Liberal Arts and Higher Education: The Vital Art of Not Being a Bug

Michael Austin
Dialogue & Discourse

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The second strangest thing that happens in the first chapter of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece Metamorphosis is that the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find that he has become a giant insect. No reason is ever given, nor are any of the characters terribly curious about it. It happens right at the start and simply must be dealt with.

By becoming an insect, Gregor misses the 5:00 AM train that he was supposed to take as a traveling salesman. This leads to the strangest thing that happens in the chapter: within minutes of missing the train, the chief clerk of the company comes to his house to berate him for his irresponsibility. The clerk intimates that he has already had a meeting with the head of the firm, that Gregor is suspected of embezzlement, and that he will likely be fired — all because he missed the train for the first time in his five years of employment.

For Kafka, the fact that Gregor Samsa turns into a bug is a misdirection — a literary absurdity that obscures a real absurdity that has become so common that we no longer see it as absurd. Gregor’s life consists of nothing but his work. He is paid well, but his professional life is an all-consuming reality. And when he steps outside of that reality for even a moment, the panoptic surveillance apparatus springs into motion to drag him back in. To squish him. Like a bug.

The most important scene in The Metamorphosis occurs somewhat later, when Gregor’s sister and mother are clearing his room of its human elements. Their intentions are kind. They have noticed that Gregor, as a bug, wants to crawl around the walls and floors unimpeded. So they remove all of the things that would get in his way. The last thing they try to remove is a framed painting of a woman wearing a fur coat. But when they approach it, Gregor rushes over to it and covers it with his body, and he refuses to move until they leave the room.

This desperate effort represents Gregor’s last attempt to hold on to a thing that makes him human. To bug Gregor, the painting is worse than useless. It serves no practical purpose for a bug, and it gets in his way when he tries to scurry. But it serves a fundamental human purpose. And, by holding on to it, Gregor holds on to his last shred of humanity even though it does nothing to help him in his new life as a bug.

I think a lot about Gregor Samsa when I listen to the defenses that most academics make of their liberal arts programs and general education requirements. We almost always frame the defense in the language of the labor market. Liberal arts makes students critical thinkers, which is what employers really want. It teaches “valuable workplace skills” like communication, reflection, appreciating diversity, and working in teams. It makes students better employees. It helps them be better bugs.

I understand why colleges and universities make these arguments. It is what parents and legislatures expect. They see college as an investment and employability as the main ROI. And the arguments are not incorrect. The liberal arts really can do all of these things. The skills they teach do have workplace value. Employers really do want critical thinkers, strong communicators, and people who can understand diversity and work in teams.

But with all due respect to my colleagues, these arguments miss the point. And they concede things to the worlds of trade and commerce that will eventually lead to the destruction of liberal education. Our job as educators is not to create better bugs, or people whose lives consist of nothing but work. Our job is to create people who live meaningful and abundant lives — people who can derive pleasure from things like art and music and literature even when such things have no practical value to the world of work. We do not (just) teach people how to scurry across walls. We also teach them how, and why, to hold on to their works of art.

Such teaching has been part of the liberal arts since the term was first coined by the Roman philosopher Seneca in the 88th letter of his “Moral Epistles.” In this letter, Seneca explains that the “liberal” in “liberal arts” comes from the Latin word liber, or “free person.” In Seneca’s world, most trades were conducted by slaves, while free citizens studied only the things that improved them and gave them joy. In our world, which runs on very different principles, the “liberal arts” are best defined as those things that people study for reasons other than preparing for a job — things that they would want to study if they didn’t have to worry about making money. The things that people study because an abundant human life requires something more than having a job and making money.

The liberal arts are the foundation of what used to be called “recreation,” which simply means “re-creation.” By studying meaningful things, we recreate ourselves as something newer and better. Most people today do recreation very badly. It has largely become a passive exercise fueled by on-demand streaming video that allows us to watch anything at any time for as long as we want to watch it.

Actually recreating ourselves when we are not at work takes a lot of effort. And it takes a certain amount of knowledge. We have to know how to study and appreciate things whose value does not depend on it making us good employees. At their best, the liberal arts curricula in college and university general education programs give us the tools that we need to do this. And, if they are working really well, they light a spark that motivates us to continue our liberal studies for the rest of our lives.

When I first started teaching World Literature to nonmajors, I tried hard to make the relevant workplace arguments that academics are expected to make. When students asked, “Why do I need to study Shakespeare when I am going to be a nurse / accountant / engineer / widget-maker, I told them all about employer demand for critical thinking. Over time, though, I realized that Shakespeare himself gave the much better answer in his great play King Lear, when Lear’s daughters ask him why he needs to keep the 100 knights who have been his retainers in retirement. He answers:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. (II.4. 1565–68)

In other words, the point of the liberal arts is not prepare us for all-consuming careers, but to teach us how not to allow our careers to consume us. Our world, like Kafka’s, wants good bugs. It wants to define every activity in terms of its buggy usefulness. When colleges try to cast the value of liberal arts entirely in bug terms, we risk losing site of the real argument for a full and abundant humanity. “Allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”

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Michael Austin
Dialogue & Discourse

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition