You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running. This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out. Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.
First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week. The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis. And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science. So, yay Liberal Arts.
Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.
1) The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences. This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”. Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts. In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences. For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”. I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me. Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.
2) The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”. This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts. It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).
3) The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis. First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested. In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on. Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.
The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces. The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair. Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.
Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid. My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been. Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here. Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.
Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Lost, a goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education. Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates. It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).
I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders. The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing. But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak. Time for better arguments.