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Higher Education: The Utility of Uselessness?

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Timothy Burke:

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Redux : Faculty who believe in the liberal arts approach and who think this means that there ought to be some kind of firewall between what students study and what they do in their careers or anything else in their lives after graduation have a growing number of antagonists to contend against, most recently, several conservative governors who have announced that they will push their state’s public university system to eliminate or de-emphasize majors and departments that don’t have direct vocational objectives. I’m one of those faculty. I’m working now on a long essay about why I think a liberal arts approach is still the right thing for most of higher education…

But originally the "liberal arts" had the most direct vocational objectives of all:

Wikipedia: The Liberal Arts: The liberal arts… are those subjects or skills that… were considered essential for a free person… participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service…. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts. During medieval times… these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy…. Together the Trivium and Quadrivium constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum…

From which I deduce:

  • The original "liberal arts" make up a vocational program--an education suitable for some landlord scion who is going to be a player in civic governance.
  • Timothy Burke, Professor of History at Swarthmore, does not teach one of the seven "liberal arts"--and by calling what he teaches.

Which means, I think, that Tim has an upward climb to make in his argument that what he teaches is in some sense a "liberal art", is rightly vocation-free, and should be in some way privileged over other disciplines…

The peculiar thing that I find about arguments like Tim's is that statements like:

Many employers are already convinced that a graduate who can write, speak and think well, who has learned to ask open-ended questions, who can find the tools they need to deal with problems both known and unknown, who knows how to know, is worth far more to them than the graduate who has memorized some rote procedures to perform on preset challenges…. [We need] to tell more specific, concrete or illustrative stories about how almost anything that a liberal arts student studies can have a payoff–sometimes in what that person does directly at work, sometimes in how they approach life and its catalyzing relationship to work. Not as a promise that a particular major has a particular utility, but yes, as a series of assurances of the generativity of liberal arts for the economy, for the society, for the world. Those stories have to be more than vague hand-waving or enigmatic koans in order to give sympathizers something to fight back against the push to reduce higher education to a meanly-imagined vocational core. Even specific vocational training needs something to suggest the unexplored possibilities, the unexamined norms, the reasons why and wherefore, all the more so in a moment of technological and economic disruption where no career or life can be taken for granted or seen as secure…

leaves me with no reason at all to suppose that courses in, say, colonial African material culture do more to teach how to

write, speak and think well… ask open-ended questions… find the tools… to deal with problems both known and unknown… [and] know how to know

than do courses in, say, the rise of Starbucks or the fall of Microsoft or the determinants of real wage growth in nineteenth and twentieth-century America.

Now there is a very powerful argument to be made that students at Swarthmore intending to pursue careers in finance or marketing should be required to take courses in colonial Africa. It is (I) that students need a great deal of practice and experience in dealing with being out of their intellectual comfort zone, that colonial Africa is definitely out of their intellectual comfort zone, and that Swarthmore has a world-class expert to teach it. I am happy to make that argument. But I want it accompanied by Tim Burke making another argument: (II) Let it be noted that those of us who teach marketing or finance or the emergent properties of decentralized economic systems are also teaching what Tim Burke calls a "liberal art", and that we need the same class sizes and teaching support if we are going to do so properly and not degenerate into mere demonstrators of rote procedures to deal with preset challenges.

And I must say that I hear an awful lot of (I) as an argument for not shifting resources across disciplines in response to shifts in demand, but I hear very little of (II) even though increasing pressure to raise class sizes so as not to exclude students degrades the quality of the experience we can offer…