What is a liberal art: Elizabeth Stone on the vocation vs. vocational in higher education

This summer I’m working sporadically on what I hope will turn in to a paper on Critical Vocationalism for the NEMLA session that I hope will be draw some substantial proposals for next year’s conference in Harrisburg. Trying to get my brain around exactly what Gerald Graff and Paul Jay might mean by Critical Vocationalism since they leave the term underdefined in their own advocacy for the idea as a new defense for the humanities and the liberal art. To that end I read Elizabeth Stone’s essay on the conflict between vocation and vocationalism published a few years back in the Chronicle. I’m struck by the fact of how we seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, with nothing really advancing or changing in our discourse about the liberal arts in general and the humanities specifically, with the possible exception that we must now lament that the rate of debt our students are carrying has more than doubled in a decade.

Stone’s essay does point out some dimensions of the problem that I do think are important to keep trying to talk about. For instance, she points out that we are not just having an enrollment crisis in the liberal arts, we are having a crisis of definition. What are the liberal arts and why are they that instead of something else. For Stone:

<blockquote>So, platonically speaking, I don’t really know what a liberal art is (although I know it’s not auto mechanics), because there seems to be no single characteristic — old, new, theoretical, vocational, quantitative, qualitative, a matter of content, a matter of perspective — common to all liberal arts.

In practice, then, a liberal art is a little like obscenity. We faculty members know it when we see it, even if we can’t quite define it. But there isn’t anything approaching consensus. Because I’m a parent — of one son with a new B.A. and another who’s now a freshman at a liberal-arts college — I’ve seen more than my share of college catalogs over the past half-dozen years. All of them assert the value of the liberal arts, but at some colleges that includes computer science, industrial design, physical education, and even engineering.

If you are a pragmatist, as I tend to be in my weaker moments, this could strike you as merely a self-serving argumentative move. Since “liberal arts” tends to be defined differently in different periods of history and even in different institutional contexts, they must not really be anything at all. In my own College the Humanities–traditional and sometimes sole remaining bastion of the liberal arts–are defined to include not only Philosophy, History, and English (uncontroversial), but also Religion (unconventional but still uncontroversial), Biblical studies and Film production ( a number of raised eyebrows) and programs like Public Relations, Christian Ministries, and Chinese Business and Spanish Business (pandemonium). The Platonist suggests that if there is no essence that unites these disparate fields then there is no there there, no thing that we can call the liberal arts as opposed to any other thing.

I’m not really interested in answering this question, though I will say I am more interested in Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances than in Plato’s forms. What Stone makes clear is that in the absence of any defining essence, the liberal arts largely define themselves by what they are against or what they are not–a version of Aquinas’s theological via negativa for defining God only by saying what God is not, just as most of us build our identities by aversion to our evil others. That evil other for the liberal arts is usually vocationalism. Over and against our money grubbing brethren interested in mere vocationalism we posit the higher order values of vocation, of calling, of transcendent value, or at least of critical thinking.

The problem with this according to Stone is that we don’t have to probe very deeply beneath the skin of what we call the liberal arts to discover an always already fallen vocationalism in who we are and what we do.

<blockquote>Since it’s people like me who are often seen fretting that the liberal arts are being waylaid by the thugs of Mammon, I think it’s time that people like me acknowledged our own dirty little secret. I’ll go first and admit that I, for one, have an unseemly number of vocational courses in my undergraduate past, and the reason is that those courses were directly related to a job I had my eye on: I was a teenage English major, in training to be an English professor.

Stone’s suggestion here strikes me as having two different meanings. First many of our liberal arts disciplines have had vocational ends in some sense, even if that sense was never fully articulated and endlessly deferred. Aquinas’s notion that the liberal arts are things studied for their own sake nevertheless raises the question of why something studied for its own sake should be a required course of study in a society or a seminary. We must admit that the study of most disciplines of the liberal arts have been and were specifically conceived of as appropriate training for young men in order to prepare them for positions of leadership. To be sure, the “higher order” issues of character and spiritual formation have always been around, but young men were explicitly required to pursue studies in these fields in order to prepare for something, specifically to occupy adult roles of leadership as the elites of particular Western Societies. Moreover, some liberal arts as we now conceive of them were not even designed for Elites. My own discipline of English was understood and came in to the academy in England first and foremost as an appropriate course of study in what would have been the equivalent of British community colleges, educational schools for the working classes and for women, even while English was looked down upon by the more cultured classes. So we turn our face away from vocationalism almost like those afraid to recognize their kinship with the adulterated masses.

Also, it seems to me that Stone is suggesting that we ought to recognize that we have increasingly organized our liberal arts curricula around professional (and so vocational) ideals. We have tended for the past few decades to imagine undergraduate education at its best as preparing students for potential graduate study, and have valued most those students who looked just like us, could talk just like us, and wanted to prepare to be just like us. We have accepted a vocational model of education common to the research universities and the professional schools and baptized it in the name of the liberal arts. This fact is why so much of the discussion of a crisis in the humanities is preoccupied with a crisis of graduate students not getting jobs. That is actually a symptom of a much larger crisis that we cannot fully imagine a larger social purpose that doesn’t rely on our self-replication.

What, I wonder, would an education in the liberal arts look like that took it as its explicit task to better prepare students for participation as informed citizens AND as informed workers outside the world of academe. In other words, an education that took as its explicit purpose to produce workers who were not like and do not aspire to be like us. This might be a baseline for critical vocationalism

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Patrick J. Deneen on the WalMart-ification of Higher Education

Patrick Deneen at the Chronicle Review has a persuasive case to make that the educational and economic thrust of higher education is toward bigger is better, and that mass produced standardization is being preferred over local educational cultures, with the result that “local cultures”–i.e. smaller mid-range colleges of almost every ilk, are being squeezed out of the educational system in the same way that family farms have been squeezed out by Monsanto and the local hardware store has been squeezed out by Home Depot.

Colleges and universities are like the once-ubiquitous department stores in every city—Filene’s in Boston, G. Fox in Hartford, Woodward & Lothrop in Washington—which, while enjoying distinct locations and histories, became increasingly similar. When consumers grew to value uniformity over a local market culture, those local stores were susceptible to the challenge from a truly universal competitor that could offer the same wares, produced cheaply, at low, low prices. Those stores are all now out of business. MOOCs are the Wal-Mart of higher education.

Perhaps most interesting in Deneen’s anlysis is his general sense that faculty are complicit in this process. MOOCs are the logical out come of an educational system that produces faculty interested in narrowly conceived academic specialities and with more allegiance to their disciplines than to the institutions and local cultures that support their existence.

Deneen mostly predicts that the Walmartification of higher education will continue unabated. Smaller institutions that simply try to replicate the standard model of education will inevitably be destroyed by an economy of scale. However, Daneen finds hope in the possible revival of local “artisinal” educational models that emphasize the uniqueness of a local institution in its immediate geographical setting.

Think of Providence or Belmont Abbey among Roman Catholic institutions, or St. Olaf or Baylor among Protestant ones—all rightly anticipating that nondescript and indistinguishable institutions will be easy victims of the logic of standardization. This artisanal direction requires hiring faculty who expressly share a commitment to the institutional mission and attracting students who seek a distinctive education. Consider Hillsdale College, with its traditionalist emphasis on core curriculum and Western civilization, and a growing number of institutions that combine a liberal-arts education with some training in “trades” or manual labor, such as Deep Springs College, in California. (Try to teach baling hay via MOOC.)

I think there’s something to this. I’m not sure I agree with the example of Baylor, but I do agree that institutions–or programs within larger institutions–that have a strong shared distinctive quality or cultural identity that can be communicated effectively are going to be more likely players in the future than those that try a version of me-tooism. There will always be a larger and cheaper version of what you are offering, and so playing that game is likely to mean you are inevitably swallowed by the sharks you swim with.

Nevertheless, Deneen doesn’t give much guidance for how smaller institutions might get there. Distinctive “artisanal” educational cultures can’t be built up overnight through a PR department. They usually develop over decades. In addition to the schools that Daneen mentions (Side note but I’m interested in how many of them are religious schools), I think of places like Warren Wilson College with their integration of work and standard academics, or Bennington College with its work terms and open curriculum, or EverGreen State College with its emphasis on an integrated environmentalism in an open curriculum. These were all places my son applied to for College and I think he applied precisely because they had this “artisinal” educational outlook that resisted a standardized model of education. (He will attend Bennington in 2014 after a gap year). All of these places struggle, but they might have a fighting chance of enduring precisely because they choose to be different and distinctive rather than struggling to be distinguished amongst the mass that are offering more or less the same thing.

But these places and others like them didn’t develop their “family farm” versions of higher education at the drop of the hat. It’s unclear how a local educational culture develops where one doesn’t exist. How do they begin? How are they imagined? Why do they endure? How can you get one? Any ideas?