June 01, 2003

A Question for Anyone Who Cares to Respond

Marcus, my son, you have been a pupil of Cratippus' for a year already, and that in Athens. Consquently, you ought to be filled to overflowing with philosophical advice and instruction, through the great authority of both teacher and city: the former can improve you with his knowledge, the latter by her examples...

...Many weighty and beneficial matters in philosophy have been discussed accurately and expansively by philosophers. However, it is their teachings and their advice on questions of duties that seem to have the widest application. For no part of life, neither public affairs nor private, neither in the forum nor at home, neither when acting on your own nor in dealings with another, can be free from duty. Everything that is honourable in a life depends upon its cultivation, and everything dishonourable upon its neglect.

-- Cicero, On Duties, Book I

The question is:

What is the purpose of a liberal arts undergraduate education?

Imagine that you have been asked to address a group of college-bound high school seniors, many of whom are undecided as to whether or not to pursue the liberal arts path. Or perhaps you are speaking to the parents of these students, some of whom are sceptical of the value of a liberal arts degree, which they worry might prove "useless." Would you recommend that students pursue a liberal arts degree, and if so, on what grounds?

I have been thinking and wondering about this question quite a bit lately, the more so after having read Stanley Fish's "Aim Low," in which he asserts that university teachers are responsible not for "the effects of our teaching" but only for "its appropriate performance" and, more broadly, objects "to moral and civic education in our colleges and universities" on the grounds "not that it is a bad idea (which it surely is), but that it's an unworkable idea." At least a few bloggers have responded to Fish's article: Jason at No Symbols Where None Intended, for example, calls the essay "especially intelligent;" Gary Sauer-Thompson thinks the essay raises "an important issue" but suggests that Fish has "a very narrow conception of the university;" while Jack at SCSUScholars approves of Fish's message that faculty "become professionals again," and believes the views of Fish represent those of "the bulk of the sensible faculty who have been depressingly silent, and in their fears have abdicated their responsibility to actually educate their students."

I've been meaning to blog about this essay too, but have been too lazy/busy/distracted to do so. So in the spirit of "interactivity," I thought I'd throw open the question to anyone who has an interest in the current and future state of the liberal arts in higher education. What, if anything, is the value of such an education, and wherein lie its merits -- or, given recent attacks on the liberal arts, perhaps I should say, wherein lies its justification?

I suppose I should just leave it at that and see if anyone cares to respond, and along what lines. But I can't resist making a point which I think an important one. In his "Aim Low," Fish takes aim at the recently published Educating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates For Lives Of Moral And Civic Responsibility (Jossey-Bass, 2003), "a product of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching" which "reports on a failure" that Fish finds "heartening." Fish characterizes the "grand and ambitious agenda" of this book as "at once too vague and too left-by-the-numbers and too ambitious," and pretty much implies that the concern with moral and civic education represents a left-liberal position: "while academics are always happy to be warned against the incursions of capitalism, they are unlikely either to welcome or heed a warning against the incursions of virtue."

What Fish doesn't acknowledge here, however, is something of which he must surely be aware, namely, that the concern with moral and civic education also animates the grand and ambitious agenda of those who call for a return to traditional standards and traditional curricula from a more conservative position. Thus, Lynne Cheney, for instance, delivers addresses on "the role of civic education in sustaining political freedom." And colleges and universities which offer "great books" programs (a useful list of such programs can be found here) typically define the mission of such an education in civic and moral terms. To quote just one example, St. John's College explains the value of a great books education as follows:

The books that are at the heart of learning at St. John's stand among the original sources of our intellectual tradition. They are timeless and timely; they not only illuminate the persisting questions of human existence, but also have great relevance to the contemporary problems with which we have to deal. They therefore enter directly into our everyday lives. Their authors speak to us as freshly as when they first spoke. They change our minds, move our hearts, and touch our spirits. What they have to tell us is not something of merely academic concern, or remote from our real interests. At St. John's books are not treated reverently or digested whole; they are dissected, mulled over, interpreted, doubted, often rejected, often accepted. They serve to foster thinking, not to dominate it.

The problem, of course, is that while many liberals and conservatives are in broad agreement that a liberal arts education should be in part an education in moral and civic virtues and duties, they don't agree at all on the specific content and direction of such an education. So perhaps Fish's proposal to abandon the moral and civic component does represent the only viable solution, and the only way to finally cease and desist from the endless and endlessly tedious campus culture wars. But I'd like to emphasize the point that an appeal to professionalism as a replacement for civics and morality does represent something fairly novel in the history of liberal arts education. And I would have to add that I am not persuaded that such a proposal should be seen as a "new and improved" one.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 1, 2003 03:36 PM

Hoo boy! How many words do we get for this one?

Liberal arts for me includes some of the human sciences, but not economics and part of psychology, simply because these have a career track. Likewise not hard sciences. (You can already see which way this one is going).

Purposes of an liberal arts education (I will mix grad and undergrad somewhat):

1. To train scholars and researchers in the humanities, most of who will teach. There's always an oversupply.

2. To warehouse bright, impractical people with predomninantly verbal skills until they make a few decisions.

3. (Undergad). "The best four-year party I ever had". Exact quote from a friend. (A version of #2).

4. To train a few people for non-academic jobs requiring foreign language skills, for example.

5. To mark graduates as, in some way, "classy". I recently read, ridiculous as it may seem, that Bob Dylan still feels like a college dropout. ("How come the college guys get all the best chicks" paraphrase of numerous statements from my friends' and my son's friends.) This is independent of earning power; there's a whole demographic of "liberal arts bums" who can be quite snooty at times, and another demographic of successful people with B.A. inferiority complexes.

6. To funnel people to low-paying careers in non-profits, advocacy, the arts, helping services, low-level public service, copy centers, restaurants, codffe shops, etc. The actual education is minimally relevant to the ultimate job.

7. To provide verbally fluent people to work in law, public relations, advertising, advocacy, politics, etc. The actual education can be diametrically opposed to the ultimate job, e.g. a philosophy major who ends up as a flak for Enron.

7. Note that while a liberal arts education, according to #5, can serve to further upward mobility, a lot of the other points tend argue that upward-mobile individuals should look elsewhere.

Conclusion I. In itself an undergraduate education does almost nothing at all, but it is a necessary part of the package for a large number of high-powered careers.

Conclusion II. I don't hear people talking pluralism theory much any more, but no university, much less all of them together has any purpose common to all its activities, and this includes the liberal arts divisions.

Conclusion III. The idealistic functions of the university are rather weakly met by the university system at any level. In part this is because of the pluralism of our society; any substantive attempt whatever at molding character or citizenship would infuriate a large constituency.

More at my URL. I'll stop before they have to come and drag me out of here.

Posted by: zizka at June 1, 2003 07:23 PM

My bodyguards will now escort you to the exit.

:) There's no word limit, Zizka. Thanks for an interesting and provocative reply. I'm on my way out, but will visit your site later to read more.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 1, 2003 07:32 PM

First, as I've commented elsewhere, I don't see anything exceptionable about Fish's point, except insofar as it's reminded me about why I decided I shouldn't teach. It is simply not the purpose of a particular course to create moral beings or good citizens, and I believe this would be the position of thinkers on education in the cultural mainstream like John Henry Newman or Henry Adams.

Even if we approve of a thinker like Edmund Burke, all we can do with 19 or 20 year olds is tell them this person existed, here is what he wrote, and here are some of the contexts in which that writing is important. The purpose of that poli sci or English lit course should not be to convert students to Burke's world view, though that world view may be influential with some students, rightly or wrongly. I knew some students who went gung ho over Burke as undergraduates -- and indeed, were mentored as "conservatives" by the professor who taught the Burke courses -- who are now also-rans on the talk radio circuit, making petty careers in the conservative think tank environment. They are small-time apparatchiks, not educated people -- I say this with slightly more sympathy for that political view than the left, as well.

Courses are part of the input for education. I would not confuse "liberal arts" as a division with "liberal education". I went to a "liberal arts" college that required its students to take courses in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences to become well-rounded. The requirement for general breadth of knowledge is one major starting point of a liberal education -- but it is where a synergy of numerous different courses takes place, and it's likely to be thwarted if a Chemistry prof starts insisting on political-science related viewpoints.

I would also say that in the blogosphere I'm frequently astonished to see professors with web sites who specialize in fields where I had three or four courses as an undergraduate -- and there are areas where I think the profs have left out key issues, or facts, or points of view, based on some undergraduate courses where I felt I learned more than these profs can teach.

So professors absolutely should not allow egoism or complacency to make them think they are more than a minor cog in the educational experience. As time goes on, I am more and more inclinded to value the contribution of the film Animal House to the assessment of the non-classroom educational experience, without which a liberal education does not occur.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 1, 2003 08:39 PM

To me, "the university" and "a liberal education" (considered as education for citizenship, etc.)are completely separable. But my primary concern is whether liberal education takes place anywhere at all. The university is one of the very few candidates.

As I've said before, here or elsewhere, the professionalization, specialization, and methodologization of most scholarship (a string of barbarisms is quite appropriate here) tends to preclude liberal education. Too often I hear it said proudly and with great satisfaction that "I'm an X, and as such I don't really know anything about Y", which to me is an anti-intellectual copout (which just shows, of course, how shallow and unprofessional I am).

Posted by: zizka at June 1, 2003 10:15 PM

The point of education is to learn how to be amused by the things that pass by, and to learn how to live well and wisely. People are not very smart, but over the course of a few thousand years we've done a few things worth remembering, and those things can help us to make wise choices. But then again, if we just repeat what we're taught then it's no longer wisdom is it? And it's useless. Fish is being a provocateur and that's all. You can't teach freedom AND responsibility, but both are necessary. How do you teach someone to grow up? His response is to teach them to be good at something and hope for the best.

If you want to stay home get drunk and fuck, that's fine. But I'd rather do that with someone who's had some sort of education, been around the block, read some books and knows Venice and Madrid than someone who watches football all day every sunday from August through January: in short with someone who has AN EDUCATION. Can you get that from a university? Sometimes, but I'm beginning to think not in this country.

Posted by: Seth Edenbaum at June 1, 2003 10:20 PM

Seth asks, "How do you teach someone to grow up? His response is to teach them to be good at something and hope for the best."

I am beginning to realize that there is an extended essay on Animal House in me, struggling to get out. Howeever, until that happens, there is "Bourgois Administrators Run Amok", to be found at http://www.dartreview.com/archives/000971.php

"Delightful and not at all vapid" was what a student e-mailed me. The Dartmouth Review is a student publication, and the students cut the first paragraph out of this, but I think you can get the drift. A major character in the piece is the Dean of the Faculty, who has been concerned that Dartmouth students are insufficiently serious. To which the appropriate response is a big raspberry; the man should go back to scheduling lecture halls.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 1, 2003 11:06 PM

So, I am standing in front of a classroom trying to encourage debate. We are talking about "media law," and the question is why the FoIA came about. I wasn't prepared for a problem. We haven't "won" Iraq yet, so I'm tempted to blame this on the contemporary context, but I don't think that's quite accurate.

"The average American cannot understand the complexities of international relations or public policy. It's best they be told as little as possible."

OK, in a class of 200 people, there is always someone who is a bit wacky, but most of those two hundred are wagging their heads. Wary of a third person effect, or perhaps a deep seated elitism, I ask whether this applied to those in this classroom. "Yes," a woman in the first row says confidently, "I certainly am not capable of making important decisions about our country. That's best left in the hands of the authorities."

I have no desire to force my opinions about right and wrong upon the students. That would really be against my own feelings about what is right. But the reason I teach is in the hope that students can make the right decisions, not just provide correct answers. I favor rationality as a virtue, as well as a set of ideals: the responsibility to pursue social justice, question existing social relationships, and seek out both questions and answers. Those values certainly have some overlap with democratic civic-mindedness, but they are also centrally important to the educated mind.

I don't see how these could ever be divorced from "educational content." Even in engineering, teaching the material sans virtue is a choice about how to model our relationship to virtues.

So, I agree with Fish's main argument: that we can lead horses to water and invite them to drink, but whether they do or not is their own choice. But this focus on process rather than outcomes in no way obviates the need to think about virtues. Think back to those who were your own best teachers. How many of them provided "just the content"?

Posted by: Alex Halavais at June 1, 2003 11:42 PM

I'm with zizka in that the question is not well posed: "the purpose . . .": liberal arts education is inherently pluralistic. I'd probably go further and deny teleology. There are perhaps predictable results of a liberal arts education; I'm not sure that anyone purposes them.

But set aside quibbles. Ultimately the most valuable thing about (the higher reaches of) higher education in general is that a bunch of bright people get put together in an environment where there's a quasi-permanent group of very bright people (hereinafter referred to as "the faculty" though not necessarily limited to tenure-track folks) and no-one has to grow or make stuff. For four years you have leisure and cultivated, intelligent companionship with a formal structure to keep you and your companions talking at least some of the time about the true, good and/or beautiful. And that changes you.

My sense is that liberal arts colleges do this rather better than research universities.

I don't think the actual content of the curriculum matters that much. Nor do the facts and attitudes the faculty try to impart. The hard sciences are just as much a part of the liberal arts in this sense as history and french are. The physicist and the historian gain the same.

Chad Orzel, a physicist who was an undergraduate at Williams, said something like this a while ago:

Being in college was probably the most fun I've ever had-- not just the drinking and partying, but the whole package. Just being surrounded by smart people all the time was a kick, and something that I wouldn't've cut short for any amount of money. College is one of the rare environments where you can sit around with a bunch of people until four in the morning, debating the nature of God and how that nature is made manifest in the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and nobody will think that's weird. You should enjoy it while you have the chance.
Posted by: jam at June 1, 2003 11:44 PM

In advocating "professionalism" Fish is only pushing what has been the chosen hallmark of modern university work since the late 19th century. That liberal arts have tried under the rubric of General Education to redeem faculty from specialization and narrowness is, as Fish knows, mostly window dressing. So he smiles particularly at the inordinate size of his own bank account. Fish is just the "short-stopping Alex Rodriguez" of the game.

As in baseball, the real hardball is, of course, thrown by corporate trustees, to whom "antitrust legislation" thanks to liberal exemption laws simply doesn't apply. Maybe liberal education is seeing as much, perhaps from reading Burton Bledstein's fine 1976 book, The Culture of Professionalism. For fielders, I'd of course pick Aristotle and Aquinas on virtue. But remember, Fish is paid to hit that out of the park.

Posted by: Styles at June 2, 2003 01:00 AM


With your history background, what was the purpose of a liberal education under Benjamin Jowett at Balliol College, Oxford at the height of the English Empire, or at Yale in that era? To define an educated elite, patterend on that of Greece and Rome, who could, as gentleman, "read up" any subject, and mobilize lesser lights to "handle the administrative details."

That role, of forming an elite, has now been taken by Business School and Law School. Stanly Fish is a sad case. He always wanted to be a highly paid, ambulence chasing litigator, and now finds himself holding the empty bag of sophistical tricks. He could convince any jury of fools of any point he chose, but a license to practice, he wastes his time demonstrating the emptiness of what his profession has become.

Fish is an aged stripper, who gets down the pasties and g-string, teases us, and then as the audience flees, reveals with a leer, the corruption of things mortal. I have seen the act so many times, I think I will give his most recent "whole Monty" a miss.

Yes, the purpose of the liberal arts is to prevent Machiavels from running the world. But Fish and Friends concede that truth is a lie, that virtue is a fraud, and that what matters most is publicity, wealth, and power.

Some of those who trained Fish at Yale were shocked at his vulgarity. Some of us still are. But here in Wealth Bondage, I have seen worse.

If Swift were to return and write a sequal to The Dressing Room poems, he would take Fish's dressing room as his subject matter.

Posted by: The Happy Tutor at June 2, 2003 04:30 AM

"For fielders, I'd of course pick Aristotle and Aquinas on virtue."

I like your style, Styles. (But then, I would approve your choice of A and A: I'm a lapsed Catholic...)

Happy Tutor, you've given me the first real laugh I've had all day. And yes, "the purpose of the liberal arts is to prevent Machiavels from running the world."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 05:10 AM

There's too much erudition here and not enough thought. Animal house? I don't enjoy thinking because some idiot told me I should do it. I do it because I'm bored when I don't. The whole point of that movie was-is- that the adolescent schmucks had more imagination than the adults, hence their sense and ours as the audience of the moral superiority of John Belushi. That's the irony, kids. Does that mean college is supposed to be about drunken partying? No, it's about using your imagination, if you have one, any way you can. For some people it's about escaping poverty and everything that goes with it. For others born with all they could ask for, it's about wasting time, because it doesn't make a difference what they do. They're set up either way. But for the rest it's not 'content' one teaches but the the ability to make precise distinctions among various activities and objects. And people enjoy the power that such skill gives them. Even the children of the rich, some of them, enjoy acquiring this skill. And they are willing to work at it. But then as some of you know, the educated rich often use their abilities to help codify and reinforce their sense of cultural superiority. It's stupid really, but it happens.
"The purpose of the liberal arts is to prevent Machiavels from running the world" Huh? At the University of Chicago? In the Anthropology department at least. At Dartmouth? C'mon baby, listen to yourself. Listen to the tone of the posts here.

A few extras: John Bruce uses the terms 'input' and 'synergy'- proof enough that he should not teach. And the word 'content' has no place in conversation about the humanities. It assumes that 'contents' are delivered by means of some sort of vessel or container, when the whole point of a humanist education is to understand that there is no line between one and the other. You don't need Adorno to understand the banality of instrumental logic.
You can only teach curiosity by example.
and you kids haven't figured that out yet.

Posted by: Seth Edenbaum at June 2, 2003 06:21 AM

"C'mon baby, listen to yourself. Listen to the tone of the posts here."

Actually, Mr. Edenbaum, I don't much care for the tone of your post. Referring to me and other posters as "you kids," for example, is a bit much. While it presumably gives you a highly satisfactory sense of superiority, your contemptuous dismissal of those with whom you disagree does little to advance your argument. But what I particularly dislike is your attack on Mr. Bruce, which crosses the line into downright rudeness.

Since the vast majority of people who post here tacitly follow the basic rules of civility, I had assumed it would not be neccesary to spell out these rules in an posting policy. Apparently I was mistaken in this assumption.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 02:51 PM

I found something implicitly arrogant and condescending in the tone of the responses here,and the querulous handwringing of the original question shocked me. Both seem the product of sheltered lives. And yes, I was explicit and bitter in my response. Having been on the receiving end of abuse by the junior grade nomenclatura of this country, both in my neighborhood and in my dayjob, I have every right to be uncivil to people who claim so much and understand so little. If you think my anger is class based you're damn right. But since I can't tell any more if I'm speaking as a member of the working class or of the aristocracy, that's all I can say. My father took early retirement from his university position in near dispair.
The point is to love something to near distraction, just for the fuck of it, and to communicate that love. It is more important to be articulate and to communicate that skill than anything else. The articulate will not allow themselves to be led by the nose. They do, however, have a tendency to want to lead others in that way, and that is the danger of education: of producing Machiavels. It's a risk.

I will not post again, but I'll end with this. My father taught at Temple for 30 years. He had a lot of kids from Catholic school. He was very proud that at the end of each year a few of his freshmen would come up to him look into his eyes and say quietly: "Fuck the Nuns... Fuck the Nuns."
He was an asshole, but he was a good teacher.

Posted by: Seth Edenbaum at June 2, 2003 05:14 PM

Just to clarify:

You have every right to be as uncivil as you please at your own website. You have absolutely no right (legal, constitutional, civic, moral or otherwise) to be uncivil at my website.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 05:46 PM

I think that the liberal arts, when in combination with other fields, can be a powerful tool for interpreting the world. I teach in the college of ed. My philosophy class covers those who speak about the role of the teacher, who controls the schools, how students should be taught, etc. Without a background or understanding of one's own philosophy, and the fact that philosophy (and the other arts) can be accessible to most people, you tend to get teachers and future educators who only see their career as a functionalist enterprise (supposedly objective to boot!). "Show me how to teach" is the rallying cry, and preferably "show me in as short a time as possible." In my opinion, I do not want to have any part in producing this kind of teaching candidate or master teacher. When you have the liberal arts and when they are done well, you can innoculate, so to speak, against this market mentality.

Posted by: Cat at June 2, 2003 10:13 PM

"Show me how to teach" is the rallying cry, and preferably "show me in as short a time as possible." In my opinion, I do not want to have any part in producing this kind of teaching candidate or master teacher."

Yes. That old saw about "those who can't do, teach" springs to mind...

Posted by: Rana at June 3, 2003 02:29 AM

Once at a Chicago conference, asked how to judge from a room of 100 the exact 50 who had certified liberal arts educations, I was stumped until, answering the question, our very inquirer said: "They will usually speak tentatively, hesitantly."

I thought that a useful answer.

Posted by: Styles at June 4, 2003 12:16 AM

Combine the degree with an MBA and some experience and you can make up to a 6 figure income.

Posted by: Tryey at April 14, 2004 03:54 PM