My friend Horace Taft, in his comment to a previous post, drew my attention to this TED video.  In it, Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College, eloquently defends the value of the liberal arts.  She begins with a largely conventional critique of where the liberal arts (really the humanities) has taken a wrong turn and devotes the second half of the talk to explaining what Bennington is doing to restore the humanities to their central place in the curriculum.

Her critique is spot on.  Knowledge is so specialized and fragmented that the Academy is more concerned with creating experts (which, of course, is almost impossible to do within the four years of an undergraduate curriculum) than an educated generalist.  When we stop reading literature with an eye toward its exploration of the human condition and instead only deconstruct it with a highly specialized theoretical structure, she suggests, we lose something, not to mention our students and many of our readers.  We, the members of the academy, mostly have ourselves to blame for the mess we created.

It is at this point that I wonder if Professor Coleman takes a wrong turn, and Bennington with her.  The value of the liberal arts, she claims, is that it is a force for civic engagement and for good.  Leaning on Thomas Jefferson for support, she says that a healthy and thriving democracy depends on an educated citizenry.  Bennington, in turn, has created a program that explicitly weds study of the humanities to civic engagement and service.  The goal is to make a good citizen – albeit in the highly particular way that Bennington imagines such a person.

There is certainly nothing wrong with the Bennington model, although it is not for everyone.  What struck me was the general claim linking study of the humanities to civic society.  Does it hold water?  If everybody had a liberal arts education, would the world be a freer, happier, more peaceful and prosperous place?

I doubt it.  Despite the truly touching anecdote she tells at the beginning of emissaries from the former Soviet Union visiting her to learn more about how more robust liberal arts there could support their fledgling democracy, when not linked to a specific set of values – which someone has to determine – study of the humanities by itself does not lead to “good citizenry.”  In fact, it often leads to very clever, well educated charlatans and demagogues.

When the Greeks began thinking about this, their understanding of the “examined life” was hardly meant to be applied universally.  It was an elite activity.  Similarly, I think, the Renaissance humanists would have been mystified by the idea that links study to civic virtue.  Men of leisure had the ability to study the humanities in order to cultivate their own selves and enhance their own lives.

Study of the liberal arts is not for everyone, and if everyone in our society received such an education we would hardly be the better as a society for it.  The value of such an education, rather, is to be sought in the personal and (ironically) practical — it prepares individuals for high-value careers through inculcating certain habits of mind.  These and other habits of mind add value also to an individual’s experience of the world, but this is not to say (as, in fact, the traditional defenders of the humanities largely do) that life without a humanities education is impoverished.

I support civic virtue and service to the community.  Linking these activities to a liberal arts education, though, strikes me as both elitist and empirically unsupportable.