Pictures at an Exhibition, or, “The Value-added Potential of Liberal Education”

For the Sewanee Faculty Retreat on August 20, 2010, the dean asked me to give a response to a remark in Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, our assigned reading, about “the value-added potential of liberal education” (p. 56).

I’m sure that the prospect of listening to somebody ruminate on the “value-added potential of liberal education” fills you with as much alarm as it does me.  I presume that we are not talking about the intrinsic value of learning about useless things like Latin and Greek, the subjects that I teach, but some value beyond the intrinsic, something extrinsic, transcendent, metaphysical.  We are beginning to enter the territory of the Noble Gases (to include my friends in the sciences).  In fact, I have been wondering whether I ought to have asked Harold at Sewanee Auto if I could borrow the “100% Pure Gas” sign from his front-window for the morning, but I suppose that would not have done much for my carbon footprint.

So instead let me talk about another trip I took last week that didn’t do much for my carbon footprint either, to Washington, D.C., to visit a friend of mine who is a curator at the Smithsonian.  We spent a lot of time tooling around in the several museums that ring the Mall, and I must say that looking at museums with a professional is an instructive experience, and a useful analogy for considering the idea of the liberal arts  curriculum.  Both the college and the museum are engaged, after all, in the connected tasks of preservation and explication of knowledge.  It’s a tricky business, this knowledge-preserving and explicating, and the different museums in D.C. reflect the variety of ways in which it might be done.

There is the very high-brow tone of the contemporary art museum, the Hirschorn, for instance, in which it is supposed that visitors don’t need a term like “expressionism” defined because they wouldn’t have entered the museum in the first place if they did.  And then there are the more populist venues, in which an ignorance of the material is taken for granted and the interpretive capacity is presumed to extend no further than “I like it, but I can’t say why.”  It seems to that the variety of approaches to museum exhibition is analogous to the ways in we think about about the aims of coursework in the majors, which would be more like that of the Hirschorn, and that in general education, which would be less so.  An example of the latter would probably be the show now up of Norman Rockwell originals from the collections of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, concerning which my friend and I had a vigorous debate:  was he being a snot-nosed elitist or was I being a mouth-breathing philistine?  We “agreed to disagree,” you will be pleased to know.

One thing my friend and I did not disagree about was the National Gallery’s 1659 self-portrait of Rembrandt.  This is a truly compelling work, and we spent several long minutes silently scrutinizing the deft brushwork.

Rembrandt’s self-portrait, National Gallery, Washington DC

I found myself wondering, what does the look on his face mean?  He seems pensive, yet also calm.  What do you call that kind of emotion?  Is it a specifically seventeenth-century Dutch emotion?  Is it an emotion I would recognize in myself?  These were some questions that came to my mind, but it seems to me that what we’re here to discuss today is another question which stands apart from these, and dealing with a college career and not an afternoon at the museum.  Which is the fact that, unless you intend to be an art historian, the close study of Rembrandt’s brushwork will probably never get you a job.  So, is it still worth doing, and if so, why?

In terms of added as opposed to intrinsic value, one answer might be Yes, it is worth doing because the close study of any topic trains the mind in the habit of analysis, making one a better thinker and a consequently a more marketable one.  This sort of justification for the liberal arts once was categorized as “mental discipline,” and more recently as “critical thinking,” and even more recently as “core competency.”  At the heart of this idea is the concept of the “transferable skill.”  A demonstrated ability to pick apart a sonnet, a sonata, or a small rodent (to include my friends in the sciences) is useful in picking apart the problems of the non-academic workplace.  According to this way of thinking, in school students become habituated to the idea of method, and learn both how to ask fruitful questions and how to go about answering them.  If nothing else, they learn how much labor is involved in getting to a satisfactory response, how to work hard to do well.  As the woman who ran the Human Resources department at the bank I once worked for told me, “If you can impress a college professor about his or her own area of expertise, you can certainly do the work here.”

Another, older response to the question of why we bother with the liberal arts does not focus on developing skill sets in this way, but instead considers the acquisition of cultural and scientific knowledge unashamedly as a matter of pedigree.  This is an obviously elitist idea of education, but at one time, it was the primary reason one sought an education at all. To speak and write with polish, grace, balance, proportion, etc., about the natural world or the world of the arts—these were the credentials of the aristocracy.  Absent such credentials, one would be unlikely to have found a place or a position among the upper class.  Such an idea today is often snidely dismissed as “cocktail party talk,” and yet it is just such talk at cocktail parties that comprises the all-important networking by which gainful employment is often found.  And you know, I’ve yet to meet the person who wished they sounded less educated in social situations.

And then there is the “added value” of values themselves, the belief that liberal education has as one of its primary goals the formation of character.  There was a time when humanists like Irving Babbitt felt strongly about such things, but it’s hard now to think of a phrase like “instilling virtue” without also thinking of the phrase “ramming your agenda down my throat.”  What makes this particular idea so controversial, of course, is its obvious political bias, from the left or right, and what makes it ring hollow is the sad fact that there has been many a liberally-educated person who went on to do horrendous things.  Classical allusions came readily to Cortez’ mind, for instance, as he massacred the Aztecs.

Yet, I think it is the case for most of us that we hope something we teach will make some unusual claim on our students, and that it will not just make them smarter but also make them wiser.  And there are students, too, who hope for that Eureka moment of self-discovery in college, and do not go away disappointed.  I can recall myself being a sophmore at Tufts and reading the bittersweet Satires of Juvenal and thinking, You know, this guy makes a lot of sense.  I found Juvenal an especially helpful guide when working in the bank.  Perhaps it is worth noting that I still own my copy of Juvenal, but the bank I worked for then went under in 2008.

So those of some reasons, writ large, of why the study of impractical things like the Satires of Juvenal or the brushwork on a Rembrandt might be of added value in a liberal education:  it may make you more skillful and hard-working, it may make you more cultured and clubbable, it may make you more self-aware and wise.  It’s not necessary to choose which of these senses of liberal education best describes the work we do here at Sewanee.  We can find traces of all of them inside the classroom and out as it is, and if they seem to sit a little inconsistently beside each other at times, well, so be it.

But I think there is at least one last idea to ruminate on in our general education curriculum particularly.  It’s in the majors, by contrast, that students delve more deeply and earn the right perhaps to leave here cum laude, “with praise.”  But in the earlier years when they’re usually enrolled in 100-level classes that students have the bewildering experience of education which Alexander Pope likens to mountain-climbing in his Essay on Criticism;  getting to the summit, one looks out only to realize that “Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!”   It seems to me that this may be the best preparation for the world as it will actually be encountered, as a place with so much that’s knowable, and so little possibility that we might learn it all, or even very much of it.

So let me end by altering the terms of my initial analogy: the world our students enter is like the museums that ring the Mall in Washington, some of which have spaceships, some of which have tomahawks, some of which have stuffed rodents, some of which have art that is explained in a way that is way over your head, some of which have art that is an insult to your intelligence.  All of which is to say that the world is a baffling place with Alps on Alps that our mountain can honestly do only so much to prepare them for.  It’s no small thing if our students leave us with some passages of Juvenal in mind, or the image of a 17th-century Dutch master whose expression radiates a sense of calm self-possession though his world was just as bewildering as our own.  Out there in their own worlds, our students may find such things genuinely useful, even intrinsically valuable.

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About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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8 Responses to Pictures at an Exhibition, or, “The Value-added Potential of Liberal Education”

  1. William McKeachie says:

    Liberal Arts Education: Neither a Museum Exhibition nor a Private Collection

    A few thoughts in response to a very thoughtful rumination, paragraph by paragraph:

    At the outset let me say … I relish your wit but I also decline to let it neutralize the deep moral seriousness of the issues at hand. Indeed, may I take it that we agree that the issues in contention regarding the “core” of a liberal arts education are nothing if not morally, that is, humanly serious?

    Let’s recall the etymology of “education”: educare (Latin), to lead out, and thus (implicitly) to set free. Thus, the extrinsic value of the liberal arts isn’t an added value but an adduced, nurtured, liberated value the origin of which is intrinsic, as with a child from conception in the womb. (I have a similar, if more political, objection to Europe’s VAT!) What a University like Sewanee (in the mould of Oxbridge before the proliferation of graduate programs, rather than 19th century Germany, where the very term “University” came to mean something quite different … see J.H. Newman) should aim for is to “remember” and “examine” and “lead out” what incipiently inheres “whole” within and between the subjects and the objects of “learning” — according, for instance, to Socrates: “The unexamined life is not … a human life” (see the Greek text).

    It’s not Rembrandt’s brushwork technique that is of liberal arts value but what is morally, humanly intrinsic to that pensive yet calm self-portrait, that self-possession.

    Surely therefore a liberal arts education has little or nothing to do with “isms” invented by categorizers of art history or any other modern academic discipline. What it has to do with is aligning the student with that which is studied in such a way that reading, looking at, listening to, analyzing actual texts, paintings, sculptures, and scores will bear fruit in a life-long growth of freedom and wisdom — making one freer and wiser than when captive to the categories of historicist surveys devised by second-remove “scholars”.

    The important distinction is anything but a matter of elitism versus populism but, rather, of actually experiencing what “is” versus passively swallowing somebody else’s categories and generalizations — in other words, what is “not”!

    Hence the punning motto of one of the seals of St. John’s College: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque. And BTW, fewer students at St. John’s are socially, economically or racially elitist in pedigree than at Sewanee.

    • William McKeachie says:

      Concluding paragraphs mistakenly omitted from the above:

      Surely the aim of the liberal arts — in “thinking” and in “making” and in “doing” — is to raise up neither an elite aristocracy nor a demotic meritocracy but, rather, if you’ll forgive my coinage, a “liberocracy” in which the intrinsic value of the examined (that is, truly human) life is discerned, learned, nurtured and transmitted from generation to generation — as one Alpine or Appalachian/Cumberland Mountain after another is (so to speak) attempted, if never scaled.

      Great quote from Alexander Pope, BTW — worthy of being adopted as a motto by any liberal arts institution that at least aspires also to Judaeo-Christian “values” (not “added” but inherent).

      • William–It’s taken me too long to get back to your remarks, and I must apologize. I have been contemplating them, as you must know. There’s not doubt you’re right about the state of current higher education. Do you know Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins from 1986? He notes that the modern university is a vast collection of failed initiatives and justifications for higher learning practices. It’s been long time since there was any consensus about what a liberal arts institution ought to be be or do. Even as Newman was writing The Idea of a University, Charles Eliot was preparing to dismantle Harvard’s traditional curriculum. We live in those ruins, and will for the forseeable future.

  2. William McKeachie says:

    Indeed, alas. But might not Sewanee of all places, by virtue of the resources of both its heritage and many of its current faculty (not least at this blog!), refuse to let the ruins revert to ideological wilderness? Perhaps in honor of: the post-bellum builder of Rebel’s Rest, George Rainsford Fairbanks, the pioneer of Sewanee gowns, William Porcher DuBose, the Mountain’s first Rhodes Scholar, Henry Markley Gass, and that intrepid pair, Ned McCrady and Red Lancaster, who in the 1960s and ’70s refused to allow either Rebel’s Rest or the Liberal Arts be sacrificed to expediency, whether pecuniary or philistine!

  3. William McKeachie says:

    PS As for Charles Eliot’s baleful influence … thanks to Tennessee Williams, Sewanee has a good record of bucking Harvard!

  4. William McKeachie says:

    What you say about this fallen and broken, yet still comely, world is also true enough, as nobody knew better than Tennessee Williams … although my favorite definition is James Baldwin’s: “The world ain’t as round as you’d like it to be.” Nevertheless, what’s a Liberal Arts core curriculum for if not to provide the wherewithal to pick up and proceed “backwards into the future” (another thread on this blog, I think) … to seek, to strive, and above all not to yield? Especially not to yield about Truth, or Rebel’s Rest!

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