In Defense of the Liberal Arts

“…in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field.  That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless–to their mothers.  Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.” – Megan McArdle

I think McArdle can be very sensible. This is one of her worst comments. I’ve tackled it indirectly before (Margaret Levine, “A Man I Knew”) – try to talk about the higher things in life with utility as the sole criterion, and you’ve described everything except life and what’s important.

Now it really, really needs to be dismantled. We’re obsessed with sports, finance, guns, class warfare, ideological purity. This is a pretty crappy environment right now: it’s hard to be thoughtful in any way. Last I checked, we Americans can be a lot better than this. What’s all this wealth and power for if we can’t think, or be even remotely just?

So let’s tear this quote apart:

1. “in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field. That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless–to their mothers.”

I actually worry about this. That’s why I’ve been writing for a number of years: to be publicly accountable for what I’m working on. That does not mean McArdle is correct in any significant way. Some liberal arts fields are about engaging and preserving a past we would otherwise completely ignore. Some are about different modes of expression, whether we’re talking about foreign languages or film or music. Yes, it’s true debates occur among scholars that don’t seem to have immediate relevance. But just because real information is framed a certain way doesn’t make it useless. And again, utility is not the only criterion involved, not by a long shot.

To take one example: there is a big debate over what Machiavelli really means. The New Historicists, i.e. Skinner, Pocock, see him pretty much as a revival of Aristotle. Classical republicanism and its attendant notions of virtue are being revived for the Renaissance. In this line of thinking – see the last chapter of Pocock’s “The Machiavellian Moment” – there is no serious modification of republican thought occurring over the centuries. Maybe even the American republic is somewhat Aristotlean and the only real break with the past involves an explicit notion of moral progress (i.e. Hegel). Others hold that maybe Machiavelli himself is breaking with Aristotle; his emphasis on some rather dark themes attacks any foundation for virtue (see “An Introduction to Machiavelli’s Prince”).

Yes, one can half-read what I wrote and say the debate is nonsense. Or you can actually read it and a question will stick in your mind, as it should: To what degree are morality and politics reconcilable or not? To say this is an important question is to understate the obvious a thousandfold. “Utility” doesn’t even begin to account for the fact that what one person finds useful can literally bind others. The academic debate, before it even gets into matters of “who’s right,” outlines a deep problem with what we consider freedom, what the basis of government is.

What the research does is several things – we find the contours of the debate, what can and can’t be discussed. We find more, obviously, about Machiavelli and his time and how the past for them was recovered. We find a lot about ourselves as people dealing with problems that have existed for centuries. Of course, the debate between scholars is framed in such a way that it has less to do with the “right” reading of history and more to do with scholars’ own biases. I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. There are fields where educated opinions are far, far more important than what is immediately certain. The opinions, strangely enough, lead to a respect for the facts and other opinions, an understanding of how a debate works at a higher level.

Does that mean I think academics are super rational and should always be listened to and paid six figures routinely? Not at all. McArdle’s article calls for an end to tenure; the truth is, we need a lot more professors fast if students are to be given their money’s worth. It just means that the classroom and the research which sustains it have a purpose, that our academic institutions matter. They certainly need reform, but that reform is never going to lend credence to “my uncle knows a ton and he didn’t go to school” and “why are you wasting time reading?” Scholarship in the liberal arts will be irrelevant in a number of years. That’s fine. The focus and attention scholars give now is important for the discoveries that are made and for the students who can see, for just a brief moment, something other than American Idol and school shootings. The research says a lot about what we as a society value. Take it away entirely and we do live in a poorer world.

2. “Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.”

Some fields are nonsense work and little more than ideological vehicles. I’ve seen this from the Right and the Left. But here’s the thing: is the nonsense work because of the liberal arts, or because activists were able to push that the liberal arts should be useful?

What I need clarity on: “hobby.” Is punditry useful? Last I checked, it involves making a heck of a lot of useless predictions and talking to a bunch of people who make up their opinions on topics on the spot in a desperate bid to stay relevant. I’m not saying I don’t get a use out of punditry, especially not good punditry that explains complicated issues and breaks them down so they can more easily be processed.

In previous ages, the liberal arts were how things like “jury trials” and “property rights” (i.e. Montesquieu, Locke) and “science” (i.e. Francis Bacon, Descartes) gained importance and transformed the world. That’s a pretty impressive “hobby,” if we want to call it that. The use in our age, strangely enough, I think is best intuited by Left-liberals who have more affinity for Marx than me. They go right at how materialistic we are and how fast we’ll dumb ourselves down if left to speak the language of business fads (cf. Mark Slouka’s “Dehumanized”).

So no, I don’t think training people to write is just that, the literal skill. This is an Enlightenment Republic. Teaching communication is getting you ready for civic participation. It is striking nowadays that many on the Left see this very clearly. Those of us who see it on the Right almost always have to deal with the “what do you do that is useful?” argument, said with such an edge that you know no one cares to listen, only argue (I am very grateful for my readership. I understand full well I’m not Breitbart or Drudge).

Good writing comes from reading and listening well. Yes, it is true: only a few students will realize what’s going on and why it’s important and diligently work. I know that and you know that. But it’s those few who make the whole world work sometimes. It’s those few who can articulate what’s right.

No one’s saying teachers of the liberal arts are secular saints. All that’s being said is that if you care for ideas, the liberal arts matter, especially if you think of society as democratic. Utility is important, but we sink enormous resources into science and technology. No one grudges that. Everyone acts as if gutting a reading class would make students better on the SAT Math section. It’s really scary when writers who can see the need for serious academic reform decide to attack the field as a whole. We do need academic reform – there are many parts of university life that are hopelessly corrupt. But that comes from valuing the people who are trying to learn the material, not saying what they do is worthless because there is no market for it. There’s no market for justice or freedom, either.

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