On the Pursuit of Liberal Arts

At her Convocation address last week, President Martin offered a spirited defense of the liberal arts, noting, “As institutions we are charged with protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression, not merely for the good of individual scholars and scientists or the good of individual institutions, but for the good of society as a whole.” It is a quote that appears to make quite a lot of sense: The mission of our intellectual project stretches beyond the confines of the collective of peer institutions known as small, liberal arts colleges.

She then went on, “Colleges and universities are among the only institutions whose mission is defined by that commitment.” Perhaps this is just a reiteration of the above point, emphasizing the scarcity of institutions that still engage in the liberal arts mission. But it also risks being read in a self-congratulatory way, normatively calling for the reproduction of liberal arts institutions as sites, specifically the only sites, where academic freedom thrives or should be allowed to thrive. In doing so, it denies voice to the myriad ways in which liberal artistry is practiced outside the university.

I used to think that the best method to (attempt to) quantify — if one would want to quantify — the intellectual curiosity cultivated at an undergraduate college was to consider its Ph.D. production rate, i.e. what percent of any graduating class goes on to earn Ph.D.s. This measure offers a strong defense of liberal arts colleges: Reed, Swarthmore, Carleton and Grinnell rank high on those lists. Between 2003 and 2012, Amherst’s Ph.D. production rate was 12.8 percent, ranking 17th nationwide among all baccalaureate-granting institutions.

However, that measurement reifies the college’s maintenance of its own monopoly on the free pursuit of knowledge, excluding all the students who choose to engage with and live the liberal arts outside the academy. In other words, if we use this statistic as a measure of Amherst’s effectiveness at instilling the liberal arts in its students, we only consider those students who practice the liberal arts — ask the open question of intellectual thought and freedom — inside the university’s ivory tower. Our definition of liberal artists becomes those whom the public respects for being scholars and denounces for being eggheads.

Methodological critiques aside, using this as a metric for the strength of a college’s intellectual community circumscribes what the liberal arts do inside themselves: reproducing professors and researchers who in turn prepare more professors and researchers. But, why does this pose a problem? Surely we students of the liberal arts shouldn’t cynically condemn ourselves for being named elitists, rejecting the rare and unique freedoms we enjoy during our four years here?

Well, we shouldn’t. But, we should be incredibly weary of, if not openly resist, the university. As academia has become increasingly corporatized, colleges have become concerned with protecting themselves, ensuring that their public image is pristine. Professors are burdened with more administrative work while losing their authority to pursue study wherever it takes them. Students are increasingly coddled with extracurricular demands, risk waivers and post-graduate propaganda, much of which subdues their own intellectual curiosities and freedoms. And, most forgotten and most needed to be said, staff face increasing job precariousness. Yet, what survives all of this is the institution itself. Amherst survives. Amherst will continue to live up to its motto, “Terras Irradient.” We may not.

In focusing on the “vocation” of the academic, we create a narrative whereby intellectual thought risks being seen as a job, which some students can choose to go into when they are older to attempt to reach the slivers of freedom left in the university. In rightly admiring those who chose the academic profession, we forget at times what I noted above: The university is increasingly disciplinary, unfree and illiberal. And more importantly, a rigorous defense of the university as itself will kill the liberal arts.

To radically fulfill President Martin’s defense of the liberal arts, we must rupture the monopoly on knowledge held within spaces like Amherst and consider new public sites where we can engage with thought and action. Consider the California prison where inmates read about Bobby Sands and start coordinated hunger strikes; the labor union, where Jean Paul Sartre addressed workers (instead of university students); the streets, where Occupy Wall Street protestors listened to Judith Butler and Cornel West.

If we risk romanticizing the university and the experiences of those who enter it (more than half of whom are exploited as expendable labor as adjuncts), we also disregard the ways in which students practice liberal artistry beyond its confines. By beyond the university, I don’t just mean thinking about how one might apply the skills learned here to their profession. I don’t mean getting paid to “think critically.” I want us to think about those students who live and go on to live the liberal arts — in how they go on to form friendships, raise children, and act politically — recognize when they and their communities are unfree and live a form of freedom.

Let’s bring this back to Amherst: The “liberal arts must be defended” argument invokes a way of life where liberal artistry is a duty or vocation from which we can temporarily divorce ourselves — we can think and act critically some of the time, within the walls of the seminar room, while then adopting ways of living complicit in and uncritical of the very things we spend copious amounts of time and labor critiquing. In other words, we, or at least some of us, talk about racism, class inequality and rape culture in the classroom and even develop insightful and poignant commentaries on those topics, but then fail to recognize how we ourselves perpetuate those oppressions.

Many of us have tried to master the art of thinking, thinking without acting, without changing the ethical, political and social ways we live. However, is that not precisely what liberal artistry is about, a freeing not only in how we think but also how we act, from the ways in which we are unfree? Or perhaps, to ask it better, are the liberal arts only about thought and not action, theory and not praxis? Does it permit us to remain neutral, never having to decide to change anything about what we do because of the truths we’ve discovered?

President Martin’s declaration that the purpose of the liberal arts is “the pursuit of truth wherever it leads,” is an invitation, not to cynically despair the truths we discover, but to lead ourselves to new truth, to change and reimagine the unjust structures, institutions, and phenomena that we really only want to study and not live. It is furthermore an invitation to rupture the boundaries which the almost mechanical reproduction of this institution creates: between those who go into academia and those who don’t; between the classroom as a space for serious thought and the dorm as a place for fun and play; between our lives as thinkers and our thoughts as life.