As the national and world economies evolve, securing new jobs and crafting fulfilling lives will depend critically on ingenuity—the ability to see things in new ways, generating creative ideas, products, and services; and on innovation—the capacity and willingness to create novel means to success. Businesses competing on a world stage will increasingly need leaders and employees who can create, innovate, and collaborate at home and across cultures.
Phi Beta Kappa believes firmly in the intrinsic value of studying arts and sciences for their own sake. We are also keenly aware that higher education faces a crossroads as parents, students, and decision makers focus on the cost of education and its return on investment. Moreover, a new survey by Gallup released last week points to a startling disconnect between how business leaders and college administrators view college graduates’ workforce readiness. Therefore, in this “sound-bite” culture of concise expression, we at Phi Beta Kappa are raising our voices to say to policymakers and business leaders that arts and sciences drive just the ingenuity and innovation we need.
Success in a globalized world requires knowledge of and adaptability to other cultures.
Even before the financial upheaval, “business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market had begun to understand the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines” reported Lane Wallace in the New York Times. Students of the arts and sciences are accustomed to engaging with widely disparate subjects in a variety of disciplines. They are well positioned to see the world broadly and to act boldly.
Those with a broad grounding in the arts and sciences grapple with and learn to understand a variety of perspectives different from their own. The late Charles Vest, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, noted in Heart of the Matter, that all of the “technological skills of which we can conceive will not solve our world problems if we do not build and adapt a base of human and cultural understanding; ethical and moral underpinnings; sensible rules of law for the 21st century; and integration with the insights, inspirations, and communications of the arts.”
When recalling the benefits of his education, AOL founder Steve Case said the liberal arts and sciences enable one to “look at the world as sort of a mosaic and kind of see how the pieces come together. I think that gives you a perspective that I found to be very valuable.”
Arts and Sciences education promotes creative thinking that can lead to groundbreaking ideas and problem solving across disciplines.
According to the 2011 book, Academically Adrift, students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.”
Former CEO of the Seagram Corporation Edgar Bronfman, realizing the benefits, has advised those interested in pursuing a career in business to study the liberal arts and sciences. “Curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking—which is developed in learning about the world around you, the ability to critically analyze situations, nurtured every time we encounter a new book, or . . . art, music, or theater—ensures future success more than any other quality.”
Many professionals in other fields see the same benefits. Ninety percent of Nobel Laureates in the sciences agree that the arts should be part of every scientist’s and technologist’s education. Eighty percent can point to specific ways in which their arts training directly enhanced their innovative ability.
Bronfman also provides a much needed corrective to those focused exclusively on first jobs and salaries. “In developing the ability to exercise those traits, you will not only be successful in business, but in the business of life,” he said. “As our society becomes increasingly technologically focused and we build better, faster and more remarkable machines, where can technology not replicate human thinking? In being creative, nuanced and [in the] understanding of human needs, wants and desires.”
Businesses benefit from employees who can think critically and creatively, skills gained through broad-based education.
According to a 2013 AACU/Hart Research Survey, 95% of employers said their companies put a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace. The liberal arts and sciences foster the exercise of imagination and creativity, fundamental ingredients in innovation.
We should not lose sight of the irony that, while some American leaders question the value of the arts and sciences, countries like Singapore and China see an arts and sciences education as key to innovation. To become global leaders, reformers in these countries “have latched onto American-style liberal, or general, education as a way to foster more nimble and adaptable thinkers,” says Gerard A. Postiglione, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Apparently, Google agrees. Jane Penner, the Head of Investor Relations at Google and a member of ΦBK, has a BA in English Literature, an MA in English, and was a Ph.D. candidate in the humanities. Although she never anticipated her current path, she maps the connections between literature and the narratives motivating investors in her recent talk, “Humanities Gone Google.”
The arts and sciences have made their mark in American business and culture. An impressive number of innovative companies were founded by arts and sciences graduates, some of which are included in Phi Beta Kappa’s new infographic, chArts & Sciences: CNN, FedEx, and Amazon, reddit, Walt Disney, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Hewlett-Packard, The Carlyle Group, America Online, American Express, Pinterest, Goldman Sachs, Delta Air Lines, Bank of America, Blackstone Group, Sherwin-Williams, Texas Pacific Group, Time Warner Cable, Edison International, NBC Universal, Capital One, eBay, Avon, Proctor and Gamble, Caesars Entertainment Group, Darden Restaurants, Kraft Foods, Starbucks, Pepsico, DirecTV, and more.
An arts and sciences education puts you in the driver’s seat toward a fulfilling career and personal life. In this way, they are like the metaphorical star in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” The value of the star is not exhausted by the fact that it is useful for navigation. And so it is with the arts and sciences.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, delivered on January 28, President Obama vowed to expand opportunity for more American families. Discussing post-secondary education, the President called for greater access to apprenticeships and improved job-training programs better aligned with the skills that employers demand.
These are worthy goals; access to the basic dignity of work should be the birthright of every American. But more is needed. Full access to the ladder of opportunity depends not only on training for the first job, but also on education that equips learning for all of life. That means that the benefits of arts and sciences education must be as widely accessible as possible. Everyone deserves a shot at this kind of learning, and everyone can benefit in some way.
Phi Beta Kappa believes in the intrinsic value of studying arts and sciences for their own sake. It is also true that higher education faces a crossroads, with parents, students, and decision makers focusing attention on the cost of education and its return on investment. For this reason, we think it is necessary to talk about the contributions of the arts and sciences to individual success and the well-being of our society. These benefits are also a critical part of their value.
Students applying for college today can expect to hold a variety of jobs through the course of their careers. In fact, a recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that young Baby Boomers have held, by age 46, an average of 11.3 jobs. We can’t predict how many jobs lie in wait for members of the class of 2018 and beyond.
But we can predict that their ability to thrive professionally—and to live meaningfully—will depend on their capacity to grasp new situations, their flexibility in adapting to them, and their resilience in repeating the process. By engaging students in a variety of subject matters, disciplines, and different points of view, the arts and sciences provide education for the unpredictable.
Immediate Returns: Important Professional and Life Skills
An arts and sciences education expands opportunity by developing important professional and life skills that provide immediate returns. “By studying art, science, the humanities, social science, and languages, the mind develops the mental dexterity that opens a person to new ideas, which is the currency for success in a constantly changing environment,” noted Proctor & Gamble President and CEO AG Lafley for Huffington Post Business.
Hiring managers know this too. In a survey conducted for Northeastern University this past July among hiring decision-makers nationwide, an overwhelming 73% said that being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work. According to research sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80% of employers say that students should acquire knowledge in the arts and sciences.
Lifelong Economic Opportunity in Shifting Job Market
An arts and sciences education provides lifelong economic opportunity in a constantly shifting job market. When read a description of 21st century liberal education, 74% of employers in a 2013 AACU/Hart Research Survey said they would recommended this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.
Responding to concerns about whether college is still worth it and whether liberal arts majors provide a solid foundation for long-term employment and career success, AACU and NCHEMS recently compared earnings trajectories and career pathways for liberal arts majors to those majoring in science and mathematics, engineering, and professional or pre-professional fields like business or education.
Their report may surprise some. It found that at peak earning ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences, often thought of as the softer side of the arts and sciences, earn more on average each year than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields, about $2,000 per year more.
The University of Texas recently established an online tool to display the salary outcomes of tens of thousands of graduates. David R. Troutman, the UT system’s director of strategic initiatives, stated that comparisons show that liberal arts graduates “are making a solid living five years out.”
Broader Intellectual and Personal Horizons
Exposure to great theories and new ideas through the arts and sciences expands many of life’s dimensions, including the intellectual and personal. Arts and sciences education equips us for the search for value and meaning. Exploring the issues and ideas inherent in the arts and sciences breaks old boundaries of thought and understanding, stimulates interest in the new and unanticipated, and supports creativity.
After a time, we become accustomed to seeing things from different points of view. This expectation enriches communities as well as individuals. For example, Encoded Textiles Arizona weaves together bar code technology, Arizona State University students, and traditional language to share the stories of Arizona Navajo elders with new audiences in compelling ways.
In summary, then, arts and sciences education expands opportunity by enlarging our vision so that we can see opportunity, by increasing our flexibility to meet it, by enhancing our creativity to deal with it in novel ways, and by making the unforeseen manageable, not upsetting. In these ways it enhances our career options, our capacities as citizens, and our abilities to seek meaning and value in a changing world. Education of this sort, and not just first-job training, should be accessible to everyone.
Phi Beta Kappa is committed to the belief that an arts and sciences education is learning for all of life and should be available to all. Learn more about Phi Beta Kappa’s National Arts & Sciences Initiative. Then, join with us to ensure that more students can seize the opportunity.
Since my undergraduate days I have followed the discipline of approaching issues by asking two questions: “What does that mean?” and “Is it true?” Over the next few weeks, I will undertake to apply those questions to the three central contentions Phi Beta Kappa is pressing forward in our National Arts & Sciences Initiative:
We developed these points, and fixed them to our standard, in a long, deliberative process of reflection on the state of the conversation about the purposes of college education in America today. Over the past few months I have discussed the narrow, short-sighted vision that looks only at the salaries of the first jobs for majors in this or that discipline, while attempting to do justice to the fact that college should, after all, be a step toward a rewarding—as well as a meaningful—life of work. I have discussed the siren song heard by those for whom any practical worth attaching to an arts and sciences degree must be purely incidental, its real worth being intrinsic, not instrumental. I have tried to reconcile intrinsic and instrumental values.
Subtleties and intricate delights of insight and nuance abound. Some of us have not only patience with, but relish for, sifting them and sorting them out. This is our milieu.
However, early on, as we at Phi Beta Kappa thought about the need to be persuasive in a public forum, we realized we should be direct and plain, so that those we seek to influence—policy-makers and decision-makers for institutions of higher education around the country—will respond better to our message. The value of arts and sciences education can be stated concisely. Someone I have spent a lot of time thinking about once wrote: “Anything that can be said at all can be said clearly.” Whether that is quite right in the absolute way he intended, it will do as a mantra for our efforts to state the educational aims we advocate.
So over the next few weeks I intend to use this space to address the plain, direct case for the arts and sciences, taking our three contentions above and asking of each, first, “What does that mean?” and then, “Is it true?” Coming up next then: “Arts and sciences education expands opportunity.” What does that mean?
In its December 12, 2013, online edition, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story by Katherine Mangan under the headline “Enrollments Slipped This Fall, With For-Profit Sector Hit Hardest.” The data reported in the article comes from The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and it actually shows that a more accurate headline would have been, “For-Profit Enrollments Slip This Fall; Four-Year Publics and Privates Inch Up.”
Here are the figures as reported: Enrollment at four-year, for-profit institutions dropped 9.7% in 2013, compared with 2012, after falling 7.2% and 3.8% in the previous years. Two-year public institutions dropped 3.1% in enrollment in 2013. But four-year private colleges and universities were up by 1.3%, and four-year publics were essentially steady, rising by 0.3%.
It’s tempting, and probably right, to infer that the drops at the for-profits and the two-years reflect a more robust hiring market. And while there are some very significant ups and downs among individual private four-year institutions, the sector as a whole has actually grown a little bit. It’s tempting, and probably right, to read this as the beginning of restoration of confidence in the broad, middle-class constituencies traditionally served by these institutions.
The disparity between the headline and the story shows how important it is to remember that the phrase “higher education in America” does not denote a single sort of thing, and that the very notion of “going to college” does not signify a single sort of experience. A great and wondrous aspect of higher education in America is its extraordinary diversity, a diversity that merits protection from dangers far more damaging than confusingly lumped together statistics.
Phi Beta Kappa’s particular interest is in the promotion of education in the arts and sciences—a value we have raised to new prominence in launching, on December 4 this year, our National Arts & Sciences Initiative. Through this initiative, our aim is to carry the arguments in support of this kind of education to the country’s education policy-makers. The message is simple: The arts and sciences expand opportunity; they drive innovation and ingenuity; and they are an investment in America.
While we honor the most successful arts and sciences students, we hold that the benefits of these studies should be available to all, so that one thing you should be able to have confidence in, when you know that someone is “going to college,” is that that person is having significant engagement with arts and sciences, these wellsprings of opportunity, innovation, and ingenuity.
In order for this investment in America to live up to the country’s promise, we cannot allow the great diversity of our higher education sector to evolve further into stratification. The arts and sciences should be an investment in all of America; if we permit them to become the preserve of the privileged, we will have become poorer as a nation. That assertion is not metaphorical, it is literal, in that sharper stratification in higher education will squander human capital.
Late in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, the title character and his mother discuss the prospect of a match between Adam and Dinah, the Methodist preacher-lady. Adam protests that his mother has no evidence that Dinah loves him. She replies (this is Eliot’s shot at 19th century working class Lancashire speech): “Then I knowna nought as gi’es me a right to say as the year’s turned, for all I feel it fust thing when I get up i’ th’ mornin’.”
There’s an important lesson here about how we gain a sense of the presence of large-scale formative aspects of our lives and environments, such as whether someone loves us, whether the season has turned, or what the mood of the country is on some momentous issue. This is not to say that some mysterious intuition tells us such things, but to say that evidence doesn’t just pile up of its own accord until we simply look at it and say: “Oh! So that’s how it is!” Rather, evidence presents itself to the attuned eye. Pattern emerges to an awareness ready to find it. Bits of this and that we notice here and there begin to add up.
Here are some bits. Enrollments in fall, 2013, were sharply down among the for-profit higher education institutions and slightly better than steady among the four-year publics and privates. Both trends likely reflect economic recovery, suggesting that the slow lifting of the Great Recession has given institutions in all sectors some breathing room to sort out their economic futures, rather than precipitating immediate transformations. Also, the faith-based confidence that MOOCs will revolutionize higher education is eroding in the face of abysmal completion rates, revolts like that of the San Jose State Philosophy Department, and telling critiques of the sort articulated recently in Liberal Education by Scott Newstok (“A Plea for ‘Close Learning’”). Even the narrow and short-sighted, exclusive emphasis on first year salaries as a measure of the worth of learning is under effective critique. It now seems very likely to be balanced, in the public reckoning, with a more comprehensive sense of the public and private purposes of higher education. Many organizations, including Phi Beta Kappa, have mounted campaigns to advocate for that broader sense of what it means for a wide swath of America’s populace to have a broad college education.
The Executive Director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, published an essay on December 16, 2013, in Inside Higher Education, making the case that education is a public good. He writes, in “Disrupting the Disruptors,” that producers of consumer goods “can fall victim to ‘disruption’ and we will have traded very little for new efficiencies. The same cannot be said for education, which is not merely a consumer purchase but a public good.” Grossman advocates a judicious, critical approach to the technological changes some have urged on us as panaceas. He writes: “Let us make room . . . for the innovations that broaden access.” But efficiency is not the only goal. It may be, he thinks, “a strategy to impoverish public culture.” How is that the case? Because, he writes, “Education is not just a tool for individual advancement; it is also a public instrument to promote democratic citizenship.”
If voices like this get the attention they deserve, that will be evidence that, in America’s understanding of higher education, the season may be turning. It may be turning toward a national mood more understanding of, and more welcoming toward, the advantages of education in the arts and sciences. But if the season is turning, it is turning because persons and institutions are succeeding in making the case for the importance of those studies.
At Phi Beta Kappa our aim is not to watch the turning, but to help make it happen.
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).