(2011-04-21) Dames Why Bother Liberal Arts

NicholasDames reviews 3 books (including 1 by Louis Menand) asking "Why bother" learning about the Liberal Arts (College Education). As such (Public Policy manifestos) they operate under a different standard of judgment than usual intellectual work. It is less important to ask the standard academic/intellectual question — are they right or at least valid? — than a public/political question: will these books do what they want to do?

Without the humanities and its sympathetic imagination, various forms of frustrated narcissism go unchecked and become dominant in public life: helplessness, torpor, disgust, shame, fear of others, and, most worryingly, identification with the constraints that torture us. Hmm, would a study comparing Liberal Arts grads with Engineering grads find a difference in these attitudes?

If we take the argument a step further, we face the possibility that the humanities are actually countereconomic; the notion of alterity and sympathy, taken seriously, would undo the profit motive and put a fair amount of grit into the workings of economic activity. It would undermine the individualism upon which exchange, in its current forms, is based. Hmm, I'm not sure the humanities undermine Individualism, only the stupid humanities do. Or rather, the stupid humanities fail to distinguish between varieties of individualism.

Menand: “The divorce between liberalism and Professionalism as educational missions rests on a superstition: that the practical is the enemy of the true. This is nonsense. Disinterestedness is perfectly consistent with practical ambition, and practical ambitions are perfectly consistent with disinterestedness (Pragmatism). If anyone should understand that, it’s a college professor.”

It's not clear what these folks are defending

  • reading and thinking

  • taking some Liberal Arts classes in college

  • majoring in a liberal art (using government-subsidized Student Loan-s), then getting a teaching degree to teach High School or lower

  • majoring in a liberal art (using government-subsidized Student Loan-s), without any thought for the future

  • getting a graduate degree (using government-subsidized Student Loan-s) in hopes of getting a tenured professorship

  • spending your life as a tenured professor (at a government-subsidized university)

I don't think anyone with a brain is objecting to the first 3.

Edited: |

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