How not to defend the liberal arts

Study philosophy if you are bothered by philosophical problems

Spend long enough studying philosophy, and eventually someone — most likely a member of your family — is going to ask, “what are you going to do with that?” It’s a tough question to answer, since philosophy isn’t really something you do something with, like a screwdriver. It’s more like something you just do — like fly fishing. But academic philosophy, like every other department in the university, is in the selling game, trying to attract customers and the money they bring, money that enables you and your colleagues to keep doing philosophy.

And so during my time in academia, I spent a number of days at university fairs, these events in big convention-style halls where you set up a little booth, pile a few texbooks in front of you, and wait for prospective students to wander by. And when they do — parents hovering skeptically in the background — they want to know why they should study philosophy. One year, I remember manning the booth with a fellow grad student, and we had come up with what we thought was a pretty clever sales pitch. “It’s great preparation for law school,” we told our customers. “Think of it as like cross-training for your brain.” etc.

The truth is, neither of us really had two clues why anyone should study philosophy, or what you would do with it. It didn’t really bother us though, since philosophy was interesting, we were young and curious, and the harder, more pressing questions seemed a long way off. But the fact that the best we could do by way of justification for philosophy was its instrumental or technocratic benefits says a lot about our own disciplinary insecurity and the ideological tenor of the times (which, it has to be said, has only intensified over the last decade).

So that’s one bad way of defending philosophy (feel free to substitute your own favoured discipline for “philosophy”). The value of studying philosophy can’t be that it’s a form of preparation for law school, or that it provides a sophisticated critical/analytic training for your brain.

But at the same time, the liberal arts has to be useful in some sense, doesn’t it? I say this because there is a defense of the “squishy subjects” that makes the opposite error, by making their value far too, well, squishy. A case in point is a recent piece by Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution, which was printed in the Wall Street Journal. According to Berkowitz, the true aim of liberal education is to prepare citizens for the proper exercise of freedom. “Education for freedom” or “Education for citizenship” is an old idea; here’s Berkowitz’s version of it:

How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life? How can one pass reasoned judgment on public policy if one is ignorant of the principles of constitutional government, the operation of the market, the impact of society on perception and belief and, not least, the competing opinions about justice to which democracy in America is heir?

This makes me more or less uncomfortable, depending on how we are interpret the thesis. On a “strong” interpretation, Berkowitz comes close to saying that only people who have studied the liberal arts are truly indepedent thinkers and are positioned to judge public policy. At the extreme, only these people are truly citizens. I’ve never really been persuaded by these sorts of arguments, and it strikes me as a dangerous route for the defenders to take by moralizing the study of the liberal arts. It is a commonly held position in academic circles though — more than a few humanities profs console themselves with the thought that even if they aren’t as important or as well paid as the hotshots in the sciences or engineering faculties, at least they are better people.

A weaker version of the thesis says something like the following: A healthy society provides a cadre of intellectuals with the time, space, money, and resources to think deeply and broadly about all sorts of questions. The goal of these inquiries is not “freedom” or “citizenship”, and it certainly isn’t more questions. The answers matter because the questions matter, though their  practicality or application may not be always relevant or obvious. But it is worth having people think and argue about all sorts of things: immigration, equality, justice, voting behaviour, constitutionalism, race, culture, language, class and on and on, because we don’t really know what sort of problems we’ll face as a society.

On this view of things, the liberal arts work sort of the same way as your immune system. Your immune system doesn’t know what specific invasions it will face, so it just generates billions of shapes of antibodies, hoping that one of them will match the relevant antigen. I could go on, except I seem to have arrived at pretty much the same answer given by Paul Wells, in his excellent essay on the subject, which you must read if you haven’t yet.

The upshot: Study philosophy if you are bothered by philosophical problems. Study history if you are interested in problems in history. Etc. If you are lucky, you will have an interesting career. If you are very good and also very lucky, your work will be relevant and useful.

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