Some thoughts on Liberal Arts

If I were to pick my greatest strength and greatest weakness as a student and an academic, they would be the same: I am utterly self-indulgent when it comes to researching things that interest me and sharing that research with others. This character trait is a strength in that I have diverse interests that only continue to become more diverse as I chase initial questions down rabbit-holes. Sometime during my junior year of undergraduate work, I idly jotted down: “I have more questions now than when I started.” I am curious, so this basic realization is what makes academia fun for me and should serve me well in the long run (I have a notebook that is filling up with ideas for research projects at some point). Unfortunately, I am indulgent enough that when I end up in a class that I do not care about, I have a hard time performing well. I do the work, of course, but the execution and diligence on the papers and the retention of information is something I struggle with.

This confession may be a faux pas, but it is true. I also believe that there is only marginal inherent benefit to the study of history. The main repetition of history is due to human nature, so you will not solve the future by studying the past.1 Frankly, history falls into the same category as literature, art, and most scientific studies that exist to indulge curiosity and make people more well rounded. Sure, people might be better prepared for the workplace if we only taught essential skills,2 but they would also be mindless automatons. How boring would that be?

For those people who require the skills based learning to justify the existence of a field, the liberal arts do teach research, critical thinking, argumentation, and writing. These are widely applicable skills and, frankly, ought to be further emphasized (particularly in large lecture classes there is more emphasis on dumping information on the students and expecting them to regurgitate it rather than any sort of educational process).

Yesterday, I listened to some authors answer questions about how to write interesting characters. One of the main tips they offered was to give the characters interests and hobbies. The same is true for people, I think. The liberal arts ought to help foster interests and curiosities. Most people will not pursue a career in those interests (though perhaps a related field), but the interests and activities will stay with them, resulting in a population that is better informed and more well rounded. Armed with basic skills and rounded interests, discipline specific skills can be learned on the job where the employers will have a chance to fashion the type of worker they need. Unfortunately there has been more of an onus on colleges to teach job skills recently, which I think does a disservice to both colleges and the employers who are going to get a lemming cut from a mold rather than a person they can turn into their own worker.

I believe that being able to hold a conversation and talk about a wide variety of conversations transcends the category of job skills and into the category of life skills. This is the great benefit of the liberal arts, particularly in that it encourages people to research, write, and produce “culture.” Most people won’t have time to write history, but they may well have that interest and want to read about it. These skills and ambitions should be encouraged.

I leave you with three quotes attributed to Mark Twain on the topic:

“The man who does not read books has no advantage over the man that can not read them.”

“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.”

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”


1 I like Orwell’s formulation about history in 1984, but he spoke about control of the past, particularly in the use and abuse of history to make a point (something that I often see in political debates), not the study of it per se. You could make the case that the study of it will prevent this abuse, however.
2 On this point, what are the essential skills they would learn? How quickly are those essential skills changing? I am highly skeptical of the belief that schooling should teach job skills that are going to be highly diverse and changing based on the industry. Moreover, this educational model is highly reactionary.

Relativism

A bit over eight and a half years ago I wrote my college entrance essay. It was an exploratory essay wherein I discussed an evolution in my thought from a world of black and white, good and evil to one of indistinct shades of grey. In this essay I advanced one of my core tenets: that in the most saintly people there are flaws and in the most heinous something of good. If memory serves, my examples were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Admittedly Roosevelt would not have considered himself a saint, but I had an aversion to work back then and the apposition worked nicely.

The larger issue is that a true black and white version of good and evil exists only in fiction. Both moral terms are easy to throw around in writing and speech, but, ultimately, they are perceived categories. To repeat my Hitler example, only taking it one step more polemical, he genuinely believed that the extermination of the Jews was a morally good–or at least necessary–act. I think perpetrators of genocide everywhere feel the same way. This does not exonerate the actions taken by any stretch of the imagination, but when there is active thought behind these actions they must be explained somehow. If not, the actions are done without thought or done in insanity. Actions themselves may be evil when done under these circumstances, but I have a hard time categorically labeling them, or even people who do bad things rationally, truly evil. That is a subjective category.

I am not the same person I was then, both for better and for worse, but that tenet remains. It is part of what it means to be human. There are also evils in the world. There are truths. There are facts. There are “universal” goods. These concepts are unique to each person, at least at the level of understanding. This is relativism.

Relativism is the fundamental claim that perception will not be uniform from person to person to person even if the underlying facts have not changed. What we call universal truths (or facts) are that way because people collectively agree upon them. I believe that the same principal applies to language. Words mean what they do because they are, more or less, agreed upon–not because they simply are. Moreover, many words have multiple meanings and/or carry different meanings to different people. Yes, words are used to convey and describe things that are, but the perception of those things will not be the same.

Perhaps this is a tacit admittance of objective truths. I am willing to admit that they may exist. Nonetheless those objective truths are inaccessible. Relativism–my version of relativism, anyway–argues that perception is what is relative, not the underlying facts. Thus, when someone pokes holes in relativism by demonstrating there are inarguable facts there is no problem. It is merely a demonstration that some perceptions are more universal than others.

Then there is the issue of relativity versus objectivity in history. In the world as we know it today, actions and events do take place. The Olympics are going on right now; the bird flew from the tree to the feed and back again, pausing only to snatch a seed; I am typing with my laptop set on a wooden table. Some of these actions are currently ongoing but will, at some point, exist only in the past, a past that is in that future time entirely inaccessible except through a retelling. It is the job of reporters, historians, essayists, and other storytellers to conjure up that past for an audience. Presumably the storyteller sees some merit in the writing (even if that merit is financial), and the audience will agree or disagree with the merit. Of course, the better the storyteller, the more likely the audience will accept it.

So there is an objective history that once happened, but merely from a narrative standpoint, the past is beyond our reach and therefore subject to the relative perception and interpretation of first the storyteller and then the audience. The relativistic nature is further pronounced when the objective behind the story is to draw conclusions from the past or to ascribe motive.

This is not an indictment of the endeavor, either. If anything, the relative nature of history means that more people should become involved in the research and writing so that more voices get heard. Historians themselves are conduits of the stories and of the past, but, by their very human, flawed, nature, do not have access to the Truth.