04 November, 2010

Well, Of Course

It is time to get rid of the humanities as unproductive, useless money drains. Gradgrind has been making the case for years. The numbers! The facts! And now we have this from the maven of humanism, Stanley Fish, in an Opinionator column of his in the New York Times several weeks ago [click here for the article]: “I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum—that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said—but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.”

Thomas Gradgrind
Well, there you have it. Milan Kundera has one of his characters, Paul, say that Europeans will never be able to fight another war because they don’t believe in anything anymore. That is, the French can’t and won’t fight for the French way of life because they don’t believe in it (at least against other nations; I’m not saying anything about torching their neighbors’ businesses and bashing the windshields out of tante Yvette’s car, an altogether understandable way to preserve one’s way of life). Nor can perhaps the most-listened-to (or heard) of the humanists in the U.S. today make a case for the humanities that is anything else than a French temper-tantrum at his friends losing their jobs.

But let me put it to you: why would you do anything else—if you didn’t believe in it?

This is what has been slowly choking the life out of the humanities. Once the Gradgrind argument became vogue—that is, once we bought the idea that facts, numbers, etc., should determine the good of the humanities—it was only a matter of time.

Ironically, the humanities have in some sense been a millennia-long protest against a view of the world that is “just the facts, ma’am.” Their very existence, their very own articulation of their raison d’être, is that they give access to some other non-quantifiable, qualitative dimension of human life: that of the soul, that mysterious thing we all know we have but whose existence we cannot prove by empirical measure.

Humanism, in fact, and Wittenberg humanism in particular, prizes this unproven thing, this thing whose existence has no demonstrable measure, as the center of human life, as the definitional element of humans. Luther defines the human being by his aristotelian potential in his Disputatio de homine: hominem posse justificari—man has the ability to be justified. Here he lays a theological finger on the distinctive element of human beings as overagainst all other creatures. Humans have the ability either (failingly) to justify their own existence before God, or to receive from God the justification for their existence. All other things have their account. It is humans alone who seek—and either make up or blessedly receive—an account. In other words, it is humans alone who are possessed of a soul, a soul caught in immeasurable existential Anfechtung or temptatio. And that’s why we need the humanities—to help us live in this strange place, between God and the animals, between good and evil, between infinite beauty and unspeakable horror amidst the truths and deceptions, the scant justices and barbarous injustices involved in human life.

Thats what we think. But if that account makes no sense to you, at least the humanities keep a few of Stanley Fish’s friends employed. 


Ray said...

Speaking of facts and numbers, it would be interesting to hear your take on incrementalism in instituting liberal education. I get an all-or-nothing sense when I read this blog—i.e., that it must be Wittenberg or nothing at all. But pausing to look at some facts and numbers, that may be unworkable. First, because so much support for your way of thinking comes not from those who would or could provide financial support, but from people who think about these issues for a living. Second, because some already existing aspects of non-liberal education—let’s say a pharmacy education, a business department, pre-law—may actually provide revenue to a school seeking to beef up its liberal arts. Third, and perhaps most importantly, because many people have a lot invested—in time, treasure, and reputation—in the non-liberal programs and are likely to put up a good fight if support for their programs is pulled in favor of the liberal arts.

You can protest that my head is buried in expediency, which is likely the disease that got higher education into this mess to begin with. At the risk of being practical, however, isn’t there a more successful strategy that uses the existing framework at Lutheran schools even as it undermines that framework? Can’t a revenue generating pharmacy program, as an example, help fund the humanities while that program is being slowly phased out? Or even this: is there a place for a school dedicated to liberal education within an institution of the current Lutheran higher educational system, one that would take advantage of the institution’s physical facilities but pursue pure liberal arts?

In one of your replies to a response to “World-Class Liberal Arts for Lutherans,” you suggest possible reasons why college presidents don’t engage with you about your project. Roadblocks, all of them, but I assume that a group of academics educated in and committed to liberal arts have the requisite creativity to meet these roadblocks and figure out ways around, over, or through. Perhaps—and I know this lack of purism may be painful to consider—you would even find those other non-liberal programs necessary or useful to the ongoing success of liberal arts studies.

In short, are liberal arts important only if they definitively put non-liberal education in the grave, or are they so important that one must find a way to pursue them and transmit them to future generations even in the midst of philistinism? To put it more crassly, if there were $100, would you rather risk the high odds of getting $0 while reaching for the whole pile of cash, or would you be willing to take $75? While purity in the liberal arts may be a virture, my own liberal arts education has taught me that purity is seldom attainable and the quest for it often leads to places we shouldn’t want to go.

Steve Gehrke said...

I would suggest that if there is nothing distinctive educationally about a Lutheran university, then there is no reason to support one. Why go to a Lutheran school to major in pharmacy or business when there are plenty of established secular schools already offering such educations? Why not focus efforts on developing and supporting high quality Lutheran campus ministries associated with such secular schools instead, if the only educational difference between a secular school and a Lutheran one is a more pious social scene and a few courses on religion? The Fish article considers the fallacies of trying to support the liberal arts by mooching off the 'cash cow' majors.

However, I think Jon is arguing that in fact Lutheranism DOES have something distinctive to offer higher education via the humanities that secular schools cannot (because they wind up in Fish's cul de sac).

I did find your post thoughtful and helpful. It actually is basically the way I tend to think about these problems also, but over time Jon has gotten me thinking that there IS something more foundational at stake than just figuring out how to pay the bills of an institution and credentialing students to become employable (as necessary as those things are).

Ray said...

Right, but.... My argument is not that there is nothing distinctive about Lutheran liberal arts college, nor that there is any (good) reason to get your pharmacology or business degree from a Lutheran school. But these schools already exist. Why not use them?

The Fish article does consider the virtuous mooch, but only in the context of public schools which exist, under political pressure, for purposes other than those that would inform a Lutheran liberal arts college. There is a big difference between public and Lutheran institutions. If you want to fund the humanities, it seems to me that using the revenue from a business or pharmacy school is every bit as good as other money, but with the advantage that it already exists. You are absolutely right there is something more foundational at stake than just paying the institution's bills. But try having an institution without paying the bills.

Ultimately, the point is you should not allow perfection to defeat the good. If you really, really want a purist institution, you face two very real risks: 1) you'll be teaching Plato to five students in a trailer park in Nowhere, Minnesota or 2) you'll just end up just talking about the project and bemoaning all the obstacles that keep it from happening. Sure, you could get lucky and find out that Warren Buffett is a closet Wittenbergian just waiting for the opportunity to fund a Lutheran liberal arts college. A surer strategy, however, will involve concessions to reality. The fact is, right now there is nothing. Nothing won't become something if everything is an obstacle.

Steve Gehrke said...

"There is a big difference between public and Lutheran institutions."

I'm wondering what is this difference? I have an appointment in a school of pharmacy at a public university, but what would be different if this appointment was in a Lutheran school, either for me as a faculty member or for a student? Jon has described some ways in which it could/should be. Whether starting a new institution from scratch is feasible is a separate question (I agree that the obstacles to that are great).

However, if there is nothing distinctiveIy Lutheran about the education being offered by the school, I don't understand the point of replicating educational models of public universities within historically Lutheran schools.

Jon Bruss said...

I think Ray's point is that there's a big difference between public and private institutions and their respective purposes. I think. And further that the virtuous mooch of Fish's article is something you might countenance in public education, but not in a Lutheran or private college (?).

But your far more important point is that there MUST be something different about Lutheran colleges, otherwise they simply should not exist (this purely on good stewardship grounds, right?). Further, that if there is no difference between a Lutheran college and a secular/public college, Lutherans ought to be in the business of divesting their higher-ed holdings and using the profits from the sale thereof to put top-notch Lutheran chapels staffed by top-notch theologians/pastors on or around campuses where there are Lutheran students.

Agreed 100%!