Why choose the liberal arts?
Yesterday I was the proverbial fly on the wall during an intense faculty discussion. There’s a battle going on for the soul of our institution, and humanities are in the crossfire.
I couldn’t help but think of Roche’s book, which I’d begun reading last week en route to a conference where, among other things, I conversed with librarians who understand this tug-of-war.
Essentially, the faculty felt disenfranchised. Yet, they weren’t asking for higher salaries or more vacation time. They were pleading for the survival of liberal arts on our campus.
The age old problem, of course, is that liberal arts don’t make money. And higher education has become a very expensive endeavor, a theme I explored in a previous post.
Roche doesn’t hide the fact that choosing the liberal arts is not a lucrative undertaking. Early on, he shares how a professor once tried to dissuade him from pursuing a Ph.D:
“Did I know that I would not be guaranteed a job? Did I know that professors work unbelievable hours and are still not assured of tenure? Did I know that I would be dependent on the jobs available in a given year and would not be able to live where I might otherwise choose? Did I know that I would earn much less as a faculty member than in other professions?”
[The same might be said of my current field – music librarianship – where death and retirement generally provide the only ways of getting in.]
Given the context, it’s a miracle anyone still chooses to study liberal arts. Like Roche, I can recall a conversation during my senior year of high school, when my grandfather quietly urged me to “go where the money is.”
If alive today, he might be puzzled why I didn’t follow his advice, but he’d also be unable to deny that the liberal arts helped launch my career – without living in my parents’ basement. Who said money is the key to happiness, anyway?
Indeed, as Roche explains, the joy of thinking and the enthusiasm of exploring will not cease for the liberally educated person. A learned person is never bored.
But let’s back up a second. What exactly are the liberal arts?
In medieval times, liberal arts were rooted in the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, or language, oratory, and logic) and quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy). Unlike practical arts, which might form one’s livelihood (think blacksmiths, farmers, and doctors), liberal arts held their own value.
Roche provides a wonderful exposition on how the arts relate to one another, which I like to think of as laying side-by-side around the circumference of a circle. Whether you slide from one to the next or draw a diameter across, they form a united body of knowledge, the very foundation of what we call a university.
The critical distinction is how liberal and applied arts differ. The intrinsic value of the former – that is, knowledge studied for its own sake – is becoming more and more difficult to justify in a transactional world that values knowledge purposed for activity, such as law and business.
The problem at home is that we’re trying to retain one while our mission – and dollars – flow toward the other. Even the faculty members I observed yesterday were lamenting the dwindling numbers of math and biology majors who are opting instead for engineering and medicine. [Given the cost of their education, I’m not sure anyone can blame them.]
Still, that’s not to say we should excuse crumbling buildings or ignore critical needs. After interviewing for my current position, I learned that the committee had deliberately delayed my tour of the humanities quad – including the branch library where my office resides – until the end of my interview. Embarrassed that the place was in shambles, they were afraid they’d lose me. It’d been decades since any kind of interior renovations, and given that the buildings had been constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, you can imagine things weren’t exactly pristine.
Weeks later, after I’d recovered from my initial shock and accepted the position, a friend asked why I’d taken the job. Aside from the fact that I’d been ready to make a change and willing to take a risk – no matter how unbecoming things may have seemed – I saw huge opportunities and incredible colleagues who, even if they couldn’t rid the cockroaches scuttling across the floor, were excited to have me.
While I have no regrets, I gradually learned my department wasn’t the only one living in a dump. As one colleague put it, none of the humanities had stately – let alone adequate – facilities. And he wasn’t kidding. During yesterday’s contentious debate, even the moderator – who was trying her best to remain neutral – couldn’t suppress her frustration about “shitty buildings with no heat.”
It’s on days like this, after pondering the liberal arts and their dismal outlook, that I fall into “potato chip” mode, where I’m tempted to go home and do something mindless, like plop on the couch with a bag of Doritos and binge-watch Youtube.
[I’m only half-kidding; I don’t like Doritos, nor do I keep them in the house, but watching those fake Cleveland tourism videos always makes me grin.]
Speaking of Cleveland, it’s interesting how I’ve come to admire a city I never expected to call home. Like the disheveled library – which, I can assure you, didn’t stay that way for long – I see opportunity everywhere. Since moving here in July 2017, I’ve joined a local church that continually exhorts us to be “agents of restoration,” which I recently did by participating in Cleveland’s annual Homeless Stand Down. In an incredible display of generosity, volunteers come together to offer meals, medical services, and legal help. We can’t deny the hurt. But we can offer hope.
And, like diehard Browns fans who haven’t given up on their team, I’m not ready to give up on the liberal arts. We still need them. And not because tech giants like Google are hiring. As Roche articulates, “The arts help students recognize the gap between the world as it is and as it should be while at the same time reconciling to them what is good and beautiful about the world they have inherited.”
It’s like the disturbing dichotomy I discovered in a book called Lost Cleveland. In photographic detail, the author provides a bewildering tour of monuments and industries that struggled to survive in what was once our country’s fifth largest city. It’s fascinating. And tragic.
Yet, we’re still home to award-winning metroparks one might scarcely believe could thrive in the rust belt. We sit on the shore of one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world, and just forty miles south is a national park. It’s things like this that have some wondering if we might reclaim our reputation as “the best location in the nation.”
Thinking back, I’ll confess that my own choices had nothing to do with the trivium or quadrivium, which I’m not sure I’d heard of before college. But even if I couldn’t articulate these concepts, I chose the liberal arts the moment I tore up my application to pharmacy school. It wasn’t a matter of grades (I was valedictorian) or fear of organic chemistry (though it’s certainly no cakewalk). No, after leafing through slick brochures and pages of curriculum, I couldn’t find what I needed: a place for music.
That’s when I began a journey through two liberal arts majors – music and communication – that eventually led me toward music librarianship. The outlook may be grim, but it helps to think of a graphic I found recently, a vintage journal cover from the American Library Association.
Like library work, I can’t help but think that the liberal arts inform all other human endeavors.
– They awaken our curiosity to the world around us and help us understand our place in history –
– They teach us how to flourish in a world that’s broken and beautiful –
– They equip us to fight against injustice –
And they challenge us to exercise our God-given potential while helping others do the same.
That’s why we choose the liberal arts.