About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts. I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here. But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.
At one level, “we need better stories” is always true. Good communication is always worthwhile. But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light. It’s arrogant, frankly. More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).
Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy. Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”). At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful. Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.
Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills, they are about “fuzzy skills”. They are about ambiguity. They are about pattern recognition. They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut. Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.
And you know what? Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*. The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”. They are not. Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question. The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense).
Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing. But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology- that allows us to make competent guesses. Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs. When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.
I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities. The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them. Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed. No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do. Design for fuzzy skills. Incorporate them. Measure them.
And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality. That would be real and welcome progress.
The “liberal” in “liberal arts” derives from the latin root for “free,” but not the way that most people think. The medieval Liberal Arts were not free in the sense that they promoted freedom or free thinking, but rather in the sense that it was the education that “free” people (i.e., the rich) chose to pursue. The term connotes conspicuous consumption rather than freedom.
Because Liberal Arts – and in particular the humanities – were always the preserve of the elite, they have retained an aura of providing people with “higher skills”: creativity, critical thinking, cultural awareness, problem solving, communication skills, and so forth. But in the modern university, this puts teachers in the Liberal Arts in a bit of an anomalous position. Think about this for a bit: we get engineers to teach engineering, doctors to teach medicine. But we leave creativity, critical thinking and problem solving to… classicists? English teachers? It is not belittling these disciplines in the slightest to ask why it is that we think that people trained in these areas have some gifts for imparting creativity, etc., that professors trained in other disciplines do not.
Obviously, humanities disciplines do inculcate these skills to some extent. The work of Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, bleak as it generally is, makes it pretty clear that students in these disciplines seem to have better educational outcomes in terms of cognitive development. Whether that’s due to something innate in the disciplines or something innate about the kinds of young people who enrol in these courses is a bit of an open question. At best, you can say that creativity, critical thinking, etc., are poorly-understood epiphenomena of the humanities.
I’m fairly sure we can do better than this. Let’s say there is something innate in humanities disciplines that promote critical thinking, etc. If what we care about is the outcomes, rather than mastery of the disciplines themselves, shouldn’t we design curricula specifically around these outcomes? Shouldn’t professors in these disciplines receive instruction at some point in how to develop these skills?
Of course, the problem is that at Canadian institutions most of our Arts faculties offer students smorgasboards of courses rather than curricula per se. And many professors would be offended at the notion that they are primarily in the business of teaching transferable skills rather than teaching mastery of a discipline. Yet, justifying the Arts in terms of precisely these transferable skills has become routine.
It raises an inevitable question: if that’s the justification for the liberal arts and humanities, is the professoriate in these fields actually fit for purpose?
One of the really interesting mini-trends in global higher education these days is the recent spread of Liberal Arts colleges into parts of the world where there is no tradition of such institutions. Singapore has invited Yale to set up a Liberal Arts college at National University Singapore, with the stated aim of creating an Asian model of Liberal Arts. In Europe, the newly-created Amsterdam University College has brought a new and very structured approach to Liberal Arts. And, as we reported in our inaugural issue of the Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor, Aseshi University in Ghana was recently established to try to bring a new high-quality professional education with a strong moral dimension.
What’s somewhat interesting about this development is that these new institutions are justified primarily on instrumental grounds: that Liberal Arts provides certain skills, that these skills are advantageous for the economy, etc. This kind of rhetoric isn’t entirely absent from the Liberal Arts discourse in North America, but more often over here, such programs are justified in terms of their social and moral benefits (see Martha Nussbaum, ad infinitum).
It’s important to note that the term “Liberal Arts” isn’t interpreted consistently around the world. The original Liberal Arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) was at least as much about science as it was about what we know call “the arts.” Some programs have kept this designation; certainly, in the United States there is a greater tendency to include the social sciences and sciences in the mix, and the new Amsterdam University College is very explicit in its focus on math, statistics and science. In Canada, on the other hand, Liberal Arts has drifted in meaning so that it is sometimes indistinguishable from the humanities.
Steve Jobs, famously, praised the humanities as a source of inspiration and meaning – but if you read the full quote, he was praising the value of the marriage of the humanities and technology. Globally, the Liberal Arts are starting to take up the engagement with science and technology. But in North American and especially Canada, there’s a tendency for the humanities to et squeamish about engaging with science and technology, because (to paraphrase Louis Menand) there is a misperception that there’s some inherent conflict between things that are practical and things that are true.
The Liberal Arts have a lot to offer the 21st century. But as the new Liberal Arts curricula in Europe, Asia and Africa are showing, the hang-ups about purity and engaging with the practical have simply got to go.
If there is one thing that drives me nuts about defenders of the humanities, it’s their insistence on nailing their argument to an appeal to “historic values” which simply don’t exist.
Take a recent essay pro-Liberal Arts essay in the National Post by Simon Fraser University professor Patrick Keeney, who writes, for instance, that liberal education is an “ideal that goes back to the Greeks.” That simply isn’t correct. Liberal education is a medieval invention – and it wasn’t all that liberal in a modern sense either, consisting then of astronomy, music, geometry, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic and grammar. Socrates, if you’ll recall your philosophy 101, kept getting his butt kicked in the marketplace by the sophists, who taught skills that were actually lucrative. Plato may not have liked the sophists – they were of course among the many Athenians who opposed his proto-fascist plans for the place – and painted them in a negative light for all eternity but there’s no question whose services Greeks actually preferred.
Then there’s the predictable yarn about how the historic mission of universities is being “bulldozed in the name of… economic pragmatism” as universities turn into mere “vocational schools.” Leaving aside the scorn for vocational education, this commonly held assumption is similarly at odds with the historical record. The earliest university faculties were entirely professional – law at Bologna, medicine at Salerno, religion at Paris, and so on. Universities founded on liberal education principles were relatively rare until nineteenth century America – a time and place in which universities were arguably at their most elitist.
And then there’s the gall of arguing that governments that are to blame for convincing people that universities ought to have a professional focus. Universities have succeeded at attracting public funds by arguing that they can best create job-ready graduates. That’s always been the trade-off for public funding. There was never an era when governments sough to invest billions so every third teenager in our society can take four years to develop a life of the mind.
As the focus and function of the university continues to evolve, it’s essential that the public discourse about the role of higher education ground itself in accuracy. It shouldn’t be too much to ask defenders of disciplines in the humanities (which includes the discipline of history) who seek – in their professional lives – to uncover truth to actually get their facts right.
To put it another way, if there has been, as Keeney argues, “a widespread drift away from the arts and humanities and toward professional, applied and vocational study,” it is nothing more than a return to the university’s roots.