The Liberal Arts and the 21st Century

I recently attended a small conference on the idea of the university and the role of the liberal arts in the 21st century. The conference was thought-provoking and illuminating, especially because it brought together scholars from a range of disciplines and made me acutely aware of my position within the university. At the same time that I found the conference enriching, I was troubled by a common theme at the conference. In identifying and critiquing the various trends of neo-liberalism, a common rejoinder among scholars is a nostalgic defense of the mythic past. At this conference, such nostalgia included a return the to the Trivium, an embrace of Jeremy Bentham’s educational ideas, the need for more public intellectuals, or making the university classroom like the Greek Agora. As a fellow doctoral student noted, we academics (and I include myself here) love “bacon-wrapped” nostalgia.

While an appreciation of the past and the important texts of the “liberal arts” are vital to discussion for the role of the liberal arts in the 21st century, I think the challenge of the future is re-imagining the very frameworks of the “liberal arts.” I am reminded here of the famous debate between Robert Maynard Hutchins and John Dewey in the first part of the 20th century. Hutchins garnered fame as president of University of Chicago when he implemented the Great Books curriculum, believing it to be a more effective form of liberal arts for a democracy. Progressive thinkers like John Dewey, however, believed that the Great Books and other liberal arts traditions rested upon particular assumptions that maintained class distinctions. He explained in 1944 in The American Scholar: “The distinction between ‘liberal’ and ‘useful’ arts is a product of the time when those engaged in industrial production were mechanics and artisans who occupied a servile social status. The meaning attached to the traditional doctrine of liberal arts cannot be understood except in connection with the social fact of division between free men and slaves and serfs and the fact that only the former received an ‘intellectual’ education.”

The maintenance of traditional liberal arts seemed, at least to Dewey, antithetical to American democracy. I find his critique important to consider when discussing the vision of the liberal arts for the 21st century. In some regards, I believe the problem the liberal arts are facing is a direct result of the cloistering of academia, especially the assumed belief that ideas only can emerge through a separation from society. Here I am inspired by the work of Robin D.G. Kelley. In Freedom Dreams, Kelley argues that black radical intellectuals reshaped such ideas as Marxism, Surrealism, Feminism, and other “isms” thought their collective and direct involvement in communities and movements for social change. He writes: “The most powerful, visionary dreams of a new society don’t come from little think tanks of smart people or out of the atomized, individualistic world of consumer capitalism where raging against the status quo is simply the hip thing to do. Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge.”

I put my faith in not rediscovering some lost moment of public intellectualism or reintegrating the beauty of particular texts, but rather in the willingness of scholars and students to step down from academic places and involve themselves in the community as equal partners, willing to learn from the world. It’s not that I believe that important texts play no part – they do – but I am more interested in how the experiences of meetings and day-to-day dialogue can begin to enable humanities scholars and student to imagine a new liberal arts future for the 21st century.

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