Monday, March 30, 2009

The Future of the Liberal Arts

Tonight at 7:30 I deliver a keynote lecture at Oglethorpe University on the subject of "The Future of the Liberal Arts." My own view is rather bleak - I think it's likely that the future of the liberal arts is close to non-existent - at least in the short- to middle-term future. My argument, in a nutshell, is that the liberal arts were based on the teaching of an older form of liberty, namely the liberty that is achieved through self-governance. Its role has been increasingly displaced with the rise of the new liberty - achieved through the new sciences - namely, the liberty from limits aimed at the fulfillment of our desires. That project is ever more fully realized (even in spite of our economic crisis, which for most now means we need to redouble our efforts of control), meaning that the liberal arts are on the verge of being altogether routed. However, growing evidence of the costs and consequences of unrestrained appetite and the necessary expansion of the modern scientific project simply to control the deleterious effects of its own activities suggests that we will - someday, and hopefully not too long or too late - rediscover the wisdom of the liberal arts, and the real humanities (not their craven modern incarnation) that was at their heart.

If you're in the Atlanta area and don't have anything better to do (hard to imagine), do stop by.

A taste, here:


The current revolution redefining the university has very old roots that are only now giving bloom to foliage that threatens to overrun the entire university system. That revolution began in the early modern period with an argument that a new science was needed to replace the old science, a new science that no longer sought merely to understand, but to transform. In the domain of the sciences, it gave rise to the scientific revolution. In the domain of economics, it gave rise to a new system of free market economics. In the realm of politics, it gave rise to the liberal polity. It afforded theories of rationalization and standardization, rejected old claims of tradition and culture, of cult and creed, of myth and story. First it sought to remake the natural world, then it set its aims on human nature. It has given rise to unprecedented liberty, prosperity, opportunity, openness, discovery, technology, - all that Francis Bacon called “the relief of the human estate.” Its success is so profound and extensive that nothing can stand in its path.

Yet, for many years, an older science still lie at the heart of liberal education. It was pre-modern in origins, mostly religious and cultural, deriving its authority from the faith traditions that one generation sought to pass onto a next generation. One sees it today on most campuses as a palimpsest, that is, like a medieval vellum whose old writing was erased to make room for new writing, but from which a trained eye can still read the ancient teaching. In the gothic buildings, the name “professor,” “dean” and “provost,” the flowing robes that are donned once or twice a year for ceremonial occasions – these and some other holdover presences and practices are fragments of an older tradition mostly dead on most college campuses, but remnants and reminders, nonetheless, of what had once been the animating spirit of these institutions.

For centuries the humanistic disciplines were at the heart of the university: while the sciences were an integral part of the original liberal arts education, they were understood to be the main avenue toward understanding the natural and created order of which humankind was a crowning part. Humanity was the highest created creature, the created creature most worthy of study, because we were created in God’s image and, as a creature with Godlike features, we were the creature that had the unique capacity for liberty. This liberty, we understood, was subject to misuse and excess; the oldest stories in our tradition, including the story of humankind’s fall from Eden, told the tale of the human propensity to use freedom badly. To understand ourselves was the effort to understand how to use our liberty well, especially how to govern those appetites, submission to which would actually represent the loss of our liberty and reflect our enslavement to desire. At the heart of the liberal arts was an education in what it meant to be human: how to negotiate that hard and difficult task of determining what was permitted and what was forbidden, what constituted the highest and best use of our freedom and what actions were – to use varying terms - hubristic, sinful, unethical, immoral – wrong. We consulted the great works of our tradition, the vast epics, the great tragedies and comedies, the reflections of philosophers and theologians, the revealed Word of God, those countless books that sought to teach us what it was to be human, above all, how to use our liberty well. To be free – liberal – was itself an art, something that was learned not by nature or instinct, but by refinement and education. At the center of the heart of the soul of the liberal arts were the humanities, the education of how to be a human being.


For the humanities – the older science – liberty had been understood to be the achievement of hard discipline, the learned capacity to govern appetite and desire, to tame the unlimited cravings of the will and achieve a condition of self-government. For the new science, liberty was constituted by the removal of obstacles, by the overcoming of limits, by the transformation of the world – whether the world of nature, over which humans increasingly exercised control by means of science and applied technologies, or even the nature of humanity itself, a nature that was believed to be as malleable as nature had proven to be. Education was to be increasingly a process of liberation, not the cultivation of self-restraint.

To meet the conditions of this increasingly dominant sense of liberty, the humanities sought acceptance by the dominant purveyors of liberty by advancing theories that asserted the pure liberation of human beings from all constraint. Post-modernism sought to expose all forms of power and control, implying that the ideal human condition was one of complete liberty – even the liberty from what was once understood to be human (see Foucault, The Order of Things). Purportedly natural conditions were regarded as “socially constructed,” including “gender” and “heteronormativity.” Of course, nature could no longer a standard in any sense, since nature was now manipulable and alterable. Why accept the facts of biology when those “facts” could be altered? The definition of what it was to be a human – already challenging and elusive – became increasingly indefensible. Many people began to conclude that there was no human nature, only endless possibilities of self-creation. Education increasingly became oriented not toward the achievement of a certain end, but rather an invitation to endless possibilities.

We were increasingly told that the sole attribute of humanity was that of will – that raw assertion of power over any restraints or limits that would otherwise define us. Rather than the source of an education in limits and restraint – as they had once been – the humanities became the most conspicuously liberative of the disciplines, even calling into question the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. Ironically, the very trajectory of its liberatory logic was only a reflection and extension of the very ethic of the new science that had come to dominate the structure of the university.


If the humanities are on the verge of being routed, one can only imagine now what they might say. I would think the humanities of old would part the stage with a warning and even a lament. Its warning would be simple, I think: at the end of the path of liberation lies enslavement. Such liberation from all obstacles is finally illusory, for two simple reasons: human appetite is insatiable and the world is limited. We cannot be truly free in the modern sense for both of these reasons. We can never attain satiation; we will be eternally driven by our desires rather than satisfied by their attainment. And, in our pursuit of the satisfaction of our limitless desires, we will very quickly exhaust the planet. Our destiny, should we enter fully down this path toward our complete liberation, is one in which we will be more governed by necessity than ever before. We will not be governed by our own capacity for self-rule, but rather by circumstance, particularly the circumstances resulting from scarcity, devastation and chaos.

Our commitment to a future of liberation from nature and necessity is illusory – it is the faith-based philosophy of our time. Religion is often accused of being incapable of drawing the right conclusions from evidence, but it seems to me that we have in plain view the greatest leap of faith in our time, perhaps of all time – namely our willful refusal to alter our behavior in response to the various crises that now face us. Take, for instance, the response of the leadership of our nation and our institutions of higher learning to this very economic crisis in which we find ourselves, in whose dark shadow we gather today. This crisis, as everyone now knows, was the result of the idea that one could consume without limits, that we were permitted to live indefinitely and permanently beyond our means. The wanting of something was warrant for the taking of the thing. Our appetite justified consumption. Our want was sufficient for our satiation. The result was not merely literal obesity, but moral obesity – a lack of self-governance of our appetites ultimately forced us on a starvation diet.

I have yet to hear a University president or leader suggest that there was some culpability on the the part their own institutions for our failure to educate well our students. After all, it was OUR students who occupied places of esteem in these elite financial and political institutions throughout the land that helped to precipitate this crisis. It was OUR students who occupied places of power and influence in the national economic order. We readily take credit for Rhodes scholars and Fulbright recipients; what about our students who created sub-prime CDOs and complex derivatives whose main reasons for existence was to line their pockets? Are we so assured that they did not learn exceedingly well the lessons that we have taught them?


Marie said...

Last night and in your Front Porch essay on monoculture, you lament the rise of ‘[a]n itinerant and rootless intellectual class,” and the demise of educational diversity. Could you say more about this? Your point is well taken when applied to business and economics, but how would it apply, to, say, a philosophy professor, who ought to teach the same Aristotle at Princeton as at Vanderbilt, or so I assume you would agree. The man [generic] himself ought to be rooted locally, and he might adapt his pedagogical methods to particular circumstances, but shouldn’t his philosophy be universal? Isn’t the whole point of the intellectual life that at some level it transcends the particular? That’s why one can find friends from different backgrounds and even different times (e.g., I remember as a lonely graduate student reading T.S. Eliot’s poems and feeling as if I’d found a friend).
It was a pleasure to meet you last night.

Coach said...

Any chance one could obtain a copy of your full text? What I read here was excellent. Thanks.

Black Sea said...

It's a long worm that never turns:

"HMC [Harvard Managment Company]not only became a place to make big bonuses, it was also where you could make a name for yourself and become a "crimson puppy," meaning launching your own private equity firm or hedge fund with Harvard's backing. One of the puppies, Jeffrey Larson, left in 2004 to start Sowood Capital. That pile of smart money cratered in 2007, losing $350 million for Harvard."

The entire article on Harvard's attempt to become a hedge fund affiliated with a university is here:

Patrick Deneen said...

I plan to revise the lecture and publish it in public venue. I'll let you know when it's available.

Coach said...

Many thanks. I am currently in the MA program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas; I will be writing my thesis on classical education as appropriated by Christians. Your work will be most appreciated.
PS: Did you see Stanley Fish's article "The Last Professor"... things are looking dismal; couple that with David Brooks' "The End of Philosophy" and you could name your piece "The End of Humanity"!

Coach said...

Many thanks. I am currently in the MA program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas; I will be writing my thesis on classical education as appropriated by Christians. Your work will be most appreciated.
PS: Did you see Stanley Fish's article "The Last Professor"... things are looking dismal; couple that with David Brooks' "The End of Philosophy" and you could name your piece "The End of Humanity"!

Christopher Mauriello said...

Very interesting blog on the fate of the liberal arts. I am researching the topic as I watch the professional schools at my college on the rise in terms of funding and enrollment and the School of Arts and Sciences languish without the ability to define what they do in preparing students. As an historian, I appreciated the long perspective given here. I do take issue with the equation of modernity with only science and technology. Modernity is a debate, this is another facet to that debate about modernity and the human condition. Except for the hiccup of the postmoderns (proved futile for trying to step outside of the debate on modernity and now relegated to forty something English professors)the debate started by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment continues.