Phi Beta Kappa has formally launched its signature project, the National Arts & Sciences Initiative. Over the years ahead, this advocacy campaign will work to energize members of the Society in support of arts and sciences education, to recognize national leaders who are bending their efforts toward the arts and sciences, and to honor regional programs with extraordinary records of enhancing public access and appreciation of the arts and sciences.
The launch event was held at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., on December 4, 2013. Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, became the initial recipients of Phi Beta Kappa’s 1776 Award recognizing legislative leadership in advancing the arts and sciences and heightening their visibility. Project Humanities, headed by Arizona State University’s Neal Lester, garnered the inaugural Key of Excellence Award.
We took the opportunity to state plainly and directly the concise case we will advance in the months and years ahead. Through this initiative, we who speak for Phi Beta Kappa will affirm and demonstrate three fundamental propositions: that a broad-based arts and sciences education expands opportunity; that the arts and sciences drive ingenuity and innovation; and that the arts and sciences are a strong investment in America’s future.
What we know about the future is that we do not know what it will bring. Education in the arts and sciences is education for the unpredictable. It is education for all of life. This is the simple and compelling case we will carry to those whose decisions will shape our colleges and universities in the century ahead. In committing ourselves to this initiative, we are making real the aspirations of Phi Beta Kappa’s founding, and working to shape not only the future of our Society, but also—let us believe—the future of our country.
I recently reported here on my early going in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. “Early going” in this case means the first couple of hundred pages. There, I was impelled by the recommendation of a friend. I have since had the middle going, the late going, and the final going, impelled there additionally by my own growing interest in the craft of the writer and the fate of the characters. I have finished the book, but not finished thinking about it, a sign that the investment of time was likely worthwhile. More important, maybe, is the confirmation that I am no longer the nineteen-year-old sophomore reader who, in the bravado of self-doubt, told his indulgent professor that he couldn’t read Henry James. Growing up is not one thing and not something you find out about all at once.
I had a bad feeling about Isabel’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond. And indeed it does go poorly. But I am not claiming this shows prescience. Real prescience would have been to have figured out exactly who was whose, and precisely what stake this character and that had in making that marriage happen. As it was, fittingly, and I hope like the vast majority of readers, I was carried along in an ignorance differing from that of Isabel herself only through access to the narrator’s intimations. The narrator doesn’t tell Isabel what’s going on.
Which raises the question whether narrators ever do speak to characters in novels. I once heard the public address announcer at a small town football game give instruction to a player on the field: “Get away from the ball, Lonnie!” But that may not be the same thing.
Anyway, I came away from James’s big work with a nexus of thoughts that weave together concerns about what’s in the narrative—the meaning of Isabel’s return to Italy—and reflections on the effects of the author’s narrative skill (or his guile, maybe). At the end of the book the reader knows what Isabel is going to do, geographically, at least. But exactly what she will do, and why, is less clear. It could be submission to the fate of a life-devastating choice, a dreadful marriage. Or a commitment to keep a promise made not quite casually to someone who is, just as much as herself, the victim of unscrupulous machinations, someone who needs her and likely her alone.
It would seem to be a mark of reading worth the time that by posing such questions about the meaning of the actions of fictional characters, the reading awakens us to the project of entertaining such questions about our own actions, and their mysteries. And those of others, real others, around us.
The special virtue of James’s style—an odd combination of excruciating detail and vast ellipsis—is that it opens, and leaves open, room for competing accounts of such meanings. Which, in the long run, is much more instructive than just having the voice of God tell you to leave the football alone.
The inaugural festivities of Yale’s President Peter Salovey were chronicled in the November/December 2013 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine. Coverage included the text of President Salovey’s “Freshman Address.” This must be, I am guessing by its title, a Yale tradition of long-standing, in which the president states to new students what the institution hopes for in the course of their years of study ahead. It’s a chance to say what the place is about.
Salovey took the opportunity to expound Yale’s commitment to “the American Dream.” He began with autobiography, citing immigrant grandparents, Atlantic crossings, the Lower East Side. They “were poor in means,” he said, “but rich in culture and spirit.” And drive—drive that persisted over generations. Salovey linked his personal story with those of the students before him, placing their entry into the Yale experience in the context of opportunity to be rewarded by hard work.
And yet, the note of concern crept in. A paean to “the American Dream” in this age would seem naive were it not to acknowledge the concern—fear, even—that the role of higher education—and access to superb higher education for people from a variety of circumstances—seems endangered. The President said to the new students: “Though the American Dream is deeply rooted in our history, it is not a guarantee. It is something that must be protected and preserved and passed on. . . . .” Citing increasing disparity in college-completion rates according to income levels, he touched on the worry that this very traditional, very American vehicle of personal advancement and social mobility—higher education—may be losing its effectiveness.
This, surely, is one of the most significant issues of our time, as we wrestle our way toward a better understanding of how it has been that access to higher education has shaped America over the past century. President Salovey’s address to the new Yalies ends on a congratulatory note that affirms both them and the system that brought them to New Haven. And rightly so. Their presence there is, at least, success in the making.
Our broader hope has to be, too, that students at the thousands of other institutions around the country find their experiences are also, at least, success in the making. We have to hope, and work to make the hope real, that every student entering college has access to experiences that are genuinely broadening and uplifting, and not just training of some sort. That is why Phi Beta Kappa presses forward the liberal arts and sciences as a vehicle of expanding opportunity, the means to a future richer in all senses than one hemmed in by narrow horizons.
Our National Arts & Sciences Initiative, to be unveiled in a couple of weeks, is designed to carry this message to policy-makers around the country. The arts and sciences open opportunity, in richly various ways. If we, as a country, are to evade the socio-economic stratification that will squander our human capital, we need to embrace these studies—for everyone.
At top: Peter Salovey, Commencement 2012. Photo courtesy of Yale University.
Many and varied are the voices vying for influence over my reading. Some of them have been echoing for a long time, like the cries of those cliff-fallen mules somewhere in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And some have an insistent moral quality, having begun, perhaps, as syllabus requirements I never quite met a long time ago. So the conditions for a powerful resonance were in place when, a few months ago, a friend said, more than casually, that I should read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.
In truth, James’s The Ambassadors had been on Jack Farris’s Modern Novel syllabus my sophomore year. Why I thought I possessed the standing to tell him I couldn’t read it, I don’t know. But I did tell him just that, hoping, possibly, that he would summon up some professorial authority and tell me that I must read it. I’m sure that I would have: it was, after all, on the syllabus. But he didn’t, and I didn’t. I passed the course anyway, and settled into an identity as a person who couldn’t read Henry James.
And then, as noted, a few months ago, my friend said, in essence, “Oh, you have to read The Portrait of a Lady. You’ll fall in love with Isabel.” Then the question became, do I embrace and confirm my sophomoric identity, or do I try this out, in the curiosity whether I have become a different reader. I answered the question by buying the physical book, and a hardback at that—a commitment exponentially greater than a Kindle download. It’s a thick book.
As the opening scene begins, the narrator assures the reader that “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Uh-oh. There are three guys out on a summery English greensward having tea: two young, one old; two sick, one well; two American, one Brit; all rich. There is a dog running around. They talk. Nothing much happens. In the next chapter a young woman arrives and is impressed with the scenery. The dog likes her.
People begin to come and go, not only in and out of the grand manor house, but to and from England and America, Rome and Florence. Characters enter and take up their deftly drawn positions. Whatever is happening is communicated in nuances of intimation, in delicate gradations of uptake. There are clashes of expectation, proposals and refusals, at last a marriage is set to occur. It will be way off stage. The reader senses—I sense—this marriage is not such a good thing. Then a chapter ends and when I turn the page, years have passed. Yet, as one discovers, the conversation whether this marriage was not such a good thing has hardly advanced.
And there I am. Hundreds of pages yet to go. And I’m glad for that, because I do care about Isabel. I’m not sure I fell in love with her, but I came to credit her as a character, someone with a project in life that I care about partly because I am convinced that she doesn’t understand her own project or herself, and so has thrown herself to the manipulative wiles of people whose good will she should never have believed in. As in fairy tales and horror stories, the reader of The Portrait sees things about the situations of its characters that they themselves, for all their subtlety, fail to recognize. And so I came to care about this not-such-a-good-thing marriage and Isabel’s bigger project in life.
But even more, I think, I have come to care how this narrator that James has created shapes the narrative—what he tells, what he withholds, what he dwells on, and what he passes by. His sketch of the wicked or unfortunate Countess Gemini as a spider, for instance, is hilarious and creepy, all at once. I am becoming a reader of James.
Thanks, then, Jack, for the permission to skip James when I was not ready, and thanks, Paul, for the recommendation to try him now. I’m just taking baby steps, but it’s a rich terrain.
At top: ”Portrait of Henry James,” oil painting by John Singer Sargent (1913).
The 50th Anniversary Issue of The New York Review of Books contains, among many worthy pieces, an interview with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. The interview, on Proust and À la recherche du temps perdu, was conducted in French and rendered into English for the readership of NYR. In the course of his remarks, Justice Breyer explains succinctly and persuasively why serious engagement with literature is professionally valuable for a judge.
“[W]hen you’re a judge and spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. . . . Reading makes a judge capable of projecting his life into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures.” Reading, said Breyer, cultivates empathy, “a crucial quality in a judge.” Three and a half years ago, “empathy” became a contentious term in Supreme Court nominations, but Justice Breyer let that aspect of the matter pass, as shall I here.
This argument, taken in the abstract, is familiar to anyone who has followed recent discussions of the value of education in the liberal arts and sciences. It is not because he has produced a novel argument that I am moved to enthusiasm by reading Justice Breyer’s words. My enthusiasm rather, has these sources: (1) Justice Breyer, while clearly a man of great learning, is not an academic careerist pleading his own case. He is a distinguished professional practitioner explaining from his own weighty experience why these liberal arts experiences matter, and he is getting it exactly right. (2) The Justice gave the interview in French and discussed at length, with erudition and with plausibility, the literary merits of a writer whom he read in French, a writer whose difficulty in that language might well be compared with Joyce or Faulkner in English. Here’s a professional person who exhibits and exemplifies the value of the learning he recommends. For once it is high praise to say, “He talks the talk.”
I suppose the deepest source of my excitement over Justice Breyer’s comments, though, lies in the contrast they provide with the casual disregard of humanistic learning so prevalent through so much of our political culture. When there is so much pressure to justify studying anything by reference to the economic advantage it will bestow on the student, it is refreshing to read a person of influence affirming the value of literature in a democracy. “Literature is crucial to any democracy,” said Breyer, buttressing his point with specific references to descriptions of the social and political position of women drawn from 19th century French literature. The point is not that we all need to decorate our argumentation with allusions to things most people haven’t read. It is this: the more we have read, and thought about, the broader will be our critical vision of whatever conditions the drifts of history have placed before us now. What a delight it is to see, in Justice Breyer, the product of reading and thinking.
Photo at top: Justice Stephen G. Breyer (ΦBK, Stanford University, 1959).
Phi Beta Kappa, in concert with the American Conference of Academic Deans, sponsored the fifth in our sequence of joint conferences on October 17-19, 2013. Our conferees gathered in Memphis to consider the question, “Is There a Case for the Liberal Arts?” Chris Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, opened the proceedings with what he called “one case” for the liberal arts. Chris was kind enough to share his remarks: they are richly textured with the great books tradition.
He began by noting the historic and etymological connection of the liberal arts with freedom. “These are,” he said, “the arts of freedom, the arts that make us human, the arts of reason and imagination, of analysis, interpretation, and forecasting, the arts that allow us to make sense of our world and discover our place in it, also the arts that allow us to shape a life for ourselves that is worth living.” He noted the inescapability of the practice of liberal arts. With a nod to Robert M. Hutchins, he noted that “whenever we think or speak, weigh or judge—whenever we exercise our reason, we are practicing the liberal arts. We cannot avoid them. The only question open to us is whether we will practice them well or poorly.”
That point, of course, raises the question what it is like to learn to practice the liberal arts well, and that led Chris to real-life examinations of occasions of discovery and imagination. Who would have guessed that the value of the liberal arts could be exhibited so well in a story about tracing down the malfunction in a Volkswagen’s windshield spray mechanism?
Those familiar with the St. John’s seminar method would not have been surprised to hear Chris touting the importance of the posing of the right questions. “It is just at the point,” he said, ” when one is convinced that he doesn’t know anything and wonders at this state of perplexity that the opportunity to learn is born.” It may seem ironic, but the realization of our ignorance is “a freeing experience [that] excites and engages the seeker. Getting a deeper understanding now becomes more important than providing a simple answer.”
At this point Chris had sketched out the kind of activity he wished to identify as characteristic of the best that is human in us. He told the crowd: “The reward for the sort of learning that proceeds from desiring knowledge for its own is something I want to call ‘happiness.’ This is not the kind of fulfillment that comes to an end in the gratification of the desire, but a continuous activity, an active engagement in the ongoing project that best defines what it means to be human.” This account he enriched with allusions to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the Socratic project, and the endlessly useful image of Plato’s cave.
It is in the cave that any suggestion of ivory-tower sequestration lifts away from this evaluation of the liberal arts. The cave is a communal experience, and its illusions are illusions of the “practical world.” Chris’s final notes: “We . . . find our truest sense of community in an image of human freedom that finds us somehow ‘together’ seeking to escape the confines of the individual caves that imprison each of us. For lovers of wisdom, the desire to see things as they are, to strive toward the source of our being and come in to the light of the sun, is too beautiful an activity to resist—and too wonderful an activity not to share with others. We ought to make this search for truth, this struggle to climb out of our caves, our chief community endeavor at each of our schools.”
A case for the liberal arts? Yes, indeed, and a case that addresses the question, “What is this stuff good for?” without conceding judgment to the narrow criteria that dominate contemporary conversations.
The Huffington Post, on September 27, 2013, carried a blogpost called “Countering the Single Story About Higher Education’s Public Purpose.” Its authors, Scott J. Peters and Timothy K. Eatman, are faculty co-directors of an organization called “Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life.” Their take-off point is a TED talk on “the danger of the single story,” by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, a critique of the way in which “one dimensional stories about people, institutions, and places have been and continue to be told and used to dispossess, dehumanize, and malign.” Their view is that the lesson of the destructive power of the “single story” is relevant to the current conversation about higher education in America.
In their words: “We often hear the single story that higher education’s public purpose is to function as a means for economic advancement and development—and nothing else.” Accompanying this narrow account, often enough, is a vision of broad swathes of the arts and sciences as useless. Peters and Eatman acknowledge the importance of the economic dimension of higher education. But they make two further points: one obvious, and one subtle.
The obvious point, though one very often neglected or ignored in current conversations, is that higher education has, in addition to economic ends, broader purposes as well, and ones that are not easily reducible to dollar calculations. These include education for civic and political participation, for an understanding of the world in which the graduates of colleges and universities will be obliged to operate, and for the cultivation of the skills and capacities that will serve them well in professional and personal lives. Life includes the economic sphere, but it is broader, too. That’s why Phi Beta Kappa, in adapting its founding motto for the current National Arts & Sciences Initiative, adopted the phrase, “Learning for All of Life.”
The subtler point made by Peters and Eatman, one that enriches their first, is this: “In . . . stories [about higher education], we see more than one public purpose for higher education. We see many. And they’re often interwoven.” What they note here is a feature of higher education as it has developed almost uniquely in America, a feature that has, I believe, gotten too little mention. In our mania for clarifying purposes and making processes efficient, we are apt to forget that the several purposes being served, quite often, by what appears to be a single process, are in fact intertwined.
A student engaged in an activity that could truly be described as “discussing a work of literature” may also be, at the same time and in the same activity, developing powers of logical analysis, learning to construct arguments, expanding her capacity to compare different points of view, and finding her voice in a critical conversation. Real higher education is a rich texture, not to be carved up into simplistically conceived independent parts.
If we choose to concentrate only on one purpose of higher education, among many, we will almost certainly create a cascade of unintended side effects that may well hamper our ability to achieve even the purpose we sought to advance. A good example of this would be the dominant “single story” about Africa that the novelist Adichie critiques. Thinking of that continent as defined exclusively by poverty and disease is quite likely, actually, to make it even more difficult to eradicate those scourges. In a similar way, thinking of American higher education as simply an engine of economic advance will quite likely diminish its effectiveness even in that role.
On Tuesday, September 17, 2013, Northeastern University released the results of a study designed to disclose the outcomes desired from higher education by the general public and by employers. The result is a wake up call for those who have advocated training in specific job-related skills. Not so much, say most people. And it seems that those who make hiring decisions value breadth even more than most.
According to reports, the study shows that “nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) and almost three-quarters of hiring decision-makers (73 percent) believe that being well-rounded with a range of knowledge is more important than possessing industry-specific skills.” You can check out the full report here: http://www.northeastern.edu/news/2013/09/innovation-summit-2013/#sthash.HRZ1fqqm.WP7yITAe.dpuf.
This finding is vindication for all who favor broad-based education that develops critical skills of writing and communication, problem-solving abilities, and capacities for deliberative thought. It is a big, red “Wrong Way” sign facing those who have supposed that what the country needs is quick, cheap instruction in the making of widgets. And it is a similar “Don’t Go There” signal to those who have supposed that the effectiveness of college education can be measured at simplistic, standardized checkpoints at the end of an assembly line.
Most important, the implication that college should deliver wide-ranging knowledge and understanding is support for wide dispersion, through a big swathe of the American public, of sophisticated intellectual and personal skills. If such skills were to be sequestered as the preserve of a small, privileged minority, we would face the danger that the country’s human talent, its human capital, would be eroded. If fewer and fewer of us have the advantages of a broad, liberal education, more and more of us will be left out of decision processes, relegated to the sidelines of the choices that shape the future of the country. That is a bad thing.
As Andrew Delbanco eloquently argues is his book, College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, America’s future depends on our not squandering talent. Giving talent a chance to emerge and develop will require offering education in the liberal arts and sciences very widely. That is what Phi Beta Kappa advocates, and it is good to know that very hefty majorities of the general public and of employers agree. Now we have to get the policy-makers on board—state legislators, who need to resume adequate funding for public higher education, and trustees, who need to understand the importance of a broad, rich curriculum that engages students with worthwhile arts and sciences content and an array of active pedagogies that aim for far more than the absorption of mere knowledge.
College should be transformative, assisting students not only in their acquisition of traits that will appeal to employers, but also accelerating their development across the full spectrum of their lives as persons, citizens, and creators of meaning and value.
I suspect that I am not alone in taking interest in the obituaries of people I did not know. Obituaries often disclose the ways their writers supposed the decedent would have wished to be remembered, or display, intentionally or unintentionally, the decedent’s particular way of being human. For example, I recently read the obit of a man who, despite his elegant given names, had been Buck to all who knew him. Better still, his survivors, predecedents, and pall bearers included Buckshot, Buddy, and Bubba.
The names alone are fascinating, but so is the inventiveness and imagination that goes into selecting the essential verb. Most people are reported simply to have died or to have passed away. But beyond that the variety is astonishing, and often reflects a particular personal or religious slant. I have a friend who collects these things from his local paper, and I believe he has well over a hundred. People go home, expire (like, I guess, a subscription), fly away, meet their savior, and do all manner of interesting and unusual things by way of departing this life (which is, by the way, a common version). These choices, too, are windows into the meaning someone thought the person’s life had.
You learn in these narratives that those who have died had loved to shoot pool or hunt ducks, that they had been fans of some sports team, or that they had served—a real case—as Director Emeritus of the Dickson County Historical Society. A sweet old granny will turn out to have thundered around weekends on her Harley Davidson. It would be easy to troll in these writings for unworthy pleasures, pleasures of the sort that attend spotting someone out in public in a garment you’d never wear. Oh my, you might think, what tacky stuff people put in a death notice. Well, here’s a caveat. Watch out: someone may smile in amusement, condescension, pity, or contempt at your own final salute.
But I would like to think, real though that temptation may be, that there are better pleasures here, and opportunities for learning. By being reflective about the character of the interest you bring to reading someone else’s obituary, you can make some progress on the Socratic injunction to “Know Thyself.” And because reading someone else’s obituary tends to pose the question how your own might read, these encounters can help us focus on the very good question, what does it all amount to, this life that I, myself, am leading?
In addition to this personal dimension, your awareness of big patterns in life can be enlarged. For example, you can gain a sense of how people are concentrated and dispersed around the country and the world. Are the survivors all in the old home town or scattered from Las Vegas to the State of Maine? What are the ethnicities of the surnames in surviving generations? Have the Fitzgeralds married into the Roncalli and Rodriguez families? How does this chronicle of life give evidence of the person’s involvement in what Tocqueville noted as America’s great proclivity for civic associations, like—for example—the just mentioned Dickson County Historical Society? There can be important reminders here of what gives shape to individual lives as well as to the broad society we live in, and of how the accumulation of the former gives rise to the latter.
I recently read the obit of a woman who had died at 99, after devoting a considerable portion of her life to community affairs and the care of a special needs child, whom she nurtured past his own middle age. Clearly, hers had been a wonderful, rich, and selfless life. And yet—such are the juxtapositions that complicate the moral texture of our reading—deep in the obit lay a grammatical slip with tantalizing implications. She must have been a person of fashion, for whoever wrote the notice wanted readers to know this about her: “Scarves were one of her passions of which she had many different colors and styles.” Good for her.
Every news cycle seems to bring new testimony or purported evidence concerning the usefulness and relevance of liberal arts education. On September 12, 2013, The Huffington Post reported that Payscale, a research outfit that tracks such things, had issued a report showing that the top-paying majors were pretty much all in varieties of engineering, and that the lowest paying majors were pretty much . . . , well, you know. This was, of course, another thump in that insistent drumbeat of dubious information about the “value” of the liberal arts.
I say “dubious” because these presentations imply that only the money matters. They imply that the relevant comparisons are in the first years of a career. They contrast careers where you go right into professional level work after your baccalaureate with the beginnings of careers in fields where graduate training is the usual next step. So the English majors or biology majors who went right into the workforce are in the comparison, but not the ones who went to law school or med school. People who put these studies together know this. So you have to wonder.
Hungry as we are for good thinking about these matters, it is important not to be filled up with analyses that amount to “fast food.” A better diet of evidence is available. We just have to notice it. Here’s an example. This past June 10, The Wall Street Journal, as part of its series on humanities studies and post-college employment, published a short statement by Mark Bertolini, the chairman, CEO, and president of Aetna, Inc. He describes himself as an accounting major with “a mathematical background and a photographic memory.” But he credits his success to something else.
He writes of needing “to relate to people to motivate them to do things,” of participating in “a broader social discussion,” and of the importance of having “a background that’s broader than just the numbers.” In a nutshell, he lays emphasis on relating to people, communicating with them, and motivating them. While Mr. Bertolini is not explicit about this in the version published in the WSJ, we know where the acquisition of such skills lurks. You learn about motivation from the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, and from talking and writing about it—and ten thousand other examples—in the company of people who care. And the same for moral judgment and the rest of the skills and capacities that make us human.
That’s why, in addition to caring about the health of programs for majors in the liberal arts and sciences, Phi Beta Kappa also cares a very great deal about the engagement of all students in college with the liberal arts and sciences. This point could not have been put more plainly and succinctly than in a recent personal letter to me from a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Describing himself as an agriculture graduate of Rutgers “about 1950,” he noted that despite his non-liberal arts major, Rutgers had insisted upon enough broader studies, beyond the vocational major, to qualify him for membership in Phi Beta Kappa. And from the perspective provided by a long career, he was very glad of it. He wrote: “I continue to believe that all students in higher education should include meaningful liberal arts in their programs,” and commended the Society for “promoting liberal arts components for all degree candidates.”
I understand that these are anecdotes. But maybe they are also antidotes. Everyone deserves experiences that equip them for deliberation whether, sometimes, the right anecdotes might amount to a proper antidote.