Friday, April 29, 2011

Liberal arts

I just had the pleasure of hosting a wonderful panel discussion on the state and prospects of liberal arts, comprised of faculty who teach in colleges and universities large and small, public and private. That all the panelists were alumni of Lang only made it sweeter. Some highlights:

The first panelist is a historian at the University of Chicago, but he most enjoys teaching classic texts of social theory. He has taught at several great books schools, and gave a powerful argument for great books curricula. They are not, he argued, conservative. They look rigid only from the outside; inside, there is vigorous discussion of issues of canonization. And the ideas? It's a "radical colloquy," more eye-opening than most undergraduates can imagine (he described the pleasure of seeing a young mind, given to speculation but inclined to reverence at classic texts, discover that these classic texts are full of explosive ideas) and the source of many of the most incisive and critical ideas today. Pity that younger faculty members nowadays disdain to teach the whole tradition!

The next panelist is also a historian, but teaches at the University of New Hampshire, and gave a report on the state of the state schools. It's a frightening time, not only because of cutbacks but because state legislatures are scaling back collective bargaining rights of state employees (like professors); at least it's not yet come to monitoring emails. She drew attention to the experience of spending time over texts and discussions at the heard of a liberal arts curriculum, and reminded us how rare it is - but also important. It's another privilege, and perhaps a responsibility, for those acquainted with the power of such experiences to to share it with students who could not perhaps imagine that you could spend a life - or even a year - in the realm of ideas, inquiry, study.

The third panelist teaches in education studies at SUNY New Paltz. A Native Alaskan, she explored how social science and liberal arts might help Native peoples rather than harm them. Too much research on indigenous and other marginalized populations focuses on damage, she argued, and can lead to a distorted self-understanding in these populations. Could not one imagine research which helps communities resist understanding themselves as damaged by focusing on desire? Liberal arts could also be of use to Settlers, if they (we!) recognized the historical and structural affinities between settler colonialism and traditional conceptions of the liberal arts - and transformed or transcended them. Suppose we understood land as knowledge rather than property, and recognized human traditions as sovereign rather than insisting on a project of "inclusion"? In words which named some of the issues I've been grappling with in my Aboriginal Australia course, she proposed a new mission for the liberal arts: "teaching the settler to be indigenous." Wow!

The next speaker is an anthropologist at Wesleyan, and came to Lang from India. She sees the liberal arts as under serious threat from a neoliberal takeover of the univeristy, though in this situation the liberal arts are as important as ever in teaching us to question received categories - from "diversity" to "globalization" to "human rights" to "citizenship." Unfortunately, the most interesting work on these fronts takes place in interdisciplinary work which slips through the cracks of disciplined universities, and which often takes forms - blogs, performances - which universities don't value. Reflecting back on her time as a student here, she found that many of the most important things she had learned had been learned not in classes but outside them, in teach-ins and sit-ins and demonstrations. Neoliberalism represents a grave threat to a liberal arts which overflows the academic disciplines.

The final speaker is, unlike the others, not a full-time professor. He teaches part-time at our own institution, as part of a career as an advocate for environmental justice. He praised liberal arts as an antidote to the desire for simple, single answers which he finds both in the first year students he teaches and in the environmental justice professionals with whom he works. The advocacy community, he reported, is reluctant to admit doubts, and so is less self-critical than one might hope or expect. It is thus good not only for his studenst but for him, as a professional, to participate in the exploratory, self-revising and open-ended discussions which are the heart of a liberal arts education. Everyone would benefit if we could find ways to open the conversation of the liberal arts to professionals and activists.

I haven't emphasized all the way these reflections - which address and reimagine all the major contexts in which liberal arts fights for survival in our day - resonated with each other; you can connect the dots. But I have to say, I can't remember the last time I heard so many important issues in higher education explored in so generous, critical and visionary a way. I can't imagine a better way for a liberal arts college to pat itself on the back than to assemble a group of alumni like this. (I assembled it, but had no idea how remarkable it would be). Well-done, Lang!

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