Monday, May 19, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Eight

See also: [Part Zero] [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four] [Part Five] [Part Six] [Part Seven]

If we want to claim that liberal arts education is as important as jobs training, it's fair to ask for specifics. Even employers say they want 'critical thinkers', so what's the real distinction in practice? A definitive answer is well beyond my scope here (and beyond my ability to deliver), so I will stick to the single idea under consideration: in what ways does liberal arts education, as typically practiced in private colleges, inculcate Cynicism? It's easiest for the moment to take the (straw man) position that jobs training does nothing in this regard, but we can revisit that later.

At first glance, the picture isn't very encouraging. Cynicism, you'll recall, is a lived philosophy, not given to theory. The academy is deeply steeped in theory, and for the most part asks students to demonstrate accomplishment by writing things down. There are exceptions: labs and performances, visual arts, practica and internships, travel, and so on. Compare this list to Henry A. Giroux's recent op-ed "Noam Chomsky and the Public Intellectual in Turbulent Times," where he writes:
Chomsky is fiercely critical of fashionable conservative and liberal attempts to divorce intellectual activities from politics and is quite frank in his notion that education both in and out of institutional schooling should be involved in the practice of freedom and not just the pursuit of truth.
On higher education, Chomsky has been arguing since the '60s that in a healthy society, universities must press the claims for economic and social justice and that any education that matters must not merely be critical but also subversive.
Criticism leans on (little-c) cynicism, impugning sources of information in order to construct new ones. The deprecation of "pursuit of truth" is particularly biting. The "practice of freedom" and "subversion" require action, and (big-C) Cynicism is a perfect tool for both.

I think that the homeopathic Cynicism in liberal arts experiences are superior to the straw person "jobs training," but it's hard for me to muster much enthusiasm for that argument. Chomsky's charge hits home there. However, as I mentioned before, I think the liberal arts provides a safe haven for students who come to us already subversive, who already want to practice freedom and not just write papers about it.

Internal practice of freedom is the second of the two domains we identified back in Part Two. We can subvert the realm by debasing its coins, but we can also use Cynicism introspectively. Here, the liberal arts education is obviously superior to jobs training. For example, the study of the history and practice of philosophy might be compared to "technology for the mind." Yet, for some reason it is one of the liberal-artsy targets that business newspaper writers find irresistible:
Most college presidents would love to find a practical use for philosophic studies and for the rest of the liberal-arts curriculum. Colleges are expensive. Reading Kant is hard -- and he doesn't seem to be the perfect preparation for a competitive job market. [source:]
The article quoted above is more nuanced than the text above suggests, but the sentiment is one echoed with regard to the study of humanities subjects: how can I convert this into dollars? There is a deep irony here, because the facets of material ambition is richly illustrated in philosophy, literature, art, and history. Yes, we want things. Why? What can we do about it? What are the consequences?

If the realm just needs workers, and the purpose of education is to produce them, there's no advantage over simply employing robots instead. With robots, we can engineer their internal signals so they don't become subversive (Asimov's visions aside). If we want, we can program them to go home after work, drink a beer and watch TV. The point is that if the quality of mind is not a consideration, we don't need people at all. This is the image I attempted to conjure in Part One. The jobs argument is simply defeated by asking "why" until the answers stop coming. If you try the same attack on a humanities-based education, you just get the humanities recapitulated.

Next time: mind-diving to see how Cynicism works inside the head, and how this is a liberal arts thing.

Finally, here's your daily dose of real-world Cynicism: "Cisco CEO warns Obama NSA 'load stations' threaten the entire tech industry."

[Next: Part Nine]

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