Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A New Defense of the Liberal Arts

          It is a new month and I think it is about time for me to add to the "Philosophy/Journalism" category, especially since my last few entries have all been film reviews. I have gone through this past weekend silently debating with myself what exactly the topic should be. Initially, as a follow up to my Jurassic World review, and because this issue has coincidentally been shoved into my attention lately by various articles I have seen on the Internet, I was inclined to write a piece in defense of the antics of a certain feminist activist. But, since this would technically be my first piece in the "Philosophy/Journalism" category (the previous entry was more an "About this Blog" piece), I decided to shelf that idea for a later date. Accordingly, I had this brief moment where I had no idea which topic to pick out of the mound of topics I've brainstormed over the past week or so. It didn't take long, however, for me to naturally gravitate back towards a very particular one: the state of the liberal and fine arts in the United States.
          I've written about this topic before, but that piece never made it to the public eye. The advantage to this is that I can reference a lot of the stuff I said there and perhaps expand on it. The current state of the liberal and fine arts educational curricula in the United States is one that I've had a personal interest in for some time, which makes sense insofar as I was a student of the liberal arts through my undergraduate and graduate careers (I have a master's degree in Philosophy). And it is also a topic that I have a history with; it was brought up several times during the Philosophy Club meetings as San Diego State (where I was a graduate student), as well as the tuition hike protests at UC San Diego (where I was an undergraduate), and I even based a few lectures on it when I was an instructor at SDSU. But I never really wrote any major pieces on the topic, which I hope to change here. In essence, I think my approach to defending the liberal and fine arts educational curricula in the United States is a different one, mostly because a) it is based on a much more rudimentary assumption about the purpose of life, which simultaneously undermines a core doctrine of modern American society (this so-called "American Dream"), and b) there is, admittedly, a certain degree of nihilism about it, which some may initially find off-putting, though I firmly maintain the position nonetheless.
          There is this idea gaining momentum in mainstream American culture that the liberal and fine arts are "useless" pursuits, particularly in the face of disciplines with a larger "return on investment", such as the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Noah Kulwin paraphrases the problem well in The Daily Californian: "If you're to believe the 3 billion hastily assembled Yahoo articles about America's best-paying college majors, business and science majors will forever be relatively employable; and if you major in art history, you are truly fucked. Switch to a science major, so the story goes, or else be left behind by China, or Russia, or the information economy, or whatever" [1]. And there is evidence to think that Mr. Kulwin's understanding of the problem is not misconstrued. The popular website Reddit, for example, has a forum started by a user interestingly named "ohh_the_humanities" titled "I think the Humanities are useless", in which he or she argues that "I notice that the work load of Art History or English majors requires far fewer hours of intensive studying than does a more math-intensive subject such as Electrical Engineering. I was hoping someone could explain to me how expertise in these subjects contributes to our society in a way comparable to STEM focused subjects" [2]. At the time of putting this piece together, this forum had 56 comments, with some supporting the claims made in the original post. And, of course, there are Stanley Fish's multiple opinion pieces he wrote for the New York Times in which he argues that the humanities do not have the same kind of utility, and thus do not merit the same kind of funding, as the STEM fields [3].
          Supporters of this notion have suggested getting rid of the classic liberal arts education altogether in favor of focusing on STEM fields or trade skills, essentially turning America's higher education system into a network of glorified vocational colleges. Others have pushed to remove funding the various liberal and fine arts departments at American universities, as evidenced by Stanley Fish's articles (in fact, there was a period when I was a graduate student at SDSU where the Philosophy Department was under funding review and was essentially asked to justify having the amount of funding it did...several negative changes to the departments undergraduate curriculum were the eventual result of that). And this mentality isn't just confined to socio-political policy makers; I've seen and heard stories of friends, strangers, parents, and other family members express resentment at one's choice of college major in a liberal arts field (years ago, I had an application for a part-time job immediately rejected by a potential employer because I was a Philosophy major, and let's not forget the example of Ted Turner's father expressing his resentment at the fact that Ted was a Classics major [4]). And the list can go on, no doubt, but these are some of the more representative cases of an attitude that seems to be taking an increasingly stronger hold on mainstream American society (as evidenced by the sheer volume of opinion pieces written in support of it).
          This discussion of de-funding or removing the liberal and fine arts from the educational curriculum in the United States has ultimately given rise to what some have called the "Crisis of the Humanities". And much in the same way that proponents of the idea of axing the liberal and fine arts departments at American universities have grown more vocal in recent years, there has also been a growing counter-movement, spear-headed by collectives of students, artists, professors, and groups such as Occupy and Anonymous. Now, I am here to weigh in on this discussion and defend the liberal and fine arts curriculum at American universities. Again, I think my approach is a little different than some of the previous defenses given for the liberal arts in the past. In short, I argue that the criteria that most of anti-liberal arts crowd use to evaluate a liberal arts education are faulty criteria, rooted in poor assumptions that many in American society hold about what it means to be successful in life. A reflection on one's fundamental core beliefs about what constitutes a successful life will illustrate the problems with these assumptions and show that a liberal arts education can actually be one of the most rewarding things one can do in his or her life, and, thus, that the liberal and fine arts deserve to stay as a core part of the educational curriculum in the US.
          In order to respond to critics of the liberal and fine arts, it would be useful to describe in more detail the assumptions they hold that their perspective is based on, this so called "American Dream". Proponents of the "American Dream" believe that, in order to be considered "successful" in modern day America, one has to have things like a six-figure salary and a two-story track home in suburbia, and that only those that "work hard enough" get to reap its benefits. Those that take advantage of social welfare programs, like food stamps, for example, are just "lazy", a proponent of this view might say, and should be left to face the consequences of his or her poor choices. A student who chooses to major in one of the humanities disciplines should not expect to have any kind of employment upon graduation because, after all, they made the poor choice of majoring in something that does not have a good "return-on-investment". Some may say that this is a very insular characterization of the "American Dream", but there is good reason to think that such a characterization has become dogma in the United States. One simply needs to look at the nature of the critiques by Fish or other commentators who all seem to be preoccupied with money in their evaluations of both the liberal and fine arts disciplines, not to mention their evaluations as to whether or not someone has succeeded at life in America. And then there is the case of Rush Limbaugh berating an Occupy protester over her choice of major in Classics [5]. The model citizen, in this paradigm, would then be one who goes to school to get a degree in Computer Science or Engineering, makes a six figure salary, eventually buys a house, starts a family, and then retires and dies.
          And herein lies the core problem with this view: this also has to be the most boring excuse for a life that I have ever heard, and if this is what the "American Dream" consists in, one is in a position to question whether or not it is truly desirable. A fundamental assumption I have about life, one that I imagine would make sense to most people prima facie (if not just flat out be a priori true), is that life should be fun and enjoyable. The kind of lifestyle that critics of the liberal and fine arts are advocating is far from this. For most people, the "American Dream" consists of toiling away, day in and day out, in a cubicle or a warehouse or a retail store only to come home and turn on the TV. Many times I hear these people say they wish they had a different job. At the same time, these same people who are living the "American Dream" usually frown upon the person that lives in a cheap apartment, makes less than $30,000 a year, enjoys casual sex, and may perhaps occasionally do drugs or doesn't follow the teachings of some holy book. Again, this is all evidenced by the attitude that many of the above commentators have towards those students who "made the poor choice" of majoring in English or History. And yet, the ending for all of these people is the same: they die.
          Call this perspective nihilistic, but it is nonetheless true. The actress who lived lavishly with gold trimmed curtains and marble counter tops in her New York penthouse - she died. The politician who spent years fundraising for his election, fighting for the votes of certain demographics with promises of promoting the "American Dream" - he died. The student who had everything going for him, a bright young man who dreamed of being a lawyer and worked tirelessly at it, padding his resume with every kind of internship and certification, spent so much of his time trying to be a lawyer and succeed in his future - he got hit by car and died. The young woman who spent her days working in a bookstore, surrounded by the words of Keats and Wilde, who came home to a small room with only a mattress in the middle - she died. The ten year old kid who had cancer - he died. The rich businessman - he died. And in each case, we can ask the same question: what was the point of everything before they died? The aspiring lawyer toiled so much of his life working towards a goal that he never even got to see. All of the businessman's riches or luxuries of the actress' penthouse couldn't save them from the same fate as the cancer-stricken child or the humble bookstore clerk.
          The above reality is oftentimes forgotten, and some even find it disturbing, despite its seeming self-evidence. Given this reality, the question I posed a moment ago is not only valid but should be taken seriously: what is the point of everything if one is just doomed to die anyway? The best answer I have found to this question is what motivates my defense of the liberal and fine arts: the point is to have fun, to enjoy oneself. Some may perhaps frown at the bookstore clerk's lifestyle, branding it as a "dead end", but what they don't realize is that she is content with her humble life. She doesn't have to worry about passing the state bar exam, or securing a multi-billion dollar business deal, or living up to some kind of moral standard. She is truly free to enjoy herself.
          And some of the few truly enjoyable things in life, I have found, are the liberal and fine arts. This is not to say that the STEM fields are not important; on the contrary, the importance of the STEM fields is compatible with this view. But the liberal and fine arts provide a level of enjoyment in life completely distinct from the STEM fields. Perhaps Fish has a point when he says that "justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good." It is possible to make sense of this point using the "return-on-investment" terminology that critics like to use: education, particularly the liberal and fine arts, is not a means to an end, or its value is not proportionate to how much of a profit it can later generate. Rather, the liberal and fine arts themselves are the return-on-investment. Education itself is the goal of an education. Because, let's face it, the words of Poe or Dante or much more alluring than looking at graphs at a desk all day as an accountant, and the mindset that "the point of an education is just so that an individual can later have a career and turn a profit" makes education out to be another tedious part of that otherwise pointless middle period between birth and death we call "life". A day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is much pleasant than a day working in random office building x, or random grocery store y, and yet proponents of the "American Dream" tell us that we are supposed to strive to be in that office building, or have that six-figure salary, and aim to just retire and die, as long as we are more or less wealthy when we do so. Whether or not we're enjoying ourselves through any part of that process is irrelevant, the thinking goes.
          And it is with clarity on this fundamental assumption about life and the liberal and fine arts that one is now in a position to debunk the majority of the criticisms of a liberal arts education proposed by commentators. For, as outlined at the outset of this piece, a quick survey of the criticisms of the liberal arts illustrates that the large majority of them are based ideas about money or employment. Education in general, let alone the liberal and fine arts, is not about money or employment, contrary to what opponents make education out to be (though it should be noted that employment may very well be a welcome side effect). This idea is captured by the dictum that one should go to college and study what they want to study, or what they enjoy doing, not what will make them profitable later. For if a student studies what he or she enjoys, he or she will enjoy life, making it worth living. But if a student studies what will simply make them employable, even though it may be boring or they hate it, and then they go on to do a job that is equally boring or loathsome, then he or she might as well just commit suicide because his or her life is not enjoyable, and thus not worth living. "But how is such an approach to a liberal arts education compatible with the rising costs of education and amounting student loan debt?", one may wonder. "Certainly," critics will argue, "students will still needs to take out student loans to study History, but if he or she is not concerned with being employable after graduation, then they are bound to be stuck with that debt for a long time and the economy will suffer because of it." Opponents of the liberal arts curriculum in the US will say that these economic woes are the result of the student's poor choice in major. However, very few people, other than the students and professors themselves, seem to entertain the idea that the problem may not actually be the disciplines themselves, but the rising cost of education. An English degree does not cost roughly $30,000 (the estimated price for that degree at my alma mater UC San Diego for the 2015-2016 school year [6]). This inevitably begs the question "why do universities continually charge so much for an education?" The answer has to do with stuff that is, quite honestly, unrelated to education. For example, the Orange County Register reports that the highest paid person in the University of California system is the head football coach at UCLA. Not one of the professors, not one of the administrators, but the head football coach. How much was his total compensation, you may ask? $3.5 million [7]. While the students are amassing more and more debt, the schools are charging more and more so they can pay someone, whose only relation to academics is his employment at UCLA, $3.5 million. It really makes one wonder: perhaps if universities shifted their attention from extraneous programs like Athletics and refocused their attention on academics, the point of a university, this "crisis of the humanities" may see some kind of positive resolution...
          I don't expect this view to be particularly popular, though I consider it reasonable nonetheless. Critics of the liberal and fine arts are too focused on the relationship between the liberal arts and things like money and employment, when they should be worried about the relationship between the liberal arts and living an enjoyable life (where living an enjoyable life does not correlate with having a lot of money or having a certain kind of career). And, also contrary to the critics, the "American Dream" is part of the problem, because the American Dream, as it is usually proposed, asks that one live what can turn out to be a boring and tedious life. The case for the liberal and fine arts also isn't helped by the rising costs of education and mounting student loan debt. But, again, this isn't a problem with the disciplines themselves so much as it is a problem with universities charging too much for an education, in order to support things that have nothing to do with academia. In fact, I am inclined to side with professors like Monte Johnson and groups like Occupy and say that education is right, not a privilege that you put a price tag on, something that, right now, feels as if it is being treated like a commodity rather than a core component of human development [8].

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