Grasping the Liberal Arts

2 years ago


The person at the party who explains the joke is usually just tiresome. But sometimes it’s worthwhile to note that a joke strikes us as funny because it points to something important. So consider one of Gary Larson’s zany cartoons: A pair of cattle are sitting on a comfortable couch in a parlor. The phone on the table rings, and one of the cows says, “Well, there it goes again. . . and here we just sit, without opposable thumbs.”

Much of Larson’s comic genius lies in providing an implicit, oblique perspective on human life by way of offering an explicit, if absurd, comparison with animals. Whether trading on the craftiness of cats or the cluelessness of dogs, his cartoons are funny because they are, on reflection, about us and our own characteristic oddities. Sometimes the oddities are surprisingly profound. How much of human life is literally unimaginable without opposable thumbs? And when did you last think about that?

Now I’ll explain the joke a little more. People who offer an account of the importance of liberal arts education consistently come up with four arguments. Each is meant, to some degree, to respond to the central question of our age, the question that is applied to everything with the intent of exposing its value: How is that useful? So the usefulness of liberal arts education gets defended in these four ways:

You acquire a range of intellectual skills and habits that are useful in a wide variety of professional pursuits. This is the argument that references critical thinking, sympathetic imagination, intellectual curiosity, flexibility, the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, and so on.

You acquire the interests and dispositions that make you a responsible participant in a democratic society. This is the argument about civic engagement, cultivation of a sense of social responsibility, about values and meaning.

You acquire the breadth of knowledge and reflective depth that make you a better, richer, and more fully realized version of yourself. This is the argument about fulfilling your personal potential, about developing your capacity to contribute to and to benefit from, rewarding personal relationships.

You acquire a habit of engagement with things ─ writings, bodies of thought and knowledge, cultural touchstones ─ that are themselves simply intrinsically worthwhile. This may not be, strictly speaking, a “usefulness” argument. It may be, instead, a challenge to narrow conceptions of utility, but it is certainly an element in the liberal arts advocate’s armamentarium.

So there are the four: Liberal arts education is professionally useful; it’s preparation for citizenship; it leads to a better you; and it’s simply good in itself! This analysis will serve as a reliable taxonomical guide to practically any sustained account of the importance of liberal arts. And yet, something is missing.

Each of these arguments belongs under the heading: “How can we get what we want?” Serially, they show how liberal arts helps us get what we want professionally, politically, and personally, and then add for good measure an admonition something like “The liberal arts are what you want!”

But what if there is a prior question, the question “What should we want?” Or “How should we strive to live?” This question is untouched by any of these answers, which are all noble enough, but still instrumental. And what if the answers to that question shape and empower all that we do in pursuit of further aims? It would be the opposable thumb of questions, the question whose posing makes us distinctively human.

Liberal arts education does those four things because it places every particular answer to the “how?” questions in a position of tension, or opposition, in relation to a prior question about the ends to be pursued. Professional skills are important to have. But what do you want to do with your professional life, and why? Political skills are valuable, but what ends will you pursue? What sort of “better version of yourself” do you intend to become, among the myriad, incompatible possibilities? Are the liberal arts intrinsically worthwhile? Well, that is the question that becomes, once pursued, the principle of inquiry about ends. It points to the opposable thumb that makes us human.

The hand can grasp its objects because the thumb can oppose the fingers. Our answers to the “how?” questions can retain the promise of remaining useful only to the degree that they continue to be held in tension against explicit consideration of the ends pursued. That tension, no less than our thumbs, makes us human, and in the liberal arts, most directly and effectively, we pick it up and take hold. Otherwise, “Well, there it goes again. . . and here we just sit. . . .”

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Love of learning is the guide of life.