By Jonathan B. Imber
In 2008, when all the writing was on the wall but the wall was still believed to be surmountable, the various strategies to rescue the nation were largely about putting more money into the economy. Now, up against the wall, the strategy is about taking it out. That counter-movement has begun to reveal a few things that strike us all as very unpleasant, regardless of which political side we may take. Because public and private universities are beholden to very different kinds of constituencies, it is particularly painful to watch, for example, as Harvard recovers from its losses with cuts that are more akin to losing a little weight than losing a limb, while at the same time such public universities as the University of Las Vegas at Nevada struggle with whether to retain some departments in the liberal arts, including philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and women's studies.
It is easy to see how a triumphal politics on the left or the right can weigh in on all this. In Harvard's case, it has been more publicly embarrassing than fiscally consequential that some of its more ambitious programs have had to be scaled back or delayed, including a large development project in the sciences in nearby Allston. But Lawrence Summers, who has returned to Harvard after his stint in the Obama administration, is now feted in the pages of The Boston Globe as a popular and inspiring teacher. This follows his earlier departure as President of Harvard for making remarks confirming that no university administrator should ever risk high position for the sake of personal integrity and candor.
Tenure Is Likely at Stake
Summers’s public rehabilitation in Boston is one-part Obama and another-part giving up the leadership reins at Harvard. What really got him into trouble in 2006, quite apart from his open-mind, was his alleged “autocratic management style.” This was the characterization that stuck with him as his faculty colleagues took him down in an avalanche of whispers to the newspapers. This strikes me as a very strange kind of criticism. All economists and many administrators are autocratic, and thank goodness for that. I take autocratic to mean that at least the economists regularly speak truth to idiocy, not just to power (which sometimes may be idiotic and far worse, e.g., Gadhafi). For his candor, much less than his beliefs, Summers discovered that many faculty today would rather be led into the abyss by a critic rather than a defender of meritocracy. About his colleagues, he noted, “One of the things about actually having responsibility for decisions is it induces a greater recognition of uncertainty than many academics have.’’ You might say at Harvard as at other wealthy institutions, the faculty can afford to criticize the success of some who don’t live up to their expectations of high-mindedness and sophistication, all the while defending their right to do so. This is well and fine, but it comes at some cost to how faculty themselves are publicly perceived and regarded.
The University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) is a case in point. Here the perfect storm of state-funding, fiscal crisis, and public perceptions has set off a controversy over who gets thrown from the boat first. For UNLV, this is not about a diet, it may very well be about amputation. Back in Boston, in a local high-brow magazine, Boston Review, the cleverly titled “Budgetary Hemlock” recounted the latest struggles at UNLV. Todd Edward Jones, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at UNLV, wrote a sensible and enlightened defense of why philosophy departments should not be abolished in higher education as a matter of principle. And he is correct. One problem that arises when defending matters on principle is that choices which must be made do not always easily conform to principle. In fact, because the revocation of tenure is likely at stake in the closing of an entire department or program, the loss must be calculated for budget purposes as a loss of that department rather than any specific individual (unless that person lacks tenure). Sometimes a few are saved by the magical transfer to another department. Outside academia, the principles are different enough to suggest why very few show much sympathy for what is now happening within academia.
In the case of philosophy at least, a robust defense of its centrality to longstanding internal understandings of the liberal arts has been made least of all to a nation long suspicious of anything that smacks of being less than practical. Philosophy is deemed a luxury, an expense that can be forgone in difficult times. The practical arts have changed over the decades. Once contrasted mainly to the fine arts, the term has taken on a much broader meaning, more specific to the pursuit of a practical career through higher learning. UNLV has extraordinarily fine programs in business and hotel management, both appearing to be at some distance from the traditional idea of the liberal arts. These are the kinds of programs that define our contemporary understanding of practical arts. What is difficult to square is how profoundly at odds these two arts may be and for no good reason other than the larger history in which their differences became causes for mutual contempt.
Why Are Liberal Arts Liberating?
It is worth thinking for a moment what is at stake in this contempt. Defenders of the practical arts avoid in principle the idea that any subject should be difficult to explain to more than a handful of insiders. Within the liberal arts are specialized languages and theories that are linked most often not to esoteric realms of thought but to ideas impossible to communicate to all but a few. If this were a matter of advanced physics, we would cheerfully acknowledge both our lack of preparation and likely inability to grasp such ideas well, if at all. But if this is a matter of how to read Shakespeare or how to understand government, the problem of understanding is quite different. What is taught in liberal arts curricula is liberating only in the sense that it challenges tradition, or undermines confidence in belief, or situates truth in contexts that make it unknowable. I do not mean to defend dogma or to diminish the importance of reason but rather to put both in the perspective of the greatest philosophical question of all: how to live. Consider Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, a meditation on “inactivism,” not idleness, but genuine reflection on the meaning of life. Acknowledging the necessity always of the practical arts, but away from them, the liberal arts have in the past stood not for the cultivation of leaders, not for the embracing of differences, not for simple rehearsals of the larger world’s problems, not for simply being informed, but instead for the cultivation of leisure in the formation of character able to concentrate carefully on well established cultural inheritances. And it is, not to put too fine a point on it, the practical arts that have provided the material inheritance which affords us leisure to learn and think, the basis of culture. What else can the endowments of our wealthiest institutions be called other than the fruits of the practical arts?
It is easy from the vantage point of the liberal arts to look down with contempt at the practical arts, at the ambition of students to pursue careers, and at one’s colleagues who seek constructive ways to link liberal learning with living an honorable and prosperous life. Within our public institutions today the contrast could not be starker between the necessary and the luxurious. My contention here is that the wealthiest private institutions are filled with complaints the public finds preposterous, and the public institutions, far more beholden to that public are paying the price. This is a different kind of culture war, one that by all accounts should hold all private institutions responsible for explaining why they ought not be regarded as anything more than exclusive country clubs with no mission greater than taking shots at the heathens at the gates. The admonition, “Physician Heal Thyself” applies equally to professors in the liberal arts who are well advised to take seriously what justifications they have to give for why the liberal arts should exist at all.
Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.