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In Conversation With: In Defense of the Liberal Arts

In Conversation With is our series responding to pieces in the national media. Today, we’re looking at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report to the U.S. Congress, “The Heart of the Matter,” which has been reported on by The New York Times, the PBS NewsHour, and other outlets.  

World Columbian Exposition: Liberal Arts Building, Chicago, 1893. Brooklyn Museum Archives.

World Columbian Exposition: Liberal Arts Building, Chicago, 1893. Brooklyn Museum Archives.

There are many metaphors for the importance of the liberal arts. Some, used in “The Heart of the Matter,” are that of a map or GPS (it tells us where we’re going); others are of a bridge, connecting us to those on the other side. More creative metaphors might be that of a palette, as the humanities offer us the spectrum of possibilities for expressing the human experience; a pantry, for storing the herbs and wisdom of the past; a compost pile, recombining the decayed thoughts of yesteryear in order to grow new thoughts. You get the picture.

Yet the gift of the humanities, more succinctly, is the gift of metaphor itself. The liberal arts enable us to grasp the importance and understanding of metaphor in a variety of forms, from the historical to the artistic and anthropological. Through these varied disciplines, we begin to understand that why the human species is addicted to image and substitution. As Michael Pollan writes about cooking in Cooked: A History of Natural Transformation,  “It may also be that, quite apart from any specific references one food makes to another, it is the very allusiveness of cooked food that appeals to us, as indeed that same quality does in poetry or music or art. We gravitate toward complexity and metaphor, it seems… specifically, sensory information that, like metaphor, points us away from the here and now.”

The gift of the humanities is the gift of metaphor, and in metaphor, a kind of magic or medicine that is easy and fatal to ignore.

When we ignore the importance of metaphor and its corresponding metaphysics, we become captive to our own constructed paradigm. We lose the map. We break the GPS. We reduce our actions to blind reactivity, unable to truly understand the stimuli that move us.

David Brooks, another of the commission’s authors and the subject of a Gaudy love letter, wrote in April 2011, “Even the hardest of the sciences depend on a foundation of metaphors. To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called ‘pedestrian poetry’.”

I have a personal connection to the liberal arts. I grew up on a classical education diet, fed Greek myths in early elementary school, followed by Roman histories, Renaissance poetry, modern novels. My parents took me to harp lessons and art museums, encouraged me to read the newspaper and to study Latin. I arrived at my liberal arts college and promptly majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. I didn’t think too much about employment, figuring I’d go to graduate school and become a professor because I had never loved anything as much as I loved Renaissance poetry. While at Wellesley, I got a lot of Renaissance poetry but I studied other things as well: political philosophy, Bronze Age Aegean archaeology, modern Indian literature, astronomy and the novels of George Eliot.

What did I learn? I learned that love, academically speaking, does not have to be exclusive to be real. I learned that there are infinite perspectives on the world but not all of them are equal; to determine which are worthwhile, you have to dig in and ask questions and follow the argument. I learned that a “career” is a regression line drawn much later in history, and that it is a fallacy to think that one’s self is either original or alone. I was able to learn these things because of many factors outside of my control: my parents’ jobs and philosophy of education, the admissions process at an elite college and corresponding financial aid, the kindness of teachers, the ability to speed-read. Yet, because of the innate self-evaluation embedded in the education, my liberal arts experience taught me not to take my privileges and rights for granted. Instead, this gift was given so I serve others better.

For me, the discussion about the importance and urgency of the humanities is not academic; it’s personal. As John Lithgow addressed on the News Hour last night, it is almost impossible to escape the personal while discussing the humanities because that is precisely what it is: a study of what makes us persons, of what makes us individuals, of what makes us human.

The challenges are real. So are the consequences of inaction. “The Heart of the Matter” outlines both the challenges and the consequences, and offers many real and worthwhile suggestions for addressing the situation. From creating a “Culture Corps” to help communities understand the importance of the liberal arts, to setting aside national funds to aid more graduate students in the humanities, to embracing public-private partnerships in the K-12 classroom to offer a wider variety of studies: all of these initiatives sound promising.

Here at Gaudy, we take seriously our responsibility as a member of the media and as an entity invested in promoting thoughtful, open public discourse for the better health of the U.S. and the world. We will search for ways that we can contribute to the renewal of the liberal arts on this blog and in the real world (watching extra West Wing episodes for inspiration, no doubt). We will search for the right metaphors to articulate just how passionate we are about this cause, because we are passionate about metaphors, the liberal arts, and the full study of being human. – GCL 

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