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Column: The Countercultural Liberal Arts

For the Valley News
Published: 9/24/2016 10:07:23 PM
Modified: 9/25/2016 12:34:30 AM

Although I attended a small liberal arts college, it wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior years that I began to appreciate the importance of the liberal arts. I was working as an intern that summer on Capitol Hill. My aspiration at that juncture in my life was to become a professional photographer, so I made an appointment with the assistant head of photography at National Geographic.

I showed him my portfolio, and he offered some appreciative comments. Then I asked, “What do you look for in a photographer?” His answer surprised me. “I’m looking for someone with a liberal arts education,” he said. “I can teach anyone how to operate a camera. I can’t teach them what to photograph. A liberal arts education provides that.”

Later that same year, at a college extension program across the country in Oregon, I began to savor the delights of the life of the mind, immersing myself, timidly at first, in the world of ideas. That discovery changed my life, setting me on a course toward graduate school and a lifetime of scholarship and writing, both for academic and general audiences.

Now, 40 years after graduating from college, I wouldn’t change a thing.

I offer that anecdote not to be self-aggrandizing or self-congratulatory — and certainly not to denigrate other vocations. The world truly would be a sorry place if it were populated only with art history majors. I tell that story because I worry that too few students open themselves to the liberal arts and to the delights of free-ranging intellectual engagement.

The liberal arts trace their history to the medieval study of the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of general grammar, formal logic and classical rhetoric; quadrivium included geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. Together, these comprised the seven liberal arts taught in medieval monasteries, cathedral schools and universities.

Knowledge tends to be cumulative, adapting to changing times and circumstances. Today, the Encyclopædia Britannica defines the term as, “college or university curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum.”

We live in an age when students feel driven to prepare for professions. I understand the impulse, especially in times of economic uncertainty. Sometimes the pressure comes from parents, and again it’s understandable. Tuition is expensive, so the temptation is to turn education into a contract, a business arrangement: I’ll pay you to educate my daughter, and in return you’ll train her to earn that money back as a professional.

But that transactional approach cheapens education; it turns students into clients or customers. College should be a time of self-discovery and intellectual adventure. I tell incoming students to treat Dartmouth as an intellectual smorgasbord: Graze widely, sample the offerings, and be wary of too much of a good thing; eating only the desserts or the mashed potatoes does not make for a balanced diet.

Too many undergraduates arrive at Dartmouth intent on majoring in government or economics, their eyes fixed on Washington or Wall Street. Aside from a few distributive requirements in other fields, their focus is fixed — although I hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with studying government or economics.

How can we ensure that more students open themselves to the expansive possibilities of the liberal arts? That question is roiling campuses around the country these days. Task forces proliferate everywhere, bemoaning the “crisis in the humanities”; at Dartmouth, I’ve been serving for the past year on a Humanities Strategy Group under the wise direction of Barbara Will, associate dean for Arts and Humanities.

Part of the answer, I think, boils down simply to communications. For public affairs offices, it’s a lot sexier to publicize the latest advance in the fight against cancer or a new economic model than a study of Nepalese tribal identity or another book on Beowulf. In addition, the gestation period for many projects in the humanities often extends over many years. But it must also be said that those of us in the liberal arts should be more productive as scholars. As I’ve said many times (making not a few enemies on campus in doing so), given our teaching schedule, Dartmouth should be leading the league in scholarship.

Another way to encourage students to embark on the adventure of liberal arts is to provide role models, both in and out of the classroom. College should be a place where students can “watch” professors think. Class time and office hours and happenstance conversations on campus should be occasions for the lively exchange of ideas, where assumptions are called into question and provocative questions framed. In addition, professors should never be afraid to say they don’t know or don’t have an answer to a specific question.

Finally, I believe that the greatest appeal of a liberal arts education lies in its countercultural character. We live in an age of instant communications: email, texting, Facebook, Instagram. The liberal arts, on the other hand, values reflection, discernment and critical thinking. The culture prizes celebrity and too often rewards vulgarity; the counterculture of liberal arts appreciates substance and beauty. The merciless presidential campaign we are currently enduring is less a contest of ideas than a cage match; those with a liberal arts education expect better, even if the chances are slim.

In the second decade of the 21st century, a liberal arts education is profoundly countercultural. It stands against the vapidity of the broader society. It recognizes the lessons of history and the value of eloquence. It looks for subtlety and understands complexity, refusing to settle for bromides or simple, formulaic answers. It takes a capacious attitude toward diversity, appreciates other cultures and is always looking to expand its intellectual horizons.

A world consisting only of English or anthropology majors would be calamitous. In this age of specialization and vocational focus, however, a few more students immersed in the countercultural act of pursuing a liberal arts education would be a very good thing.

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. The advance copy of his latest book, Evangelicalism in America, arrived last week.




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