lecturing, bodily presence, neoliberalism

In general I’m in favor of the idea of defending the lecture, but this piece in Jacobin by Miya Tokumitsu blurs some useful distinctions.

Tokumitsu’s argument that the common critique of academic lecturing amounts to an unwitting prop for neoliberalism — “The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics” — is, first of all, surely the ne plus ultra of the Jacobin ethos. And it’s not on the face of it a convincing claim. But when you read through the essay you discover that Tokumitsu isn’t primarily interested in defending the lecture — her chief subject is quite other than what she says it is.

Here’s a key passage:

The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.

The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.

One common lament among university students is a sense of social isolation during the school year. While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience. This simple routine can head off lonelieness and despondency, two triggers and intensifiers of depression.

“Oh,” I thought when I got to this part of the essay, “this isn’t about lectures at all, this is about going to class.” See the full paragraph that first brings neoliberalism into the story:

The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics. We must be able to cancel anything at the last minute in our desperate hustle to be employable to anyone who might ask. An economic model that chops up and parcels out every moment of our lives inevitably resists the requirement to convene regularly.

But lectures are only one of several reasons students “convene regularly”: they do so for labs and discussion-based classes too. So when Tokumitsu writes,

But lecture attendees do lots of things: they take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.

— I think, yes, indeed, but all this happens in discussion-based classes too.

So Tokumitsu consistently confuses two phenomena that are conceptually distinct, even if they sometimes are blurred in practice:

1) The critique of the residential college that advocates for its replacement by online learning;

2) The critique of the lecture that advocates for its replacement by other ways of using class time — e.g., the flipped classroom model.

The latter argument assumes that students will “convene regularly” and will be bodily present to and with one another while engaging in collective learning; it just argues that lectures are a poor use of that shared space and time. The former argument is more radical in that it dismisses the need for bodily presence and instead celebrates individual learning and, occasionally, the use of digital communications media to connect people to one another. If you’re going to get anything out of Tokumitsu’s essay, you’ll need to realize that sometimes she’s responding to the first argument and sometimes to the second; and that it’s only the first that can with any plausibility be connected to neoliberalism as Tokumitsu understands it.

More on lecturing in another post.

platforms and institutions

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

I’m usually allergic to generalizations in these matters, but let me risk a big generalization: I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.

Let’s take education as an example: for much of American history people were educated in a wide range of (often highly eccentric) ways. This was generally perceived as a problem, and efforts at standardization kicked in, reaching their peak in the Sixties. Since then we have seen increasing fragmentation, with ordinary public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, various kinds of private schools, homeschooling, unschooling … but all of these work on the same platforms, that is, they rely on the same communications technologies, using either the open web or walled gardens like Facebook in order to promote interaction and accomplish goals (e.g., the completion of projects and other assignments, remedial tutoring, etc.). We will more and more be asking technological platforms to do the kind of unifying work that educational institutions can clearly no longer do, which, I believe, is asking platforms to do things that by their nature they’re unsuited to do.

They’re unsuited to do it becasuse platforms are unresponsive to their users, and unresponsive by design (design that emerges from their desire to be universal in scope). It is virtually impossible to contact anyone at Google or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and that is so that those platforms can train us to do what they want us to do, rather than be accountable to our desires and needs. A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance.

I for one don’t welcome our new algorithmic overlords.

on Social Justice U

Jonathan Haidt explains “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice.” When my friend Chad Wellmon (on Twitter) questioned Haidt’s dichotomy, I agreed that there is a problem. After all, people who are promoting social justice in he university think that their beliefs are true!

But I also think Haidt has a point — it just needs to be rephrased. The social-justice faction in the university believes that the most fundamental questions about what justice is have already been answered, and require no further reflection or investigation. (And from this follows the belief that questioning The Answers, and still worse suggesting other answers, is, as Haidt says, a kind of blasphemy: At Social Justice University, “there are many blasphemy laws – there are ideas, theories, facts, and authors that one cannot use. This makes it difficult to do good social science about politically valenced topics. Social science is hard enough as it is, with big complicated problems resulting from many interacting causal forces. But at SJU, many of the most powerful tools are simply banned.”)

What needs to happen, then, I believe, is for “SJU” to be honest about its own intellectual constitution, to say openly, In this university, we are not concerned to follow the model of many academic enterprises and inquire into the nature and forms of justice. We believe we already know what those are. Therefore our questions will involve how best to implement the understanding we have all already agreed to before beginning our work.

And you know, if SJU is a private institution, I don’t think they would be simply wrong to do this. After all, I have spent my teaching career in Christian institutions, where there are also certain foundational assumptions at work — which, indeed, is true even at Haidt’s Truth U. If Haidt really thinks that there is no blasphemy at Truth U he is sorely mistaken. (Thought experiment: a professor grades her students by seeking the wisdom of the I Ching.) Every educational institution either implicitly or explicitly sets certain boundaries to its pursuits, that is, agrees to set certain questions aside in order to focus on others. And what has long made American higher education so distinctive is its willingness to let a thousand institutional flowers, of very different species, bloom.

The question I would have for proponents of SJU is: Do you embrace the ideological diversity that has been a hallmark of the American system? Are you willing to allow SJU to do its work alongside Truth U and Christian U, and argue for all of those institutional types to be treated equally under the law? Or, rather, do you want every college and university to be dedicated to social justice as you understand it — for there to be no institutions where the very definition of justice is open to question and debate?

two visions of higher education?

Kwame Anthony Appiah on the two visions of American higher education:

One vision focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America. When presidential candidates talk about making college more affordable, they often mention those benefits, and they measure them largely in dollars and cents. How is it helping postgraduate earnings, or increasing G.D.P.? As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment. They believe in Utility U.

Another vision of college centers on what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living,” aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women. (This was not an entirely new thought: the “liberal” in “liberal education” comes from the Latin liberalis, which means “befitting a free person.”) Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community. (Though more and more students are taking degrees online, most undergraduates will be on campus a lot of the time.) College, in this view, is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project, the pursuit of happiness. Welcome to Utopia U.

Together, these visions — Utility and Utopia — explain a great deal about modern colleges and universities. But taken singly, they lead to very different metrics for success.

Appiah walks through this tired old dichotomy only in order to say: Why not both?

(To be clear: like Appiah, I am only addressing the American context. Things can be different elsewhere, as, for example, in Japan, where a government minister has just asked all public universities to eliminate programs in the social sciences and humanities, including law and economics, and to focus instead on “more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.”)

A good general rule: when someone constructs an argument of this type — Between A and B there seems to be a great gulf fixed, but I have used my unique powers of insight to discern that this is a false dichotomy and we need not choose! — it is unlikely that they have described A fairly or described B fairly or described the conflict between then accurately.

So let’s try to parse this out with a little more care:

  • Some colleges (mainly the for-profit ones) promise nothing but utility.
  • Some colleges (say, St. John’s in Annapolis and Santa Fe) promise nothing but what Appiah calls Utopia, that is, an environment for pursuing essential and eternal questions.
  • Most colleges follow the example of Peter Quill, Star-Lord, and promise a bit of both.
  • Most students want, or at least claim to want, a bit of both. A few are driven primarily by intellectual curiosity, but they’d love to believe that a course of study organized around such explorations can also lead to a decent job after graduation; a great many more are primarily concerned to secure good job opportunities, but also want to confront interesting ideas and beautiful works of art. (Many of my best students in the Honors College at Baylor are pre-med, but love taking literature and philosophy courses for just this reason.)

Given this general state of affairs, with its range of sometimes-complementary and sometimes-conflicting forces at work, Appiah’s framing is simplistic — and also serves as a way to avoid the really key question for the coming years: Who will pay, and what will they pay for?

on microaggressions and administrative power

Let’s try to put a few things together that need to be put together.

First, read this post by Jonathan Haidt excerpting and summarizing this article on the culture of campus microaggressions. A key passage:

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.

Now, take a look at this post by Conor Friedersdorf illustrating how this kind of thing works in practice. Note especially the account of an Oberlin student accused of microaggression and the way the conflict escalates.

And finally, to give you the proper socio-political context for all this, please read Freddie deBoer’s outstanding essay in the New York Times Magazine. Here’s an absolutely vital passage:

Current conditions result in neither the muscular and effective student activism favored by the defenders of current campus politics nor the emboldened, challenging professors that critics prefer. Instead, both sides seem to be gradually marginalized in favor of the growing managerial class that dominates so many campuses. Yes, students get to dictate increasingly elaborate and punitive speech codes that some of them prefer. But what could be more corporate or bureaucratic than the increasingly tight control on language and culture in the workplace? Those efforts both divert attention from the material politics that the administration often strenuously opposes (like divestment campaigns) and contribute to a deepening cultural disrespect for student activism. Professors, meanwhile, cling for dear life, trying merely to preserve whatever tenure track they can, prevented by academic culture, a lack of coordination and interdepartmental resentments from rallying together as labor activists. That the contemporary campus quiets the voices of both students and teachers — the two indispensable actors in the educational exchange — speaks to the funhouse-mirror quality of today’s academy.

I wish that committed student activists would recognize that the administrators who run their universities, no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends. I want these bright, passionate students to remember that the best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them. At its worst, this tendency results in something like collusion between activists and administrators.

This is brilliantly incisive stuff by Freddie, and anyone who cares about the state of American higher education needs to reflect on it. When students demand the intervention of administrative authority to solve every little conflict, they end up simply reinforcing a power structure in which students and faculty alike are stripped of moral agency, in which all of us in the university — including the administrators themselves, since they’re typically reading responses from an instruction manual prepared in close consultation with university lawyers — are instruments in the hands of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic regime. Few social structures could be more alien to the character of true education.

Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole. That seems indubitable to me. When people in the workplace routinely make complaints to HR officers instead of dealing directly with their colleagues, or calling the police when they see kids out on their own rather than talking to the parents, they’re employing the same strategy of enlisting Authority to fight their battles for them — and thereby consolidating the power of those who are currently in charge. Not exactly a strategy for changing the world. Nor for creating a minimally responsible citizenry.

In a fascinating article called “The Japanese Preschool’s Pedagogy of Peripheral Participation,”, Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin describe a twofold strategy commonly deployed in Japan to deal with preschoolers’ conflicts: machi no hoiku and mimamoru. The former means “caring by waiting”; the second means “standing guard.” When children come into conflict, the teacher makes sure the students know that she is present, that she is watching — she may even add, kamisama datte miterun, daiyo (the gods too are watching) — but she does not intervene unless absolutely necessary. Even if the children start to fight she may not intervene; that will depend on whether a child is genuinely attempting to hurt another or the two are halfheartedly “play-fighting.”

The idea is to give children every possible opportunity to resolve their own conflicts — even past the point at which it might, to an American observer, seem that a conflict is irresolvable. This requires patient waiting; and of course one can wait too long — just as one can intervene too quickly. The mimamoru strategy is meant to reassure children that their authorities will not allow anything really bad to happen to them, though perhaps some unpleasant moments may arise. But those unpleasant moments must be tolerated, else how will the children learn to respond constructively and effectively to conflict — conflict which is, after all, inevitable in any social environment? And if children don’t begin to learn such responses in preschool when will they learn it? Imagine if at university, or even in the workplace, they had developed no such abilities and were constantly dependent on authorities to ease every instance of social friction. What a mess that would be.

UPDATE: Please see Josh’s comment below.

an imaginary student replies to Freddie deBoer

Freddie deBoer imagines a kind of universal trigger warning, perhaps to be issued to students on their arrival at college:

You’re going to be exposed to stuff you don’t like at college. We will try to give you a heads up about the stuff that might upset you, but what is considered potentially offensive is an inherently political, value-laden question, and we aren’t always going to agree with your prior beliefs about that question. We cannot guarantee that everything you might be offended by will come with a warning, and we are under no obligation to attempt to provide one. We will try to work with you with compassion and respect, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to deal with the curriculum that we impose, and not our responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t bother you. If you can’t handle that, you don’t belong in college.

That’s very well said, and I agree with pretty much every word — but I think that a great many students in almost all of our universities will dissent from its premises. They may not be able to articulate their dissent clearly; they may not even consciously formulate it; but I think a dissent is implicit in much of what I read about the various trigger-warnings controversies.

It might go something like this:

You speak of “the curriculum [you] impose,” but I deny that you have the right to impose anything. I am passing through this place, headed for the next stage of my life — possibly graduate education in some form or another, more probably a job — and I am paying you to prepare me for that next stage. In short, we have a business contract in which I am your client, and it is your job to serve what I perceive my needs to be, not what you may happen to think they are. It’s not as though we’re living in that long-ago age when universities were considered repositories of timeless wisdom and professors custodians of that wisdom. You faculty are employees of an ideological state apparatus in a neoliberal regime that constitutes itself by a series of implied or explicit contracts in which goods are exchanged for fees. Please stop acting like this is the University of Paris in the age of Aquinas and we’re all seeking transcendent wisdom. I control my own values and am not even interested in yours, much less willing to be subservient to them. So do the job I am paying you to do and shut up about all that other crap.

the American university and resource dependence

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the decline in American states’ support for higher education — which has indeed been happening — with the implicit or explicit corollary worry that this decline is leading to the privatization of the university, the subjugation of academe to the demands of the marketplace, etc. And I don’t think those worries are wholly misbegotten. But this post by Beth Popp Berman suggests that there may be something larger to think about: the transfer of universities’ resource dependency from state governments to the federal government, thanks to a pretty massive rise in federal student aid — which comes with strings attached, for students and institutions alike. Here’s Berman’s conclusion: 

If organization theory tells us anything, it’s that resource dependence matters. When, five years down the road, we get a Race to the Top rewarding colleges that meet completion and job placement goals at a given tuition cost, I know where I’ll be looking: at that point in 2002 where higher ed waved goodbye to the states and hello to the feds.

Given the close collaboration of our national government with the world’s biggest businesses, it seems unlikely that this development will bring about a rescue from privatization. Rather, the feds are likely to be a very effective instrument for implementing the values and priorities of the market.

Among other things, this means that finding ways to create educational environments that are genuinely intellectually independent, and genuinely countercultural, is just going to get harder. James Poulos has suggested that small, private, online courses may be the future of educational seriousness and genuine innovation. That’s an argument worth considering, and I hope eventually to do so here.

the devil’s bargain: part 2


I promised a follow-up to my previous post, so here I am. In this post and the next I want to discuss two essays by David Graeber — one and two — because I think that, while they seem to have very different purposes, they contribute in interesting and useful ways to a single important point.

Let me say at the outset that I have significant reservations about some details of the arguments that Graeber develops. But I want to see what ideas emerge if we at least take those arguments seriously.

In the first of these essays Graeber takes up the old “Where are our flying cars?” question — or, in my favorite version of the complaint, Jaron Lanier’s sharp comment: “Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, ‘In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX.’”

Here’s Graeber:

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened? The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies. The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now — only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

So why have things turned out this way? That’s the subject of Graeber’s essay, and if you’re interested in this question at all you should read the whole thing, because he makes his case in some detail. But he sums up that case here:

By the sixties, conservative political forces were growing skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading Soviet threat allowed for a reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic arrangements, or indeed directions that could support a campaign of reversing the gains of progressive social movements and achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites saw as a global class war. The change of priorities was introduced as a withdrawal of big-government projects and a return to the market, but in fact the change shifted government-directed research away from programs like NASA or alternative energy sources and toward military, information, and medical technologies.

The question Graber wants to put to us is this: To what extent are our imaginations shaped — constrained, limited — by our having had to live with the technological choices made by the military-industrial complex — by industries and universities working in close collaboration with the government, in a spirit of subservience to its needs?

Or, to put it another way: How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? To see “sophisticated simulations” of the things we used to hope we’d really see as good enough?
Next time, I’ll look at the second Graeber essay and start to draw together some of my themes.

the devil’s bargain: part 1


So wrote R. P. Blackmur, an eminent poet and critic from Princeton University, writing in the Sewanee Review in 1945. His essay is called “The Economy of the American Writer: Preliminary Notes,” and his chief question is whether it is possible for literary writers to make a living. Plus ça change, oui? An essay very much worth reading for anyone, but especially for people who think that the problem of the aspiring-artist-piecing-together-a-rough-living is a phenomenon of the millennial generation.

Anyhow, Blackmur is concerned because he has run some numbers.


In these circumstances, where can the necessary money — money sufficient to allow artists to pursue their art full-time (or nearly so) — come from?

From our vantage point, perhaps the most interesting point here is Blackmur’s uncertainty about the most likely source of support for artists: will they find their place in the world of the university, or in the world of the non-profit foundation? We know how it turned out: while foundations do still support artists of various kinds, universities have turned out to be the chief patrons of American artists — especially writers.

Blackmur sees that even at his moment support for writers and artists is drifting towards the university; he’s just not altogether happy about that. He’s not happy because he has seen that “the universities are themselves increasingly becoming social and technical service stations — are increasingly attracted into the orbit of the market system.” Social and technical service stations: a prophetic word if there ever was one. The universities have in the intervening seventy years become generous patrons of the arts; but what is virtually impossible for us to see, because we can’t re-run history, is the extent to which the arts have been limited and confined by being absorbed into an institution that has utterly lost its independence from “the market system” — that has simply and fully become what the Marxist critic Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus,” an institution that does not overtly belong to the massive nation-state but exists largely to support and when possible fulfill the nation-state’s purposes.

One of my favorite things about W. H. Auden is his tendency, when he has something very serious to say, to cast it in comic terms. In 1946 Auden wrote a poem for the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. It is called “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” and you may listen to the poet read it here. As Adam Kirsch has noted, Harvard had played an important role in the war:

Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had perished. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the highest level: President James Bryant Conant had been one of those consulted when President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Now that the Cold War was under way, the partnership between the University and the federal government was destined to grow even closer. 

But as Kirsch only hints, Auden was deeply suspicious of the capture of intellectual life by what, fifteen years later, President Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex”; and he presented his poem as a direct, if superficially light-hearted, attack on that capture. For Auden, Conant was a perfect embodiment of the “new barbarian” who was breaking down the best of Western culture from within. (See more about this here.)

Soon after his return from Harvard, Auden told his friend Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

first of a series of posts

defending the liberal arts, once more

Thanks to those who answered my question about defenses of the liberal arts and the humanities.

What makes for a good defense of the liberal arts? (I’ll refer only to the liberal arts in the rest of this post, since defenses of the humanities can usually be fit within that larger category.) That’s a question that can only be answered in relation to a particular audience.

The first possible audience is those who are already involved in the liberal arts but are not sure precisely why — people who sense that what they are doing has some value, but can’t confidently articulate it. For those people, essays like this one, by my colleague Elizabeth Corey, do a wonderful job of teasing out the implicit values and commitments in what we do.

A second possible audience includes people — scientists, or people who associate themselves with SCIENCE (their mental capitals, not mine) — who think that science alone is truth-conducive and that the artes liberales are just a higher form of fooling around.

A third possible audience — and for those of us who teach in liberal-arts settings a likely one — is an especially tough one: parents of college students who want their investment in their children’s education to be repaid in the coin of … well, coin: a good job upon graduation, or as soon after graduate as possible, followed by a lifetime of financial security and steady income growth.

To that first audience I can enthusiastically recommend essays like Elizabeth Corey’s; to the second I am prepared to make some strong arguments about the multiple forms of knowledge and the limits of the scientific method; but to the third audience I don’t have any arguments that I really care to make.

To be sure, I truly believe that study of the liberal arts can yield much economic value, and I can point parents to many, many financially successful people who are quite vocal about how much of their success they owe to liberal education; and when pressed I dutifully pass along the relevant information — because I believe it’s true. But my heart is never in such defenses.

For one thing, I don’t expect the parents to buy it. Parents who think about their children’s education according to an ROI model tend to have very specific beliefs about what professions are sufficiently remunerative, and about how people get into those professions; I know from long experience that those beliefs are not easily shaken.

But even more to the point, I may believe that the liberal arts have economic value but that’s not why I’m in the line of work I’m in; and that’s not why young people want to major in liberal-arts disciplines, either. They, like me, will trot out the ROI arguments, but their hearts aren’t in it either, a condition quite transparent to their parents.

This situation bears close and significant analogies to another one I find myself in fairly regularly: being asked to explain why I am a Christian, or why I think Christianity makes sense. Over several decades I have tried many responses to those folks, but I now think the best one is simply this: Come and see. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs; what Christians believe is intimately intertwined with what they do. Christian life is a set of practices — intellectual, doxastic, social, economic — and cannot be fully defended, or even accounted for, to people unwilling to participate, at least to some degree, in those practices. To put it another way, you can’t get any return on an investment (of time and observation) that you haven’t made.

I think much the same can be said of the liberal arts. When properly pursued, they constitute something close to a way of life: a set of practices of inquiry conducted by people who share space and time with one another, whose conversations are extended and embodied. If you want to understand the value of a liberal education, in a very real sense you have to be there.

So to the parents who can’t understand why they should pay for their son or daughter to study literature or philosophy or art history, maybe the best thing I can say is something like this: “I fully understand your concern. And you have every right to know what you are paying for, and to believe that it has value. But if you want to know what value this education has, you’ll need to spend some time with us. It may not make sense from the outside; so come and see.”