Tuesday, April 17, 2018

“The central values of liberal arts education as presently conceived — creativity and critical thinking, originality and individuality — are all sail and no ballast”—Eric Bennett


“…Now that we have a culture of higher education in which business studies dominate; now that we face legislatures blind to the value of the liberal arts; now that we behold in the toxic briskness of the four-hour news cycle a president and party that share our disregard for expertise while making a travesty of our aversion to power, the consequences of our disavowal of expertise are becoming clear. The liquidation of literary authority partakes of a climate in which all expertise has been liquidated. In such a climate, nothing stands against demagoguery. What could?

“…The humanities were once upon a time a laboratory for experiments in shared interpretation. They have become, like politics — and, in fact, as politics — aggressively individualistic and resolutely anti-historical.

“…For going on 50 years, professors in the humanities have striven to play a political role in the American project. Almost without exception, this has involved attacking the establishment. As harmful as institutionalized power can be, as imperfect as even the most just foundations inevitably appear, they are, as it turns out, all we’ve got. Never has a citizen been so grateful for institutions — for functioning courts, for a professionalized FBI, for a factually painstaking CBO or GAO — as since November 2016.

“Even the most devoted relativist cannot behold Fox News or Breitbart and not regard these media outlets as propagandistic in the most flagrant sense. Eisenhower would have balked. Promoting conspiracy theories, granting vile charisma a national platform, amplifying peccadillos into crimes and reducing crimes to peccadillos, they embody everything that literary studies was meant, once, to defend against — not through talking politics, but by exercising modes of expression slow enough to inoculate against such flimsy thinking. Yet the editorial logic of right-wing media resembles closely the default position of many recent books and dissertations in literary studies: The true story is always the oppositional story, the cry from outside. The righteous are those who sift the shadows of the monolith to undermine it in defense of some notion of freedom.

“In the second decade of the 21st century, the longstanding professorial disinclination to distinguish better from worse does not inspire confidence. The danger of being too exclusive, which the canon once was, pales before the danger of refusing to judge. In 2011, Louis Menand observed that "few people think that … in the matter of what kind of art people enjoy or admire, the fate of the republic is somehow at stake." The Apprentice signifies once and for all the hubris of such blitheness.

“The only way to battle, with real hope of meaningful reform, against populist nationalism is to affirm alternative forms of commonality. Far and away the greatest challenge for scholars in the 21st century will be figuring out how to do this work and also how to reclaim the influence that they voluntarily, and with the best of intentions, ceded. That influence will depend on expertise, and that expertise, for anybody in the humanities, will derive from a profound and generous understanding of the past.

“Seventy years ago, the architects of a new world order got much wrong, for which the last two generations have relentlessly taken them to task. But they also tried to moor the American future in the best of our national traditions. They preserved and expanded the welfare state, scoured the 19th century for a democratic canon, balanced global power to forestall another World War, advanced the ethical vocabulary in which the movements for the wide expansion of civil rights unfolded, and sustained enough of a civic consensus to shame a criminal president into resigning. These accomplishments now appear distant dreams.

“For the republic to survive, higher education must emphasize similarity as well as difference, continuity as well as rupture, collective sustenance as well as individualistic emancipation, you as well as me. It must do this without tipping into the old, real, omnipresent dangers of prejudice and bigotry. Liberal academics used to aim to thread that needle. They have long since given up but must try again. The central values of liberal arts education as presently conceived — creativity and critical thinking, originality and individuality — are all sail and no ballast. They might be the qualities of a good tech-sector job applicant or reality-show contestant, but we’re in mortal need of good citizens.”

Eric Bennett is an associate professor of English at Providence College.

For the complete article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem by Eric Bennett, click here.  


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