our society–many have made that argument–but it would be interesting to read you tease out what you think they are doing right, even if it isn’t precisely what they think they’re doing. (Tony Grafton writes somewhat along these lines, I think.)

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Withywindle: What I think they’re doing right, essentially, is the usefulness of uselessness. E.g., that perhaps not always for the right reasons, the dogged insistence by many liberal-arts faculty that direct instrumental design of teaching and scholarship is a bad idea is ultimately exactly right, for the same reason that artistic work which is too “on the nose” is so ineffective.

    Mark S: Well, you’ve recalled a point I often make here, which is why heterogeneity is so unbelievably crucial as a design principle in liberal arts institutions–that faculty achieve collectively what they don’t necessarily embody personally. Though that also seems in some ways less by design and more by accident, or at the least, is an emergent outcome that is hard to perceive or predict when you look at the individual components that drive it.

    The incentive structures are the million-dollar prize for all of this. You can scarcely begin to try and align individual faculty practice with what what we collectively maintain to be our goals until we change the reward structures. An individual faculty member who tries to be more like a “liberal-arts intellectual” is in many ways making themselves unemployable or at least unmarketable.

  4. I tried to do a comment, but I think I submitted it wrong. But the gist of it was: liberal arts professors/departments should be wary of what they promise prospective students. It’s not that “they’re hypocrites and therefore wrong,” it’s that, “the liberal arts degree may not have the practical usefulness its advocates say it does.”

    The longer version of my comment was partially to the effect that there are foxes and hedgehogs. Although foxes deserve some admiration for being willing to learn new and varied things, sometimes a lifetime focused on “hedgehogness,” or one style of learning (i.e., staying within the strictures of the discipline one was trained in), can be good, too. But again, it goes back to what my “gist” argument: be careful what you/we promise. We can’t guarantee that studying liberal arts will make the student successful. We can guarantee a competency in some skills (for history: writing, research), but we should avoid saying, “this will make you more adaptable, etc.”

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Gabriel: I actually think there’s evidence that it does have that practical usefulness, but my feeling increasingly is that it has it by accident and because there isn’t a better “liberal arts” that has that outcome by design. E.g., I think we could teach adaptability more consciously and intentionally (and embody it better, too).

    I even think there is a kind of hedgehog who is an adaptable hedgehog, as opposed to an immobile and static one–a hedgehog who can persuasively fit the one thing they know to many new environments and landscapes.

  6. I agree with both your claim that there is some evidence and that a hedgehog can and preferably does involve cultivate adaptability.

    I also agree with your “by accident” point, although I’d phrase it differently. I think the skills one learns in Liberal Arts studies do help, but they help in a non-linear and not always obvious way. They’re part of a life experience which builds one’s abilities and for which there often (maybe even more often than not) is a payoff in more worldly terms. The problem is it’s hard to tease cause and effect. That’s probably why so many examples of “here’s how a liberal arts degree can help you” veer toward the anecdotal. The skills are so narrowly tailored to the person (and time, and place) in question that it’s hard to generalize.

    My main goal in warning against what we* promise is that it’s very easy to promise and it’s very easy for a young person contemplating a major to accord a high degree of confidence in the promise, that we might be misleading them or setting them on a path that will foster resentment and bitterness and lead to a feeling that the promises were false or made in bad faith.

    I realize that mine is a paternalistic approach and perhaps doesn’t respect the young (by which I mean, traditional aged) student’s critical capacities and ability to choose for himself/herself what he/she wants. That paternalism bothers me, but wide-ranging promises bother me, too.

    *For disclosure, I say “we” above, but I’m not currently in a teaching position.

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