By David M. Whalen, Provost of Hillsdale College
“Author Annie Dillard bluntly asks, ‘Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.’ The work of the liberal arts is this awakening.”
— David Whalen
Reports of the death of the liberal arts, as the saying goes, have been greatly exaggerated.
The value and importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects have been elevated as worthy of study over and against the rather insubstantial and ideologically shrill humanities.
In fact, however, these arguments constitute a persuasive and powerful argument for the very education they attempt to dismiss. However unwittingly, it fairly demonstrates the need to study things enduringly human and humane, artful and wise.
For example, an essay by G.W. Thielman published in June 2015 attempts to argue in favor of a STEM education (as do many), and demonstrates the inescapable importance of the study of rhetoric and logic — liberal arts as venerable as they are essential. In his essay, Thielman argues that Edison has illuminated the world more than any of its sages, and that Tesla (the engineer, not the auto) has “contributed more power to the public” than all of history’s revolutionaries. This offers a fallacy of equivocation that no doubt is intended to amuse more than to persuade.
But it is a fallacy, and both its deployment and discernment depend on the liberal art of rhetoric for their fullest grasp and even enjoyment.
A sound liberal arts education aims precisely to sharpen readers and thinkers in their use of such arguments and amusements. It aims to prepare minds and hearts for a world loud with all manner of persuasion, much of it good, much more of it not-so-good.
Naming fallacies is, by itself, no great achievement. Mastery of the art of argument, however, is essential to good public (and even private) discourse. The essay makes this need apparent.
The essay also underscores the importance of finely tuned reasoning in that the heart of its argument beats a drum well worth beating — but then draws the wrong conclusion.
In our day, so the argument goes, the liberal arts have been usurped by tendentious and ideological interests that evacuate them of value and substance. Therefore, we should abandon them, or at best leave them to the recreational pursuits of those so inclined, and plant our educational flag squarely among the STEM disciplines.
Sadly, the objection to the liberal arts — as currently taught — carries a good bit of weight. Censorious, radicalized ideology has become such an orthodoxy in the humanities that dissent is rarely tolerated, and the extremity of its commonplace views renders parody virtually impossible.
But to reject the liberal arts misses the point. “Abusus non tollit usum,” the old adage goes: “The abuse of a thing tells not against its proper use.”
The liberal arts are not the problem here; poor “practitioners” of them are the problem, and it is no correction simply to despair of the arts and wander off into precincts where numbers are thought never to lie and the root of happiness can be found in laminar airflow.
Put another way, if one’s doctor suggests treating a sprained ankle by shaking a dried gourd at the full moon, one does not give up on medicine; one finds another doctor.
Great as is the crisis in the liberal arts, it remains quite possible to “find another doctor.”
My own academic institution, I am grateful to acknowledge, is one of the relatively few committed to the intellectual heritage of the liberal arts. But even institutions more famous for abandoning that heritage than handing it on often house important scholars from whom one can learn much that is valuable, wise and weighty.
The real project, then, remains the rescue of liberal education, not its abandonment, and this rescue begins by seeking out the best liberal education one can find.
That this is difficult, I do not deny. But when good minds and hearts advise abandoning the very thing that is made to give them force and formation, we have a powerful, if unwitting, argument for that rescue.
Thielman’s essay makes its single, most potent case for the liberal arts simply by being what it is. The article is an instance of the very thing it attempts to discourage. Of course, it is not by itself a liberal arts education. But its persuasive purpose, its arguments (good and not-so-good), its reasoning, and its vision of the desirable — everything it is and does represents the kind of matter taken up in a liberal arts education for the sake of discipline and understanding.
This is not an exercise in STEM learning; it is an exercise in thinking about the good. It attempts to discern the right course of action, given contemporary circumstances, and it does so in pursuit of a certain (but unarticulated) conception of the good. Welcome to humanistic (liberal arts) thinking.
Many of the arguments one encounters in the STEM debates seem to miss this last, and most important, point.
The economic, political and social consequences of this or that kind of education, the cost of investment in disciplines given to self-indulgent theorizing, the needs impressed upon us by technological developments, military conditions and social necessities — all these matters matter, and all their arguments count.
What’s more, rarely does one find acknowledgment that the sciences and math are liberal arts and essential components of a sound liberal arts education. But the liberal arts do not derive their importance from our educational policy or our individual preferences. They derive their importance from our nature (dare one say it).
It is a problem that the humanities are so often captive to poor teaching and corrosive intellectual fads; it is the “problem” that they are, after all, inescapable. That is, the humanities and the other liberal arts (even science and math) arise out of, and force upon us, reflections about what is to be desired, what is to be pursued, what is to be done.
We cannot help but think about these things. We cannot choose to jettison or abandon the fact that we are philosophical, aesthetic, ethical beings who think about what is, what ought to be, how we ought to live, and why all this matters. The disciplines that take up this inescapable facet of our humanity are the liberal arts. To do without them is to leave uncultivated an essential aspect of ourselves (namely, our selves).
Moreover, STEM subjects (at least those dedicated to “doing,” rather than “knowing”) are directed by the conclusions that result from the thinking characteristic of the liberal arts. This is why it is not only folly, but deeply dangerous, to abandon the liberal arts and indulge in STEM subjects as if they were “philosophy-free zones.”
They are not. They arise out of, and act according to, antecedent conceptions that may or may not be understood by those engaged in them. To refrain from interrogating those antecedent conceptions while becoming technologically more and more powerful is to hamstring the very faculty that directs our newfound capabilities.
The imperative, inescapable questions taken up in the liberal arts remain irreducibly human. They can be taken up in the haphazard noise of ordinary life, or they can be given force and form and discipline.
Author Annie Dillard bluntly asks, “Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.” The work of the liberal arts is this awakening.
The liberal arts are dead? Long live the liberal arts!
David M. Whalen is the provost of Hillsdale College, where he is also a professor of English. Hillsdale College, founded in 1844, has built a national reputation through its classical liberal arts core curriculum and its principled refusal to accept federal or state taxpayer subsidies, even indirectly in the form of student grants or loans.