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.