Why The Humanities Matter Today: In Defense of Liberal Education. Lee Trepanier, ed. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017.
This book promises to tell the reader why the humanities matter today and moreover why a new approach to the defense of the humanities is needed. Lee Trepanier, editor and author of both the Introduction and the final chapter, includes political science within the ambit of the humanities, and so the book will appeal not only to those who may be teaching in what have become traditional departments within the humanities, but also to political scientists in the social sciences.
Trepanier begins the work in the Introduction with statistics that confirm what many of us who teach in humanities suspect: Humanities degrees (and here Trepanier lists history, philosophy, classical studies, linguistics, and foreign languages) have dropped from 17.2 percent of all university undergraduate degrees granted in 1967 to only 6.5 percent in 2013. Part of the decline is due to the increased attention our modern, technocratic society pays to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. But students have also had their democratic and utilitarian instincts heightened by universities themselves, always eager to increase enrollments, who promise would-be tuition payers that they will find a job if only they apply to the right sorts of programs of study. The administrators in these institutions in turn put pressure on their departments to conform to the model of vocational training to the exclusion of other sorts of educational aspirations. The steady uptick in internship programs, cooperative learning programs and the like further reinforce to students and parents that universities have become largely vocational training centers. University administrators do very little to try to correct this impression in fact quite the reverse is more likely the case.
Trepanier acknowledges that this lends credence to a common, left-liberal critique of universities: i.e. a “neoliberal” agenda pushes capitalist values into every aspect of society and higher learning is meekly succumbing to this nefarious force. However, one might also notice, with help from Alexis de Tocqueville, that democratic societies produce citizens who focus on utility and material well being above other concerns. These democratic tendencies Tocqueville described in the 1830’s existed long before Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher came along. In the Republic Socrates points to exactly the same phenomena in his critique of democratic regime and the soul it typically produces (528 a). Yet, despite this well-known tendency in democracy, universities existed as centers of liberal learning within democratic-capitalist societies for generations. One would still need to explain why they did a better job of resisting the vocational siren song than they do now. What is different in the modern period?
The programs Trepanier does not list that frequently appear in modern humanities faculties include women’s studies, cultural studies, and any host of other “studies.” Not uncommonly, these program’s believe their raison d’être is to undermine the older claim that universities are engaged in the humane pursuit of truths that transcend our individual differences even while they acknowledged the richness of particular, lived experiences and the depth of other societies’ political, intellectual, and artistic responses to the complexities of the human condition. Not content merely to point out that justice and equality have not yet been secured for everyone and that women and minority groups were left out, many scholars in these new fields add that the so-called justice inherent in western liberal democratic regimes is an illegitimate form of Western-European cultural hegemony.
Yet by advancing this view from within the university, the heretofore unifying mission of liberal education was destroyed, with the greatest devastation coming to the humanities themselves. Since one casualty is the hope that there is a shared truth available to be known by those who seek it, regardless of the accidental qualities of their identity (skin color, gender, etc.), the humanities under this new dispensation seem to offer students little of permanent value. This view merely reinforces what they assume they already know about themselves, while not promising to get help them much with their economic hopes. Former Dean of the Yale Law school, Anthony Kronman, writes that programs that promote identity politics and eschew a human truth in place of either culturally specific or subjective values, have rendered the humanities “a death zone” (The End of Education: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life). According to Kronman, the humanities are dying by suicide.
If the humanities still have some value clearly that value needs to be articulated and defended. Unfortunately, Trepanier argues, “the humanities have presented several arguments and coping strategies about their values, although it seems that they have little influence today” (x). Trepanier is skeptical about traditional arguments in favor of humanities and liberal education. The appeals to traditional moral values and to the value of studying the knowledge these fields offer as ends in themselves fall on deaf ears for those who are already committed to the STEM topics, for these disciplines too “have their own traditions, moral values, and are considered important intellectual endeavors, in addition to providing employment and material scientific advancement” (x).
One might agree with this claim and yet still wonder whether the sciences actually have the ability to account for or justify those values. Or do they merely assume a moral value underlies their endeavors, one which needs to be examined using a method of inquiry that natural science cannot itself provide? Briefly stated, if science can analyze and explain facts but is helpless to inform us about morals, then the question as to whether or not science is a good that society ought to support cannot be answered by science. It is either an unanswerable question, in which case science is groundless and nihilistic, or it can be answered, but only by some other form of inquiry aside from science which, by providing the more comprehensive or architectonic perspective, would be of greater importance than science itself. It would seem that the study of the human good and what it means to be a human being—the humanities— is what heretofore contributed something to this crucial perspective.
Yet for the time being at least, the conventional arguments in favor of liberal education and the humanities have “lost their allure” and so “instead of recycling old arguments, new ones are required if the humanities wish to retain a respectable place in the university” (xi). It is as if only those who have been liberally educated can hear the appeal of these arguments. We find ourselves facing a negative feedback loop—as fewer students are given exposure to a quality liberal arts degree so there are fewer citizens we will have who appreciate its value or who are willing to support the colleges and universities that provide it.
One cannot help but wonder sometimes whether this feedback loop was not envisioned, nay longed for, by individuals like John Dewey, who criticized public schools and university as places where aristocratic book learning generated individuals who spent too much time with the authors of the past. These old books generated little aside from a sort of pointless melancholy in the modern reader. Better, Dewey thought, to limit students’ exposure to the past works of literature, philosophy and history, allowing them more time to learn the practical skills that would empower them to mold an imagined future, unburdened by the dead hand of the past. After all, it is more difficult to socialize kids into present-day society if they are getting all hung up on Shakespeare, Augustine, or Pascal. Cutting students off from knowledge of the tradition would be the surest way to immerse them completely into the present and to generate the cheerful disposition needed by the builders of tomorrow. And so Dewey’s legacy today may be seen in university departments that boast about the number of “change agents” they have managed to produce out of their programs.
Trepanier’s book contains six chapters which address different aspects of liberal education. Some come from a more traditional angle and others introduce slightly newer, or at least less traditional, approaches.
In the first chapter, Kirk Fitzpatrick divides the history of liberal education into two phases: the classical–in which liberal education is identified with specific content and is praised as being distinct from the servile arts—and the modern period, during which the liberal and servile distinction collapses and the emphasis is placed on developing “thinking” skills in conjunction with, or at least not in opposition to, mechanical skills. In this cause John Dewey is a leading advocate. Fitzpatrick identifies problems with Dewey’s critique of liberal education, yet the emphasis in the second-phase on measurable results is something Fitzpatrick thinks could be added to the first-phase liberal education as a means of reassuring parents, administrators and students: hence proof can be offered that liberal education is worth the investment and delivers what it promises. This may be a strategy that answers Trepanier’s concern in the Introduction: how do we defend the liberal arts to a skeptical audience who are not already sensitive to the beauty and nobility of the classical liberal education?
Fitzpatrick does not go into much detail about the kinds of measures that might accurately represent what students have or have not achieved in the course of study. The traditional methods of writing argumentative essays, mastering content, and displaying that mastery in exams and oral examinations is quickly being eroded by the push for more experiential learning and discovery learning methods—both of which also have their roots in Dewey’s reforms to public education. And the sorts of standardized measurements that university administrators prefer can do liberal education a disservice by measuring for utility and little else, which will only cause the humanities to lose out once again, especially to those fields hat can also show they produce “critical thinkers” etc. The Association of Core Texts and Courses—an international association concerned with promoting core texts courses and programs—has put some work into developing narrative assessments for programs that, by their very nature, cannot easily be quantitatively assessed. Fitzpatrick may be on to something here, but more work seems to be needed before liberal education can translate what it accomplishes into a standardized evaluation that will be comprehensible to the stakeholders we are trying to persuade. One final note about the first chapter; it was the most difficult to read in part because the paragraphs were at time lacking coherence and unity. The essay needed another round of editing before it was published.
Kristopher G. Phillips argues for the practicality and impracticality of philosophy, which is not an unfamiliar argument for many of those who teach in philosophy departments or the humanities. The argument here is that the more we allow free inquiry even into areas that seem on the surface unlikely to bear much useful intellectual fruit, sometimes surprising discoveries or insights can occur. He provides the examples of Descartes and other early modern philosophers whose studies, he argues, were not directed at having any practical effect and yet ended up laying the foundations for modern science. Now it is not clear to me that Descartes and Francis Bacon were not, in fact, intending to cause a revolution in thought right from the beginning. Descartes in the Discourse on Method, after all, tells his readers that if society were to adopt his method they would soon become masters and possessors of nature. He practically dangles the promise of eternal life as one benefit of increasing our knowledge in the realm of the medical sciences. And Bacon’s New Organon is obviously an attempt to replace the “old” Organon, the standard name given to Aristotle six works on logic. Bacon seeks to replace Aristotle first and foremost by removing formal and final causes from the realm of scientific inquiry.
With these two dispensed with, the natural scientist can make great progress in the world by focusing exclusively on efficient and material cause, i.e., kinetic energy and matter. Purposes—or final causation—will now be provided by human imagination, and so we no longer need to look to nature for guidance on ends or goals. Arguably the intention of these pioneers is to move the bulk of society away from a concern with the sorts of “ends in themselves” pursuits that guided philosophy for millennia and to set the agenda for a society bent on utility and practical, technological effects. The question is how philosophy can now defend its claim to offer something valuable aside from these goals announced and defended by Descartes and Bacon. Their very success seems part of the problem, not necessarily part of the solution now.
Nozomi Irei’s chapter seeks to find a place for comparative literature in the ongoing development of liberal arts education. Her argument differs the most from the others in this work. Taking as her guides thinkers such as Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Guattari, Irei wants to undermine a simplistic approach to the critical-comparative study study of texts which involves merely “applying” a theory or set of axioms to the reading of any particular work. Simply applying “theories to texts means making the readings conform to the axioms of the theory instead of allowing the text to speak for itself” (76). These theories and axioms should not simply be imported from other disciplines and then applied to these texts, rather “the axioms themselves must be seen as emerging from specific disciplines and as carrying with them, like a Trojan horse, specific social, historical, cultural, and political contexts that become universalized” (76).
Irei is searching for an approach that she believes is more authentically interdisciplinary and inter-cultural than what goes on in the contemporary university. Globalization may provide the hidden impetus for modern universities to promote what they pass off as interdisciplinary study, but, quoting Deleuze and Guattari, Irei states that capitalism, which is globalization’s hidden impetus, “deterritorializes and territorializes” constantly. Ideas become ideologies subservient to “economism” (78). This sort of interdisciplinarity, which is really just a masked form of hegemonic neo-liberalism, is dispiriting, she finds. Comparative Literature may offer a different approach to strengthening liberal education.
The modern university, Irei declares, in so far as it has jumped on board with capitalist “economism,” stands for nothing. It cannot articulate any guiding value. In the midst of this vacuum Comparative Literature would at least train students to read texts on the text’s own terms, searching all the time for values, testing and “hammering” each claim to see which ones are “‘hollow” and nihilistic.” Ultimately the purpose would be to prepare the way for the “creation” of new values. It would imply, at the very least, that students would have had to consider the various historical, economic, social, and political contexts, analyzing all of the forces that run through those prior to concluding anything from their study of a text or texts.
This sound like an ambitious, not to say impossible, agenda for undergraduates who are coming to our classrooms with seemingly less and less historical, cultural and geographical knowledge to begin with. Students are taught at an early age that culture (like morals) are all relative, which means none of the cultures on display offer a superior perspective on how to live one’s life. The students have absorbed the implicit lesson, which is that there is no point learning other cultural perspectives since they are all equally arbitrary. How these students, who probably cannot name the current capital of Iraq, will take the entire historical, cultural, economic, social, and political context in mind when they are reading, say, the Epic of Gilgamesh and comparing it to another work from an entirely different cultural background is not clear.
Irei later states that “my purpose is not then to provide a new moral or a prescription for the vision of the humanities. I simply propose that Comparative Literature, in being a locus of such hammering, has the potential to contribute to a renewal of the humanities.” Yet if her proposal does not promote a moral norm, how does it differ from the valueless drift of the university for which this approach is intended to be the cure? Along the way, Irei asserts that a side benefit of this Nietzschean approach of philosophizing with a hammer would be consistent with Deluze’s image of the rhizome, which symbolizes “a subterranean stem absolutely different from roots and radicals.”
Just as Nietzsche’s approach is supposed to show us the pointlessness of transcending to truth (instead we ought to be create values) so the image of Deleuze’s rhizome displaces the human as the root or goal of liberal education. “The problem with the humanities is that it is tied to the notion of the human, which holds it back from innovative projections into a future emancipated from traditional, religious ideologies of the human” (85). This amounts to saying the problem with the humanities is that it is the humanities, concerned with human things, including truth about the purpose of living as a human being. The rhizome image is more promising, Irei imagines, because it replaces the stability but also the rigidity of a guiding human telos with something much more fluid, dynamic and creative. “The rhizome would allow for multiplicities that connect without identities that have to be fused artificially or violently. The assemblages that would be formed would be able to adjust and constantly take in [other identities] precisely because there would be no central, ‘mono’ root” (86). “The traditional concept of ‘telos’ and purpose thus might be crushed” (85). No wonder she invoked the image of the Trojan Horse earlier.
But how is this endless, fluid, assemblage and re-assemblage any different than the endless, capitalist deterritorializing and reterritorializing that this new approach is meant to replace and repair? And why choose this new approach given that it offers no answer to the perennial questions for human beings, such as what is the good for me, for my family and for my community? I worry that Irei’s path leads further toward Kronman’s view that humanities have rendered themselves a death zone precisely insofar as they have removed these questions from the curriculum. Taking the human out of the humanities can only de-humanize them—literally–not revitalize them.
James Harrison’s contribution defends the study of foreign languages in humanities programs as a way for students to learn the rules of grammar and syntax. This causes students to being language to consciousness, to contemplate it as an “end in itself,” rather than merely to use language instinctively. Harrison tries to explain this notion of language being an end in itself. Words, he claims, are never only utilitarian, he declares. “When a mother says ‘Don’t to her child who is about to go head first down a flight of stairs, there is more at work than an utterance being used as a catalyst….to argue that the mother’s command is only” a tool or catalyst, like a lever used to move a rock, “would be foolish” (94). His point does not seem obvious—why isn’t the mother’s assertion simply intended to stop her child from hurting herself? What more is there in this statement that would make it “and end in itself?” Harrison doesn’t explain, and so the reader is left wondering.
But even granting Harrison’s point, what is the benefit of such “metacognition” about language itself? Harrison concludes by stating that “language is one of the ways we come to grips with the chaos of life” (106). “It is the means by which we select the concepts that are of imminent importance which can then be caught in a web of words and become accessible to our conscious minds” (106). In this formulation language seems to be spoken about as a tool again—the means by which we present intelligible substance (“the imminently important”) to our minds. Yet he concludes by saying that whether language is to become a means or whether it is instead an end, whether it is a servile art or a liberal art, is “up to us.” But I would say that I am more impressed by Harrison’s point that language is a web, the value of which is that it captures meaning. The study of language for its own sake, whatever that might mean at the end of the day, depends for its importance upon the meaning of the concepts language “captures” or conveys, not in language thought of as independent from this task.
David Lunt’s article on history’s contribution to liberal education provides a nice overview of the approach ancient historians take to the study of the past. Lunt argues that these ancient historians viewed their histories not as simply the chronicling of past events but rather as a rational and rhetorical art that reveals deeper patterns in great human actions. This spirit of inquiry, he argues, “is a vital component of liberal education” (112). He notes that ancient writers, like Herodotus, criticized their predecessors because of the unreliability of the earlier accounts of events, indicating that these early historians seek to distinguish their form of inquiry into the truth of prior events from, for instance, poetry. The historian encourages the adoption of a critical perspective on the past and of accounts of the past left behind by others. In that sense, history provides an opening to liberal education because the historian might challenge the accepted account of past events and mythological accounts of places and persons.
But Lunt also notices that ancient historians did not shy away from blending rhetoric with their history. “Ancient historians used events of the past to argue for specific courses of action in their own times” (112). Thucydides, Lunt notes, sought to explain his own time on the basis of what he had learned from his critical inquiry into the causes and conduct of the Peloponnesian war. But, having quoted Thucydides’ famous assertion that his history would be a “possession for all time” Lunt could also have included Thucydides’ belief that his work would also help explain future times as well. “Those who want to look into the truth of what was done in the past,” Thucydides announces, “which, given the human condition, will recur in the future, either in the same fashion or nearly so—these readers will find this History valuable enough, as this was composed to be a lasting possession and not to be heard for a prize at the moment of contest” (History of the Peloponnesian War, 1:22). The shaping or “rhetorical” purpose of history, at least as far as Thucydides is concerned, is guided by a concern to unearth enduring patterns of human interaction which may be used by future statesmen as guideposts for conducting their own actions.
In a way, it seems that Thucydides and other historians viewed the purpose of history as revelatory of the practical wisdom (and sometimes lack of it) that can be discerned by careful students of word historical events and, hopefully, used by them to develop and guide their own moral choices. And so Livy, another historian who would seem to fit with Lunt’s conception of the historian, says about his account of Rome that “There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past: that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid” (Livy, “Preface,” The History of Rome, volume 1). The purpose may in part be rhetorical in the sense that it is intended to influence future actions and decision, but it is meant to be guided by fidelity to the truth about human nature, which the history is intended to uncover and which these authors seemed to think was more accurately revealed by them through the wise shaping of the mere facts of the past occurrences.
But even aside from that contentious claim, one other point could be emphasized by Lunt which I believe is also very helpful for a liberal education, and that is that these historians clearly believe that their possessions can stand the test of time only if history is not, as Hegel and Marx believed, progressive. Our students often come into our classrooms already assuming that history is an independent force which propels human civilization ever forward toward an increasingly utopian future. Partly this is the result of living in a democratic capitalist society in which they are encouraged by the advances they see in the realm of technology (even though they tend not to focus as much on the dangerous technologies emerging simultaneously with the beneficial ones) and partly as a result of public schools and university that have reinforced this view of history with a watered down version of Marxist ideology underlying much of what they teach. So for these students to confront serious writers from the past who do not share this assumption about history can liberate them from their unreflective prejudices about history. At a minimum they will be more alive to the fundamental question posed by Publius in the first Federalist: “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Merely to acknowledge this as a question would be a first step for many students toward achieving a more liberal, i.e., free, mind.
Finally, Trepanier’s chapter explores the relevance of political philosophy and political science today. He notes that political science in the late 19th and early 20th century went through a behavioralist revolution in which it sought to imitate the natural sciences and, by doing so, it adopted Weber’s fact-value distinction. Despite various attempts to push back against this, “political science still is largely defined by empirical models as influenced by logical positivism” (127). Where does this leave political philosophy, then? It became marginalized by the predominance of behavioralism, and a modus vivendi developed in which the behavioralists continue to examine and organize empirical data of political life using methodologies that invoke the fact-value distinction while political philosophers, otherwise critical of these approaches, agreed to remain silent. So both continue to live under the same roof but refuse to speak to one another about politics (131). This puts political philosophy in a tenuous situation, and lest its roommates form an alliance to vote it out of the house altogether, something needs to change and political philosophers need to develop arguments that defend their importance to the discipline. “Conceding that there may be other ways to work with political scientists and that the ones mentioned here might fail, I nevertheless think it is imperative for political philosophers to think about new ways to collaborate with political scientists if we want to have a discipline of political science” (133).
A second problem for political scientists is “forming and articulating a relationship to liberal education.” The social sciences have traditionally held an equivocal role here: “should political scientists play an active role in social and political reform or should they stand apart and observe and record politics?” A third option Trepanier does not list here is whether political scientists have an obligation to conserve the regime and encourage fidelity to certain political and moral principles that the regime itself may be trying to embody. That is, ought political scientists try to reasonably curb the typical, youthful enthusiasm for “reform and change” even if it is “change we can believe in”? Although Trepanier implies that the position held by some political scientists, the behavioralists primarily, that political science ought to confine itself to the scientific pursuit of knowledge and not attempt to influence political behavior, this might downplay the impact that this posture itself has on the political realm. For the attitude itself betrays and promotes, without argument, the commitment to the fact-value distinction in which the role of the scientist is to produce the facts and not pass judgment on how those facts are employed by the politicians. As Leo Strauss points out in Natural Right and History, this stance is hardly the politically neutral position it pretends to be since it informs the public that political science cannot and will not determine what are good uses of that scientific data and what are not: it might tell us how elections are rigged (the facts), but not whether we ought to rig elections (the values). Strauss famously refers to this result as “retail sanity, wholesale madness.”
It would seem to me that if political philosophy is to articulate its relevance, then it must lie in this forgotten realm, which is the traditional role it always had, namely to try as best as possible to clarify what the good for human beings is in light of which the particular choices we face here and now can be evaluated. Yet this will place political philosophers in the precarious position of having to criticize their fellow political scientists who neglect to reflect on the effect that their behavioralist assumptions have on the political culture within which they operate and depend upon for their continued existence. Political philosophers need in a sense to play the role Aristophanes did with respect to the early Socrates who, in the “thinkery” depicted in The Clouds, was content to study the scientific “facts” entirely oblivious to the impact that his orientation to knowledge would have on the Athenian society within which his investigations took place. Aristophanes saw that this was foolish and dangerous, and Socrates realized he would need to become more political with respect to his philosophizing (c.f. Leon Craig, The War Lover: A Study of Plato’s Republic (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, xxiv).
Trepanier concludes with some speculations about as to whether or not the emerging scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) may be one arena within which the dialogue among political scientist can take place, with the side benefit that by articulating what political science offers its students in terms of learning outcomes, etc. might also help convince skeptical parents and government stakeholders about the importance of the discipline. Trepanier is not confident that this approach will work, but he offers it as at least one venue in which political scientist are being encouraged to think about the discipline and to articulate what it offers students and society. My worry, as I have argued in a forthcoming paper (in a book edited by Trepanier, I should disclose) is that the SoTL field so far seems to have been largely captured on today’s colleges and campuses at any rate by education theorists who, like their counterparts in primary and secondary education, have drunk deeply at John Dewey’s kool-aid stand. The SoTL literature often frames debates about pedagogy not in terms of whether discovery-learning is a good thing but rather how we might best implement discovery-learning and experiential learning in our curriculum. If political philosophers can play a helpful role in these debates it might be by reminding SoTL advocates that framing the issue this way begs the question since it presumes that Dewey’s progressive pragmatism, and the specific understand of democracy his education reforms were intended to realize, is the best regime. Nevertheless, I believe Trepanier is right that political philosophy needs to become more self-confident about its role in political science.
What I think we need to insist upon is that the essential perspective we offer that cannot be found anywhere else is the constant refection upon and inquiry into the human good, including how to achieve it and how not to achieve it. We ought, for example, to develop more courses within our respective departments that help our citizens understand the role of great statesmen and stateswomen in history. We can begin to educate them about the choices they made and what principles guided them.
The book began with the hope that the essays contained within it might shed some light on how to defend the humanities—and political political science insofar as it might be included among the humanistic disciplines—from their current malaise. The book might have been improved by concluding with a chapter that tried to gather up the more promising threads left behind by the various authors. In my view, some of the authors placed less emphasis on answering the leading question posed by Trepanier around which the volume was supposed to be structured than the editor may have hoped for. While the chapters mostly defend the humanities, with the possible exception of Irei’s chapter, the practical strategies so far that seem most promising are offered by the first and the last authors, Fitzpatrick and Trepanier. In both cases, though, the proposals connect to the thinking of John Dewey and or contemporary education theories and so carry with them dangers that political philosophy will subsume itself under the deeper principles that guided Dewey’s thinking and which, I argue, still guide these initiatives. When one reads Dewey’s work, one sees those principles are egalitarian, progressive, scientific, and historicist. They would seem in that sense to be in line with and therefore to offer support for the predominant behavioralism which is marginalizing political philosophy (and liberal education) in the first place. To his credit, Trepanier acknowledges the potential danger here: “It remains to be seen whether SoTL will make political science relevant to the public as a disciple or just be another failed attempt to organize the discipline in a publicly understandable way” (138). I would agree that those of us interested in genuine liberal education might ignore these new initiatives at our peril, but we also need to be careful that by participating in them we do not appear to be at the same time lending them more credence than perhaps is merited.