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August 2019 Handout

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Franciscan University Presents “Virtue and Culture” With guest, Dr. Thomas Hibbs The Liberating Power of the Humanities By Thomas Hibbs In contemporary…
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Franciscan University Presents “Virtue and Culture” With guest, Dr. Thomas Hibbs The Liberating Power of the Humanities By Thomas Hibbs In contemporary discussions of liberal education and the humanities, the appeal to the role of liberal education in inculcating useful, transferrable skills is increasingly prominent. Institutions of higher learning tout the critical thinking skills of students exposed to the humanities. Major national documents on the humanities have come to highlight these skills as well. The most recent national report, The Heart of the Matter (2013), fails to mention beauty, virtue, truth, ethics, morality, goodness, religion, justice, or wisdom, while the term skills, critical thinking and communication skills, surfaces forty times. It seems as though even the leading defenders of the humanities have caved to the increasingly instrumentalist conception of all American higher education. Another problem is that the conception of skills itself has become increasingly parochial and undeveloped. Yet any number of classic statements of the indispensable role of the humanities in a fully human education rest precisely upon a rich conception of skills and their liberating power. In what follows I want briefly to rehearse some reasons for, and consequences of, the rise of the skills-acquisition defense of the humanities and some criticisms of this conception. Then I will turn to two quite distinct but overlapping defenses of the role of humanistic skills in the liberation of human souls from conditions of being bound: one from George Orwell and the other from Frederick Douglass. The ascendancy of skills and recent critiques There are various reasons for the ascendancy of an instrumental, skill-based case for liberal education. There is in modern culture and especially in American culture an accent on useful knowledge, a suspicion of mere book learning, and a desire to demonstrate the productivity of whatever arena of activity to which citizens devote themselves. Alexis de Tocqueville observed almost two hundred years ago that middle- class Americans think of education as nothing but the achievement of the techno- vocational competencies required of free beings who work, and that, in his view, there was almost no higher education, properly speaking, in our country. Tocqueville's observation, arguably, has become truer over time. Certainly the philosophic pragmatism of John Dewey continues to be the dominant philosophy of education, and it is reinforced by the judgments of the experts who inhabit our foundations and our government. In recent years, both Republican and Democratic politicians have denigrated liberal education. Senator Marco Rubio suggested that young persons would be better off learning the trade of welding than they would be devoting themselves to the study of philosophy. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama dismissed the study of art history as a waste of time and money. Obama's Department of Education moved steadily in the direction of grading universities on how well their graduates do in finding employment and has demanded, following the lead of Margaret Spellings, President George W. Bush's secretary of education, that all instruction be validated through measurable student outcomes relevant for the marketplace. Add to these tendencies the elevated costs of higher education, tumescent student loan debt, and a tighter job market, it is not surprising that the accent would increasingly fall on the economically productive or instrumental results of education. The STEM disciplines and business courses would seem to suit the rational calculus of parents wanting to diminish the chances that their children will return home at the end four or five or six years in college only to move from one part-time job to another while reoccupying their childhood bedroom. In such a context, any case for the humanities would naturally bend in the direction of displaying their utility in acquiring skills or job- ready competencies. There's also, of course, the humanities' own decline in self- confidence, which flows from any clear and unifying understanding of what the humanities are, even or especially among their leading proponents. In some measure, touting their pragmatic value for the marketplace fills a void that comes with the disappearance of any other clear conception of their purpose. And professors of English or philosophy are sometimes relieved to learn that what they do can be validated as facilitating "critical thinking" or "effective communication." They are remarkably oblivious to the fact that they may be digging their own graves, given that those skills or competencies can so obviously be acquired without all that historical or philosophical baggage. In recent years, the consequences of this lack of vision about the proper ends of distinctively higher education have come under attack from faculty and administrators in elite universities. In the early twenty-first century, in America's most highly ranked universities, institutions renowned across the globe, there is growing unease. Having become increasingly skeptical about knowledge itself, they now find themselves unprepared to educate youth for the common good. Consider, for example, a recent book by Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, a central contention of which is the dismal judgment that the ideal of liberal education lives on in name only.[1] A crucial period of time in the lives of young men and women is being squandered by universities that increasingly treat students as consumers oriented to achievement in whatever goals they happen to have. The laissez faire attitude of students—abetted by the consumer sensitivity of careerist administrators—conspires with the narrow interests of research- oriented professors; both groups of "stake holders" in higher education are happy to be left alone to pursue personal goals. Professors who do not see teaching as a "mission or noble calling" are ill equipped not just to "shape the lives" of students but even to initiate them into "the life of the mind."[2] Far from helping students become adults, the university extends their childhood—a point Lewis makes with respect to what he calls "the artificial and infantilizing sexual world" of college life.[3] In a similar vein, Anthony T. Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, in Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, writes that, under the influence of misguided conceptions of pluralism and secularism and the pressure of the research ideal, universities have largely given up on the question "What is living for?" Basing his argument on his experience teaching in the Directed Studies Program, an optional, integrated core curriculum for undergraduates, Kronman argues that a "disciplined survey of the answers to the question 'what is living for?' supplied by great artists and writers of the past can be helpful to students" in thinking about the purpose of their own lives.[4] To bring faculty on board for this pedagogical project will mean giving them "relief from the inhibitions of the research ideal." It will involve fostering an antiutilitarian sense of wonder as the beginning and the end of education.[5] Related criticisms of higher education can be found in the occasional essays of Andrew Delbanco. He acknowledges and praises "the liberalizing trajectory of higher education" in the second half of the twentieth century that has opened doors for many who were previously shut out because of race, ethnicity, or gender. It has also allowed for the founding of many small religious liberal arts colleges. As in every human story, Delbanco adds, "there is loss as well as gain." The loss, as he sees it, concerns the question "what students ought to learn" once they get to college" or even "why they are going at all." In nearly a quarter century of teaching at Harvard and Columbia, Delbanco writes, "I have discovered that the question of what undergraduate education should be all about is almost taboo." He goes on to note that the greatest freedom is allotted to those few American students who attend a traditional liberal arts college, where "intellectual, social, and sexual freedom" is assumed to be an inalienable right. Delbanco wonders whether "behind the commitment to student freedom is a certain institutional pusillanimity"—a market-based fear of how requirements of any sort, anywhere on campus, might shrink the applicant pool and thus trigger a decline in the university ranking in the U.S. News and World Report's annual evaluation of colleges.[6] Anticipating many of the recent observations about the flaws in contemporary universities, David Brooks's essay "The Organization Kid" finds much to admire in contemporary students at Princeton University. Brooks finds industrious, personable, responsible, and articulate students, whose primary vocabulary is that of happiness understood in terms of achievement. This generation of students "doesn't see itself as a lost generation or a radical generation or a beatnik generation or even a Reaganite generation. They have relatively little generational consciousness." They are "not trying to buck the system; they're trying to climb it."[7] But these same students, who rarely discuss intellectual matters outside of class, become tongue-tied when it comes to the question of what "makes for a virtuous life." In response to the question of what builds character, they cite the honor code forbidding cheating or policies intended to reduce drinking. Indeed, in discussions of ethical matters, they move rapidly in the direction of legislative issues and adopt a legalistic or therapeutic vocabulary. Brooks detects in students a longing for something more than what universities supply in the way of services and paths to career success. Students are not merely interested in money or success narrowly conceived. In his book On Paradise Drive, Brooks puts the problem in terms of a question: How do you organize your accumulations so that life does not become just one damn merit badge after another, a series of resume notches without a point? Students hunger for the solution. But that is the one subject on which the authorities are strangely silent.[8] There is a certain irony in the fact that some of the complaints for which Allan Bloom was once reviled are now common in higher education. The original title of Alan Bloom's surprisingly successful 1987 The Closing of the American Mind was Souls without Longing. Lambasted after its initial release, it can now be said to have anticipated a host of recent writings decrying the state of higher education. From the concerns over faculty specialization, the desuetude of a common core curriculum, the dangers of dogmatic multiculturalism, to hand-wringing about the exclusively careerist ambitions of students and the sexual libertinism embodied in what the novelist Tom Wolfe calls "hooking up," all these and more are part of Bloom's diagnosis of contemporary academic pusillanimity. But Bloom's book is most notable for the way it weaves together contemporary observations with a complex genealogical account of modernity and America. It is also a straightforward plea for a revival of the enduring longings of the soul, and of liberal education as addressing that longing and issuing in a wisdom about fundamental human problems. Even within the realm of skills, the focus is attenuated and narrow. There is little effort made to distinguish between different sorts of skills that the humanities might foster. One area in which one might have expected something of a convergence between traditional humanities and the cultivation of skills has to do with the learning of foreign languages, classical and modern. Language acquisition clearly fosters a number of crucial capacities: analysis and interpretation, the immersion in an alien culture, and the appreciation of the difficulties of translating across time and culture. The lack of any serious attention to language acquisition is striking especially given that perhaps the second most prominent justification of the humanities in contemporary universities has to with fitting students for a globalized world. The skills-acquisition defenses, more importantly, tend to ignore the specific content of the disciplines of inquiry. They fail to make a direct, substantive case for humanistic study. Here we face a phenomenon in modern civilization that is wider and deeper than the field of education: the disregarding of ends and the fascination with means. The latter are, as Jacques Maritain observed in his book Education at the Crossroads (1942), "so good, we lose sight of the end."[9] Attending to the capacities inculcated in liberal education might also lead one to think that the very use of the term skills is inadequate and that something like the traditional notion of "virtues" is necessary to capture the phenomena of formation that occurs in these disciplines. Virtues form character, in its intellectual, moral, aesthetic, or religious dimensions, in determinate ways. They are also connected to specific visions of the goods that they nourish. By contrast, mere skills float free of any particular content, either in the character of the one possessing the skill or in the subject matter over which they are exercised. But surely the importance and relevance of this or that skill depends on some understanding of who each of us is and what we are supposed to do as beings fitted to accept the moral responsibility that comes with living in the truth. If skills are as free- floating as the pragmatists say, if they can be simply applied by flexible role players in any context, then it really is true that the study of philosophy or history or literature is nothing more than an optional lifestyle choice, a hobby. Stanley Fish has recently made the case that the chief goal of higher education, including the humanities, is "the mastery of intellectual and scholarly skills."[10] He adds, "If you're not in the pursuit-of-truth business, you shouldn't be in a university." Developing any account of the authentic pursuit of the truth, including, of course, the indispensable skills, cannot avoid articulating a set of virtues. Meanwhile, the philosopher Bernard Williams has made the case for the virtues of truth and truthfulness as central to any humanities education. Williams focuses especially on the virtue of accuracy, a "passion for getting things right."[11] Fish himself cites John Henry Newman, who argued that the aim of a liberal education was a "philosophical habit of mind," a habit that enabled one to see things whole and to discern relations among the parts of knowledge. Orwell on skills and self-governance The acquisition of skills and the inculcation of intellectual virtue and, indirectly at least, of certain virtues of moral character are rent asunder in contemporary conversations. And so the utility of the humanities is disconnected from their content. One noteworthy problem with a document like The Heart of the Matter is that its defense of the humanities fails to draw any inspiration from the humanities, and that means, of course, that the readers of the document would never likely be inspired to study the humanities. It turns out, however, that the humanities are the best place to go to discover the proper role of skills in forming a whole human being of competence and character. In his midcentury essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell, who knew a thing or two about the ways in which modern citizens could be bound, had this to say about the decline of our public discourse: The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.[12] Orwell highlights for us the danger of a kind of passivity with respect to the common language, the way in which a certain laziness with language atrophies the mind and paralyzes thought. The advice he offers to writers applies equally to thinkers and speakers, that is, to citizens: A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?[13] These habits of thinking, speaking, and writing are more than mere rhetorical ornaments or academic niceties. These are the virtues of inquiry, discovery, and articulation, virtues traditionally inculcated in the trivium, the arts of discourse, essential to a liberal education. Without such habits, Orwell explains, we will remain bound by the ready-made will of public opinion: But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.[14] Orwell's accent on politics and on the good of what we would be tempted to call critical thinking skills in curbing the decline of public language might seem to provide only an instrumental defense of the humanities. But it is much more than that. First, there is something more than mere critical thinking method operative in what Orwell recommends to writers. There is a non-rule-governed capacity to appraise arguments, diction, and modes of expression—a facility of language and thought that no mere critical thinking skill can guarantee. Second, the political and social payoff is not the creation of productive workers helping to grow the economy. Instead, the vision of politics here presupposes that citizens exercise self-governance, especially in matters of judgment. It underscores an important and underappreciated link between specific conceptions of education and politics, on the one hand, and visions of citizenship, on the other. Orwell here offers a concrete application of Alexis de Tocqueville's thesis from the end of Democracy in America about the threat, not of traditional slavery, which he thought was doomed to extinction, but of a new shape of servitude, which does not seem like servitude really because we willingly submit and because the source of the tyranny is impersonal. There is no single person or class of people to which we are subordinate, and the instrument of servitude comes to us as something offered to make life easier. In fact, for Tocqueville, there is a hidden alliance between centralized government and individualism. They are mirror images of one another; each tends to give birth to its opposite. How are we to understand the relationship? Accordin
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