Human Nature, cont.

I would like to express appreciation for the comments on my earlier post prompted by Mr. Rummel’s post. This week Paul J. Cella writes “Mass Men” at Tech Central. Reading that and remembering how some comments moved into the utilitarian prompted the following remarks, which do little justice to either the comments or Cella but take the discussion in another direction.

I tend toward Cella’s argument – that the purpose of a good liberal arts education should not be utilitarian. My children are in the process of acquiring—as did their parents–some of the least utilitarian degrees out there and it would be unmotherly to disown them. But as the commentators might note and Newman argues, “though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful.” And the truth is the truth.

Often I am the most irritating of parents asking, What’s it good for? The problem, however, is that I suspect if force fed reality, academics might have to acknowledge the truth they are proselytizing isn’t true. The passions that move us are more complex, interesting, and various than they suppose. And their “truths”, the figures they see in the carpet of experience, are just not there. Other, more heroic and beautiful, more tragic and vulgar, ones are. Of course, in terms of economics, variants of socialism have not proved in the twentieth century to be a very attractive government for the “little people” (for whom the typical academic seems to think he speaks, while couching such discussions in tones that reek of condescension).

For today, let’s talk of human nature–back to the universals, the eternals versus the particular, the transitory. (Okay, I’m a dog that won’t give up its bone, but bear with me). First, approaches to literature that blindly misunderstand human nature (that assume gender is a social construct, that believe in myths of the blank slate and the noble savage, that believe man is only driven by the economic) are of little use to students or businessmen, betray art, and undervalue man. In short, they are neither true nor useful.

We may agree that the truth we derive from the study of the liberal arts (a study that Cardinal Newman, as Cella notes, so beautifully defended) is one kind of truth. The truth derived from what “works” is another. We understand human nature both through experience and culture. We may agree that facing that truth (any truth) is exciting, empowering, and scary. Obscuring it leads us to misunderstand others, literature, ourselves.

For instance, today, my youngest daughter complained of a cw lyric that speaks of “too much of a good thing.” It disturbed her; “too” was bad. It made her feel uneasy because she suspected it hinted at more. I described the heart-breaking scene in which a triumphant Othello walks toward Desdemona, saying he thinks he can never know a greater happiness. My daughter was not surprised to hear of Iago’s aside, that he will make the great instrument that represents their happiness lose its tune, destroying that heavenly harmony that is their love and respect for one another. My daughter is young and hasn’t seen much of the world, she doesn’t especially like literature; she does, however, suspect that our condition is as often tragic as joyous. She recognizes such happiness is only true momentarily and in literature often signals the painful onslaught of the world. She is coming to understand, through art (whether a c/w song or Shakespeare) as well as through her experience, the tragic nature of man. An ideology, a training in the liberal arts, that argues, instead, that Othello and Desdemona are pawns in some twentieth-century (let’s hope not twenty-first century) ideology will give her less to “use” as she grows up, trying to understand human nature, as well as give her a limited, ugly understanding of a great work of art.

While both the utilitarian and the traditional liberal arts education explore many truths, let’s stay with human nature. Liberal arts derives its truth from the head, from logical thought; it tells us about the particular through its general (which is often given through the particular of characterization). Today, it is less successful at teaching those lessons because our educations are less coherent. The skepticism Cella notes is important, but it has led to and then been reinforced by narrow courses (on, say, Ben Hur or Chicago politics from 1890-1910). This specialization in both research and teaching makes academics unwilling (and unable) to see the whole. Eschewing absolutes and guarding their small borders, they have little confidence in broad generalities; their turf battles are Lilliputian. To prop up their senses of self, they go to ideology, an ideology that doesn’t require breadth of sympathy nor an understanding of the virtues and vices we share with mankind. (Certainly not with mankind, they would say, since I am a woman.) So, academics don’t look at truths. (For instance, to flog that dead horse, what is most likely to make man an endangered species – capitalism or communism?) Understanding human nature and facing facts is painful, can cut us through as Thoreau observes. Ideology insulates.

I would argue that literature (the only liberal art about which I know much) is useful in understanding virtue and in understanding human nature, leads us closer to the “good, true and beautiful”. As an undergraduate, I tried to explain to one of my teachers why I wanted to major in English. Because I liked people, I said, then paused. Even then, I was too shrewish for that to be true. People aren’t always all that likeable. But, then, more honestly, well, I admitted, it was because they are fascinating. Of course, I was an adolescent and self-absorbed – it was I, of course, I found fascinating. Today, those on most English faculties would groan and discourage me (if they hadn’t already succeeded in doing just that). In this case some cynicism was justified – it was partially narcissism. Still, I plead, that wasn’t all it was, even then. Early, we intuit something important about literature. It describes human nature.

Human nature can be understood in many ways. Some days, then, I would take my seat at the back of the classroom and cry for the whole hour; human nature, at that age, presented itself in the form of men whose motives weren’t pure and whose charms deceptive. (Or, as much to the point, my understanding of my own nature was faulty and led to some matches that were unlikely to bring either of us much pleasure.) That was experience. But, on other days, I would sit at the edge of my chair, as I tried to understand what Isabel Archer saw in Osmond and why Lydia would pick Wickham. (Or, perhaps, I understood too well, and wanted to learn from their mistakes rather than my own.) But literature broadened my understanding. Sophocles, Shakespeare, George Eliot, William Faulkner – they lead us all to better understand others, ourselves, and maybe, ultimately, some of the great mysteries Mr. Cella discusses. He points to “the good, the true and the beautiful.”

Understanding others is both utilitarian (what makes a good friend, partner, even, dare we say, employee) and is the beginning of understanding of the great truths. Literary criticism seems to be slowly returning to the importance of the universal as it probes the depiction of the “consciousness.” This is thoughtfully discussed in Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel (dedicated to one of the great “character” critics, Malcolm Bradbury). Not surprisingly, he is especially fond of the character-driven nineteenth-century novel. And, implicit in both Bradbury’s and Lodge’s arguments is the assumption that well-rounded characters reflect a value system, are an implicit political statement. These are not the aesthetics of the proletarian novel.

So let’s turn to the utilitarian: Of course, people often begin businesses not understanding others. Their learning curve, however, is usually steep. When Bob Kerrey’s 1992 campaign did not catch on fire he spoke of his restaurant: some dishes he thought would be popular just didn’t sell. He said, you can put the dish out there, but if they don’t buy it, well, they don’t buy it. That’s tough. He accepted his failure with good grace and went back to the Senate. If you have misread human nature then you won’t succeed. Of course, besides customers, the nature of employees and suppliers are important. An entrepreneur who “reads” these correctly wins, but businesses go under. I ran a small business for thirteen years and was about as foolish as anyone could be. But as parts of the business proved profitable, I invested in them; other services lost money; the advertising concentrated on the winners, the losers slowly disappeared. The truth (albeit a mundane one) of the marketplace enforces itself. You have to see what human nature is, you can’t pretend it is something else. (And that is, precisely, why free enterprise is such a good thing—it is designed to meet needs, not to imagine them.)

An entrepreneur who thinks may make observations about the nature of man, he draws lessons from experience. Of course, a successful businessman may intuit what works and what doesn’t, what he is comfortable with and what he isn’t, which of his own desires and needs are universal and which are true of only a few. He needn’t put it into generalizations. His goal is to make money – not to reach some higher truth. So, we don’t go to businessmen to teach us about human nature. We respect them and suspect important truths about human nature lie within their minds. But we look for generalizations to the traditional liberal arts classroom. There is where we are trained to think in abstractions, study history and literature and philosophy over wide swaths of time. Such a scholar should be able to cull the universals, the truths.

Education in the liberal arts, as Mr. Cella observes, is today doing a great disservice to those being educated. He argues that the imagination, the “rightly-ordered intellect” helps us resist “wicked ideas.” He then observes, quite rightly, that “Modern education teaches an ersatz method of treatment, by encouraging students to distrust, not merely the chaff of propaganda, but everything of the wheat, including the grain that is truth. The intellect is not cultivated, it is deprecated; discernment is not encouraged, nor wisdom, nor discrimination. Indiscriminate scornfulness is instead favored.” Of course, I can give examples of such cynicism – characteristic of my better students, ones who have been trained at more sophisticated schools to take more sophisticated stances.

Cella observes that skepticism and relativism may be derived from cowardice. They are easier approaches when knowledge is incomplete – ah, but knowledge is unimportant, pointless, always too partial to be of use. Of course, we know the cynical remarks of an adolescent boy reveal not worldly wisdom but rather his fear of vulnerability – of appearing stupid, of appearing naively passionate, of being wrong. And this is the stance, now, not just of teenagers but of many academics, who appear with an adolescent’s sneer and an adult’s bibliography.

Human nature is true; the tragic human condition is eternal. The religious believe this. But the fact that Pinker’s Blank Slate spends hundreds of pages telling us this says how far we have come from the “givens” of another era. Modern academics argue there are no givens, all is a social construct, but we suspect they are wrong. Our suspicions make Pinker a best seller. He argues against the “ghost in the machine” and then proceeds to tell us he finds the Judao-Christian tradition wise – that those grand tales and lessons embody truths about human nature. His stance is not unlike Benjamin Franklin’s – though when it came to one of the tensest moments during the Constitutional Convention, Franklin asked for a prayer. I’m not going to debate this – I have neither the passion nor the expertise and I’m sure many of you have both. But, I do know both Newman and Pinker seem right about how human nature appears, whatever the cause.

Back to Newman. His powerful argument for a liberal education is tempered by his quite wise observation about human nature: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.” I haven’t read much Newman but have always thought these two arguments are beautiful, side by side. We must educate ourselves and others as rigorously as we can; we are indebted to a great culture and the only way we can repay this gift is to pass it on. It is a good in itself. And it will help us get through life. And we need all the education and experience we can get. We need to remember what man can do from what our culture tells us and what we have seen him do. Because, of course, we also must remember life is short and man is fallible.

9 thoughts on “Human Nature, cont.”

  1. Aood traditional liberal arts education is also good if (1) you plan to go to law school or into medicine or the intelligence arm of the govt (2)your famil;y is wealthy.

  2. Ginny,

    Thank you for joining the chicagoboyz blog. You are a welcome addition.

    Just one man’s observation regarding the purpose of education (or, perhaps more precisely, the formalized “school” subspecies of education). It is possible, I suppose, to recieve a strictly utilitarian education. But outside of some portion of the crafts or trades (what we tend to call a “vocational” or “technical” education) I am not convinced that a utilitarian education has much long term value – most of what one will learn during one’s “schooling” is likely to be severely outdated within a decade or so. The point of education (schooling), it seems to me, is for one to learn how to learn.

    Among many other skills, this requires critical thinking. There are teachers out there who try to lead students toward development of that skill but there are also many who seem to be after getting students to arrive at uncritical acceptance of some ideology. That, to me, seems a sad corruption of “teaching”.

    Just wandering comments. Once again, thank you for your posts – I find them very worthwhile.

  3. I believe that problem a lot of middle working class people face, my friends are in thier situation, is that if your combimed household income is above 80k, then the child gets no help what so over from the government, save a small 10% loan. These people aren’t rich, they live nice, but in no means extravgant. Two cars, 2-3 kids, 1 2week or less vacation/yr. And then asking them to pay 30k/yr out of thier pocket when thier most expensive car is 15k?? Thats really, really tough to do. So when little Jane says she wants to get a undergrad psyc degree or sociology, is that worth a 120k education?? Will she be able to support her self afterward? That is a real ragin question behind “What is it good for?” when the parents have to refinance the house to pay for it.

  4. Andy,

    I could have missed what Ginny was getting at, but I think she was talking about the “value”, in an educational sense, of a liberal arts education rather than the cost of attending a private, liberal arts college.

    What you have identified is, indeed, a problem, but one may recieve a liberal arts education at a public university or college. The cost for attending many private liberal arts colleges (especially those in the more or most selective categories) is, well, astonishing. But I think you’re talking about something Ginny wasn’t (or at least that I wasn’t).

    As a guy about to put a second daughter into a private liberal arts college, however, I am acutely aware of the “sticker shock” of it and the fact that financial aid does not take much account of cost of living between various areas of the country. A family living on either coast or any of the larger metro areas making $80K is not anyting approaching “wealthy” yet the “system” doesn’t seem to have any mechanism for taking that into account.

    For those who might read this and have an interest, here are some suggestions for trying to mitigate and or ammortize the cost of a private liberal arts college:

    – start stashing funds, any funds, any amount, NOW. Yesterday or last year or even before you were ever Married With Children would have been better, but don’t wait until day after tomorrow. Stash till you feel the pain.

    – insist on excellent grades from your children. Do not accept anything but the best they are capable of. There are merit scholarships out there and, if you

    – match the child (and her academic capabilities) and your financial situation to the schools she applies to, she will have better access to merit scholarship money. As a rule of thumb, look at the SAT/ACT scores for the mid-50% of matriculating students for each school. If your child is above the curve (i.e, in the 75th or better percentile) they are more likely to discount the tuition. This is especially true for schools which are trying to improve their academic ranking (attract higher potential students) and/or schools which are trying to achieve better diversity (this is not always racial or ethnic – it includes geography).

    – encourage your child to serve the community. I don’t mean resume building – schools see through that like a pain of clean glass. I mean pick something worthwhile that she enjoys doing and stick with it and serve. Demonstrating leadership in service to the community is even better.

    Just trying to help in case there are some parents of youngsters ready to think about this stuff. If your kid is a junior in HS now and you haven’t thought about it, well, either you or your child is going to be borrowing a whole lot of money.

  5. Well, those of us in fly-over country can add to these comments. Tuition at the land grant universities across the middle of the country are much cheaper. For in-state tuition at our two flagship universities, parents are likely to pay less than $2,000 a semester. Since neither our pocketbooks nor our social aspirations would support (nor want to support) Greek affiliation, we looked toward cheaper accomodations. These are often richly rewarding in their own way. Both my daughters lived at co-ops, run by students and for students. You have to be willing to put up with some low standards in housekeeping and be willing to work in the kitchen, but they found friends in this communal atmosphere and ended up paying less than $5000 for the nine months room and board. The junior college where I teach sends 50% of its students on to one of those flagship schools and our tuition is well under $2000 per semester. These are not bad schools – they are not Ivy League, of course, but they are ranked a good deal higher than most schools. And they are the best in some specialized majors. They provide a wider range of experience and majors than even the best of the Ivy League. Both have Nobel prize winners on their faculty (even though few students are likely to see them). They have honors degrees and honors sections as exclusive as the most exclusive of schools. The library of one is ranked in the top five in the world and your chance of working with primary documents is higher there than in about any schol in the country.

    By the way, another way to save money is to encourage your child to take Advanced Placement classes. They look good on resumes, they are likely to help in admissions, and they can shave off a semester or two. (My oldest daughter, mainly because she loved languages and carried 32 hours of those with her, brought 51 hours to college. While she still took 4 years, that was because she took light loads in her year abroad and ended up with three majors. My middle daughter took about 30 with her.)
    Again, years abroad are cheap if your child is willing to work. Neither of mine did that year in an American school cocooned in Europe. That can be expensive but also is less likely to lead to a better understanding of the language. One went to France, took care of the young daughter in a home while taking regular classes at the university. While the experience was pretty terrible (the family had its problems, including a suicide), the pressure of such immersion was invaluable. Our second daughter has not returned from Brno yet, but this year abroad, like her sister’s, was less expensive than one in state. It, too, was closer to immersion.

  6. Oh, yes, that wasn’t what I was talking about. But all of us as parent tend to be worried about issues like this – it is a red herring I think all of us are likely to be distracted by.

  7. Ginny,

    Please identify the schools! Are you familiar with SCSU?

    Something that is gaining some traction back here in Crashinto Country is developing strong affiliations between the community colleges (what some folks call junior colleges) and the state universities. Saves a ton of money for those first two years and allows the students to bring more credits acceptable to the university along with them after 2 years in the JC.

  8. I hope you will forgive me for relating a personal experience that illustrates not only why I use the particular “handle” I use but also that utilitarian educations also have value.

    The home my wife and I own is built upon what I euphamistically call a “hill”. No panoramic vistas, mind you, but just enough that shoveling snow off the driveway is not an option and the floor of the basement is just the smallest smidge above street level. Just enough of a “hill” that when we sat and did our little pros/cons list while searching for a house, this one got a “no water in the basement!” note in the pro. I hadn’t stopped and considered, of course, that bottoms fall out of water heaters or that pipes spring leaks.

    During a particularly nasty noreaster one year we noticed that the basement was taking on water. It was raining and I assumed that this was ground water coming in. Eventually I came to the unpleasant realization that it was not ground water and that by some unexplainable coincidence the water line into the house had somehow sprung a leak.

    Since the leak was not in the house itself, and having an inadequate utilitarian education, I figured a good place to start toward a solution to my problem was to call the water utility. The most professional looking utilitarian I was to meet for several days arrived in the largest, shiniest, most well-equipped service vehicle I would see for several days. The young man from the utility company did a quick survey of the situation, shut off the water at the street, said “Wherever the leak is, its in your pipe, not ours. Have a nice day,” and was gone.

    I then proceeded to call several plumbers trying to find one who could come out in reasonable amount of time. Also at the back of my mind was the old homeowners rule of thumb – get at least three estimates and throw out the highest and lowest ones.

    Over several hours four plumbers responded and after the first three I was becoming a bit depressed. What I got was a whole lot of head scratching and words like,

    “Oooh, that’s not good. Gonna have to shoot a whole new line.” ($1200 – $2200)

    “Gonna have to take out that oak before we can shoot a new line.” ($600- $1200)

    “Yeah, but you gotta get the roots out too!” ($600 – $1200)

    “That walk might have to come out.” ($200 – $400)

    “I’m not sure that driveway won’t sink where we shoot under it” (sigh…)

    Then the fourth plumber arrived. An older gentleman and his son. They were almost a comedy act and I didn’t see how they stood much chance of lifting my spirits other than, perhaps, getting me to laugh rather than cry.

    The father (70ish?) walked around, scratched his head, walked around some more, pondered, confirmed much of what the others had said…

    Finally he took off his ballcap, scratched his head one more time, and said (no kidding), “I’ve been a plumber for more than 40 years now. In all that time I’ve never known water to run uphill. I can’t tell for sure where the leak is in that supply line, but a good guess is that its a whole lot closer to the house than it is to the street. I’ll tell you what. How ’bout we dig down to the pipe here between the house and the driveway and see if we can’t find that leak. Cost you about $300 if we find the leak here. Otherwise…”

    They found the leak, fixed it, cost me $300. Now there’s a man I’d vote for. Not only that, but when neighbors or friends ask about plumbers, guess who I recommend.

    “That walk’s gonna have to come out of there

  9. Some bozo was preying on the profs at my college. He’d walk up to them in the faculty parking garage, pull a knife and get some ready cash. One of my profs told me about this and explained that he had outfoxed the criminal. Did he arm himself? No, he had parked in the student parking garage!

    So I’m escorting this clueless PhD to his car and we’re chatting. He points out that the Ohio State University is a land grant college, and it’s cheap to attend. (About $12,00/year for a full course load.) He then started to spout off about the “blue collar worker” and how all the students were from working class families.

    I was struck dumb. Here we were in the student parking garage, passing row after row of SUV’s that cost more than I made in a year. Blue collar? Hey, I couldn’t afford college and I don’t think of myself as a blue collar worker!

    But what would I expect? This prof proudly showed slides of his only manual labor job, every year loudly proclaiming that he had ascended from the ranks of the proles. He had been on a fishing trawler in Alaska right after high school and right before starting his academic career. How long did he work the nets? Two months. When did he hold this job? In the summer of 1968.

    I didn’t bother to escort him around after that. I figured that any criminal who took the prof’s money needed it more than the victim did.


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