The Radicalism of the Liberal Arts Tradition

By Lears, Jackson | Academe, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Radicalism of the Liberal Arts Tradition


Lears, Jackson, Academe


Can liberal

education survive

in a university

increasingly

committed to the

ideals of the market,

the corporation,

and

the entrepreneur?

For some time now, critics of American higher education have depicted it as caught up in a cultural war between politically correct leftists inside the university and neoconservative curmudgeons outside it. According to this account, the curmudgeons argue that the pursuit of free intellectual inquiry-the traditional mission of the university-is under unprecedented attack from prissy speech codes and politicized professors unconcerned with older standards of objectivity. The leftists respond that curricula are more diverse, open, and vital than ever before.

This argument obscures more than it clarifies. Contrary to received opinion, the chief threat to intellectual freedom in the academy is not political correctness, though the tyranny of various ideological fashions (right and left) is real, and can be oppressive. The main menace is market-driven managerial influence: the impulse to subject universities to quantitative standards of efficiency and productivity, to turn knowledge into a commodity, to transform open sites of inquiry into corporate research laboratories and job-training centers.

The attempt to turn universities into businesses challenges the conservative understanding of the humanities. If the liberal arts tradition is understood as a worldview, rather than a collection of courses, it poses a radical challenge to the managerial impulse far more radical than self-proclaimed traditionalists like former secretary of education William Bennett realize. If we want to sustain and revitalize our concept of "what the university is for," we need to recognize the radicalism of the liberal arts tradition.

In the early decades of the last century, the great American philosopher William James penned a capacious definition of the liberal arts tradition in his essay "The Social Value of the College-Bred." The gentility of the essay's title belies the radicalism of its implications. This is part of what James had to say: You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.

The sifting of human creations!-nothing less than this is what we ought to mean by the humanities .... Studying in this way, we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time; we acquire standards of the excellent and durable. All our arts and sciences and institutions are but so many quests of perfection . . . and when we see how diverse the types of excellence may be, how various the tests, how flexible the adaptations, we gain a richer sense of what the terms "better" and "worse" may signify in general. Our critical sensibilities grow both more acute and less fanatical .... What the colleges ... should at least try to give us, is a general sense of what, under various disguises, superiority has always signified and may still signify. The feeling for a good human job anywhere, the admiration of the really admirable, the disesteem of what is cheap and trashy and impermanent-this is what we call the critical sense, the sense for ideal values. It is the better part of what men know as wisdom.

A Frame of Mind

James was not talking about creating what we now call "intellectuals," though he uses that word in his essay. He was talking about people who aimed to sustain the capacity for independent thought. Nor was James striking the familiar stance of the threatened humanist in a world of machines. His was not a backward-looking vision. "We must shake the old double reefs out of the canvas," he said, "into the wind and sunshine, and let in every modern subject, sure that any subject will prove humanistic, if its setting be kept only wide enough. …

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