The Humanities: Aristotle in the Sheets, but Xenophon on the Streets

Another essay on the Crisis of the Humanities*

“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”

“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant, Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20

Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a thing riffing on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s rather weak think piece proposing asking whether or not certain majors should and could be saved. In the midst of dismissing the proposals that would combine some conventional majors with newer skills, Bruni writes. “And I worry that there’s a false promise being made.” False promise? The commentary that follows fails both to put the history of the university and the liberal arts into any kind of context and to consider what cultural forces there are that have created this crisis in the first place.

I had three or four acquaintances email me this article during the day Sunday. I started tweeting about it and began from the “false promise”. Here’s an expansion on those comments.

The problem at the center of Bruni’s argument is the false premise that education is for work. Or, deeper, that work and employment are the way we should value human lives.

At its core, the liberal arts are the subjects deemed by ancient authors like Seneca to be “worthy of a free person”. For ancient Romans and Greeks, this meant grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy (and sometimes other subjects as well). During the middle ages, these subjects were split into groups of three and four: the quadrivium (artes reales: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) followed the trivium (artes sermocinales: grammar, logic and rhetoric). And the development of these systems go back farther to Plato and Pre-socratic philosophers. (To be fair, Plato was only interested in certain kinds of people having the full education.)

These seven subjects were seen as the necessary preparation for work in philosophy or theology. And they were also considered separate from the practical arts (which include medicine and architecture). These frameworks of learning were not about employment–the studia humanitatis was about creating a flourishing mind, about creating a path or framework for wisdom (or what we today might consider enlightenment.)

“Chance, and occasionally choice, assigns a country to a person; but each person must attain the good arts and virtue for himself; and these things ought to be chosen far ahead of all others which can be attained by human effort. For riches, glory, and pleasures are fleeting, and perish; but the practice and reward of virtue remains sound and eternal.”

casus, nonnumquam electio, dat homini patriam; bonas autem artes atque ipsam virtutem sibi ipsi unusquisque comparat, quae quidem prae omnibus quae possunt ab hominibus studio quaeri exoptanda est. Nam opes, gloria, voluptates, fluxae res sunt et caducae; habitus autem fructusque virtutum perstat integer atque aeternus manet. Pier Paolo Vergerio’s De ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis

Who gets to have a liberal arts education? Who is free? Through most of history this enlightenment has been available to a precious small number of people–the rich, the male, the aristocratic, and in the West, the race group in power. During the 20th century and following industrialization, another promise emerged: our increased productivity as a nation would allow many others to pursue an education to put them on this path.

One of the great rhetorical tricks of the 20th century politics is the lie that campuses–and those evil professors–corrupted generations of students with their liberal ideas. This is and was hogwash. While most professors are center-left and there are a few genuine radicals in our midst, most of us are from comfortable backgrounds and are too institutionalized by the time we get in the classroom to pose any serious threat.

The radicalization came from students from different classes and different parts of the country coming together and having a break from the drudgery of a life of work to talk to others, to learn from them, to study the past and the present and to have time to think about what life is for.

The multiple crises in education are in part manufactured to keep subsequent generations from this opportunity. As my friend Joe Goodkin mentioned in twitter, this ‘crisis’ and conversation as articulated by Bruni is at the outset problematic because it is a crisis that has been manufactured in certain states and institutions by legislation and divestment from public education. Wisconsin and Illinois, where some of his examples come from, have seen some of the worst excesses of ideological intervention in higher education.

In much the same way, parents today put overwhelming pressure on their students to study something which ‘has bread.’

Emi ergo nunc puero aliquot libra rubricata, quia volo illum ad domusionem aliquid de iure gustare. Habet haec res panem. Petronius Sat. 46

But the fact is that schools are seeing lower enrollments this year and some of the bedrock programs in the humanities—English and History—have seen steadily dropping enrollments over the past decade. I won’t claim that this is not because students aren’t interested in these subjects—I cannot read minds—but I do suspect that constant attacks on the humanities by politicians and employers accompanied by a rise in the net cost of education (increasing tuition plus flat-lining incomes) are to blame.

And, money still makes the world go around: we do not pay teachers of the humanities well at any level, but we have been eliminating their positions at terrible rates. Student interest in these subjects is curbed by parental anxiety about their cost. Educations are investments that expect future returns in clear and projectable financial rubrics.

“Almost eighty years ago, in their joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP and AAC&U emphasized that “institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good” and that “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” The free search for truth and its free exposition in the liberal arts are essential components of a functioning democracy. ” Joint AACU-AAUP Statement on the Value of Liberal Educiation

But the humanities did not cause this crisis. Theory did not kill the humanities. Full stop. When we make arguments like Bruni’s, however, we are preparing to wave the white flag. In all this hand-wringing over the cost of college, skills for employers, etc, little is said about the pernicious devaluing of human existence through the commodification of all existence. Erik has already written an great essay on the instrumental use of antiquity.

I do not want to leave the impression that the rising cost of college is acceptable. There is something funny that happens when educators try to talk about the cost of education. Because we are paid by the very institutions that charge too much, we are complicit in an overpriced system and this makes us hypocrites unqualified to speak on the topic. We did not create this system. We are not enriched by this system. The vast majority of people who teach college classes struggle to pay their bills. And the system is run with different ends in mind: corporate branding, millions spent on athletic programs that fail to bring in money, rising administrative salaries, a push to publish over teaching–the problems are manifold and interconnected but, I dare say, money and status connects them all.

“Those who have spoken Latin and have used it correctly do not give the word humanitas the meaning which it commonly acquires, one equivalent to Greek philanthropia, indicating a certain kindly disposition and well-wishing toward all men indiscriminately. No, in correct use, humanitas means what the Greeks call paideia, what we have called education and training in the noble arts—these are the arts through which, when men learn them, they become most humanized.”

Qui verba Latina fecerunt quique his probe usi sunt, “humanitatem” non id esse voluerunt, quod volgus existimat quodque a Graecis philanthropia dicitur et significat dexteritatem quandam benivolentiamque erga omnis homines promiscam, sed “humanitatem” appellaverunt id propemodum, quod Graeci paideian vocant, nos eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artis dicimus. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.17

The problem is that education has been conceptually transferred from a public good back to a luxury item. The divestment in education has paralleled the collapsing of our commitment to social welfare. And, I suspect, this is a legacy of a backlash against civil rights and greater diversity and inclusion: think only of the rise of the anti-tax, anti-welfare centrists in the 1980s. The result of this will be an incremental return to the notion and the reality that the higher order intellectual pursuits are only for certain people.

The influence of race on our public divestment should not be ignored, but what I want to focus on here is the dehumanization of everyone that has occurred at the same time. Here is where Bruni’s argument and those like it miss the mark most severely. The entire conversation reduces the value of human beings to their salary potential. Our worth can only be communicated in respect to how we can serve corporations. And I don’t want you to think I mean a symbolic dehumanization. Our educational system is helping to support the creation of a new aristocracy. We are in the process of offering most new students a mere technical education for modern wage-servitude. Art and literature? These are for the leisure class.

“When he saw a massive parade of gold and silver carried about, Socrates said: “How much there is I do not desire!”

Socrates, in pompa cum magnavis auri argentique ferretur: Quam multa non desidero! inquit.  Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 5.91

So here is where we need to open our eyes to the dilution of content and form that occurs when we talk about humanities as job training. At a fundamental level, the corporatist attack on the humanities is an attempt to eliminate the very disciplines that have the best potential to question the basic assumptions of late-stage capitalism. History, philosophy, English, Classics—these disciplines are those that widen our spirits and open our minds to other ways of being, to other lives worth living.

When we as humanists argue that studying the humanities is great for job training we have already lost because this is a lie (and I am not the first classicist to say so). The humanities are great for helping us think deeply about what it means to be alive, to be a person, to exist in a continuum of human beings.

The fashions of the hour may start a movement, not in the best direction, which may go on until the path is difficult to retrace. The humanities, if they cannot prevent such a movement, can do something to temper and counteract it ; because they appeal to permanent things, to the instinct for beauty in human nature, and to the emotions ; and in any one who is at all susceptible to their influence they develop a literary conscience. R. C. Jebb, Humanism in Education

The lie is even more dangerous because it sets people up for severe disappointment. Real, sustained study in the humanities will probably not make you a happy computer programming drone or a satisfied serf of the nation of Amazon or a willing bannerman of our tech-lords of sacred commerce. Let’s stop with the BS and be bold: we need the humanities to save us from a future in which we are little more than temporary parts for a meaningless consumption machine.

“A lack of education is the mother of all suffering”

᾿Απαιδευσία πάντων τῶν παθῶν μήτηρ, Stobaeus, Attributed to Pythagoras (2.23.96)

The fight for the humanities in public education needs to be carried on at every level. If we only get training for jobs we will always be too harried and ignorant to fight for collective rights, to question widening inequality, and to live lives of meaning beyond consumption and production of consumables. I dare say that we already see the effect of over a generation of divestment in public good in recent elections and in the impoverished nature of our public discourse.

So, let’s thank Mr. Bruni for getting me riled up, but why not use that pulpit to challenge readers to think? Why not take a risk and speak some truth? “Aristotle’s death” is weak clickbait for a crisis of our culture’s soul. We can–and must–do better.

“For have we not seen how great nor how many things there are, but our sight lays open a path of investigation and lays the bedrock of truth so that our inquiry may move from well-known things to hidden and discover something older than the world itself…”

Nec enim omnia nec tanta visimus quanta sunt, sed acies nostra aperit sibi investigandi viam et fundamenta vero iacit, ut inquisitio transeat ex apertis in obscura et aliquid ipso mundo inveniat antiquius…Seneca, De Otio 5

Image result for ancient greek sisyphus
Time to defend the humanities. Today.

*Note: The title for this essay is meaningless clickbait. In essence, Aristotle is more theoretical and abstract, while Xenophon is more pragmatic. Both figures are genre-making polymaths from the city of Athens. But one is definitely considered sexier than the other. I chose this title in imitation of Bruni’s “Aristotle’s…Death” title. His piece says nothing about Aristotle and only lazily uses the author’s name as a metonym for humanistic education.


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