The Liberal Arts in Trying Times

The Liberal Arts in Trying Times

Those of us who teach the liberal arts at times feel under siege. Too often we reply to those who challenge our enterprise with arguments that students who major in the liberal arts do well after they graduate, that they have skills that are indeed employable, and that they will make as much money as students in other academic fields.  I agree with all these points, but I believe that in a way, they concede too much to those who criticize what we do, who view historical knowledge in much the same way climate change deniers view climate science.

For we live in strange times.  The President delivered up a word salad in Great Falls, Montana, last week that made him sound positively incoherent. One of his most visibly corrupt cabinet members has resigned, finally, though much of the swamp remains undrained.  In recent weeks, the administration has defended a policy intended to deter immigrants by separating asylum-seeking parents from their small children, some of them still in diapers.  And the President has recently announced his new nominee for the Supreme Court, creating an unbreakable majority capable of rolling back the social advances of the last fifty years.  There is little that is truly conservative in any of this: we are, it seems, facing an unprecedented assault on long-established norms and values, and the republic as we know it is in peril.

I think about all of this as I prepare my syllabus, once again, for the course in Western Humanities I regularly teach here at Geneseo, a course that seems more important now than ever before.

Western Humanities at Geneseo is a “great books” course, divided into two halves.  We used to require that students take both halves, but changing fashions and declining resources have resulted in the difficult decision to pare that requirement down to one course.  My students will read, in this order, the following:

Sophocles, Antigone

Thucydides, The Peloponessian War

Plato, The Republic

Cicero, The Republic

Virgil, The Aeneid

The Holy Bible, (Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Isaiah, Matthew, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans)

Augustine, Confessions

Aquinas, Treatise on Law

More, Utopia

and Shakespeare, Hamlet.

 

“Classic” books, all of them.  They are weighty and important.  They speak to our current crisis. I cannot help but teach the course with that crisis in mind.  You see, I don’t teach HUMN I as a history course, even though I am a historian.  Rather, I hope to encourage the students to take what they read from these classics and engage with the present.  These writers asked difficult questions about law, society, justice, and how we are to live with one another.  We struggle with these questions still.

When Antigone, speaking truth to power, tells her uncle Creon, the tyrant, that there is a law higher than that of kings, I encourage students to consider their own experiences in the face of injustice.  What must one do?  What can one do? Aquinas, of course, wrestled with the question of whether an unjust law is law, and how and when one might oppose it.  The Attorney-General of the United States, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, has, like his slave-holding and segregationist forebears, trotted out Paul’s letter to the Romans to urge obedience to authority, a passage in the Bible that has been used by the apostles of injustice to quiet discontent for centuries.  Students will read these passages, but also the rest of Paul’s letter, the words Mr. Sessions chooses to ignore.  Justice, Power, and Human Nature: that is the subtitle to the edition of Thucydides I use in class.  Those three concepts run through all of the readings, weaving them together.  But also compassion and love for all–that’s there too, an ideal expressed most clearly when the students get to the readings from the Christian tradition.

It is hard to see much justice in the country today.  The men and women who lead the government too often fail to use their power to do good.  We have seen in the President’s conduct some of the worst of human nature, a man out of balance, and dominated, in Plato’s conception, by the appetitive part of his soul.  He unapologetically uses the highest office in the land to enrich himself and his children.  And with the president’s violent fantasies, his disturbing admiration for vicious dictators, not to mention more open and virulent expressions of racism than we have seen in years, and the caging of immigrant children and their separation from the adults in their lives, compassion seems in short supply.  The Republicans dismiss their critics as “snowflakes,” but all that really means is that they have no understanding or appreciation of empathy.

I can imagine what some of you reading this might say. Stick to the texts.  No reason to politicize these works.  It is not your job to indoctrinate students, especially with leftist propaganda. I suggest that you read these books, honestly and with an open mind, before you say that.  The students understand quite quickly that these books raise fundamental questions about justice, about how we are to live meaningful lives in community with others, which we still struggle to answer.  These texts are inherently political.  Read  in Thucydides his descriptions of the viciousness of civil war:  students see clearly the danger of propaganda, or what can follow from words losing their meaning.  The Greek authors the students read each spoke out in their own way against tyrants and demagogues, but also against the ordinary people who enabled tyrants to seize power or who allowed themselves to be seduced by the demagogue’s empty but angry rhetoric. When the President tells us how much he admires the North Korean dictator, and how he would love to receive the same respect from his people, the relevance of these texts is clear.

My students, like students before them, struggle with Plato. They find The Republic a difficult read.  I get that. Many of them find Plato’s ideas repellent, and for good reason.  Sometimes students can’t get past their revulsion.  At a minimum, then, I tell them to look at Socrates, through whom Plato speaks. Look at his style of thought and dialogue, I tell them.  He speaks. He asks questions. He listens and he responds.  He engages in a dialogue.  And out of that process of questioning emerges understanding and wisdom.  It is a beautiful thing that students do not see modeled enough.  It can be tough to ask questions, to challenge authority. But these texts, as well, ask us to overcome our fears, and state quite clearly at times that our only hope is to engage, to ask questions, to be relentless.  We need to hold the powerful to account.  We must always remember that tyrants give up nothing voluntarily, that we must confront injustice in every instance, and that our rulers are fallible human beings.  When they show cowardice, or an unwillingness to do what is needed, we have not only the right but the obligation to hold them to account.  It is our job as scholars and students.  It is our job as informed citizens.

We are told not to politicize our teaching.  Present the facts, but do not present left wing propaganda.  If you are in my line of work, you will hear it again and again. We need to push back against this. The classics force us to look at the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be.  The solutions they offer might seem worse than the cure (I’m looking at you, Plato) or impractical, as in the Utopian model of eliminating money, but the authors of these texts knew that their ideas were provocative.  They wrote to challenge their audiences, to challenge us.  What do you owe your fellow citizens?  What do you believe is important, they asked us, and why? What are your ideals? If you see a gap between your ideals and your reality, what do you propose to do about it?  How will you, in Isaiah’s words, “Learn to practice what is good; seek justice, alleviate oppression, defend orphans in court, and plead the widow’s case”?  What will you do for the poor, the anguished, the caged child? What, to you, is worth fighting for?

Western Humanities teaches students that citizenship is active, not passive, and it places demands upon them to act in an informed manner, in their own interest to be sure, but also for the good of the whole.  We who teach in this field need to make that point clear.  We need to stop apologizing for the liberal arts, or play our opponents’ game by asserting that students with liberal arts degrees are indeed employable.  The liberal arts, becoming wise and becoming informed–all of this is essential for meaningful and effective citizenship, and it is the strength and quality of citizens upon which the republic most relies.

 

 

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