Laboral Arts

I am pleased to follow Rick Elgendy and Lauren Osborne in contributing to the Craft of Teaching blog’s quarter-long discussion of the relationships between liberal education and professionalization in academe, with reference to Peter Kaufman’s article “Education for Professional Leadership in the Humanities: Exhortations and Demonstrations.”

It seems clear from reading these thoughts by my colleagues that the conversation about the “crisis of the humanities” is a conversation about many other things, as well. Starting out from a consideration of the purpose of a liberal arts education, it moves quickly to such grand themes as the nature of the human being, the structure of society, and the struggle against injustice. A grand (if not grandiose) list of concerns, to which I cannot resist adding one more: the alienation of spirit and body.

Early on in his piece, Kaufman concurs with Geoffrey Harpham in seeing the task of higher education today as being one of “how to integrate the speculative, probing, exploratory critical spirit of the liberal arts with the more worldly, results-driven orientation of professional education. And, of course, to persuade all constituencies that the proposed solution does not degrade, dilute, or compromise the integrity of either the liberal arts or professional education, but actually realizes the full capacity of each in a way that neither could realize on its own.” Two worlds that belong together, the speculative and the material, have been separated; each has something the other lacks; the situation cries out for their conflict to be overcome in a mutually beneficial synthesis. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we are in Hegel territory here.

hegel_portrait_by_schlesinger_1831But if we are in fact in Hegel territory—if what my colleagues, in their different ways, are searching for, is some satisfactory Aufhebung or overcoming of a spiritual contradiction—then I feel obligated to venture that we at least consider the step that a certain notorious mid-nineteenth-century reader of Hegel took when confronted with a similar problem. And that step involves shifting the whole conversation back towards our own material conditions, the conditions in which and through which we have and discuss these ideas. As Rick already wondered: do we want to train our students to “contribute” to, let alone take leadership roles in, a system that is nearly thoroughly oriented towards injustice? (And as Lauren considered, do we even want to think of our students primarily as future “professionals”?) And as Lauren also questioned: do we really think of ourselves as living in some kind of liberal-arts Spirit-world, confronted by the professional programs as by some kind of recalcitrant, materialist, anti-Spiritual reality? Or don’t we have to take our own existence as laborers into account as well?

This is not to say that we should follow Marx, or (vulgar) Marxism, all the way to the claim that ideas are merely reflections of their material origins. But it is to say, when confronted by an insistent claim that the role of the humanities is found in “problematizing received wisdom” (Kaufman, 154), karl_marx_001that we take a moment to reflect on the fact that the economic forces widely seen as precipitating the current crisis have, from the very moment of their first formation of a self-conscious ideology, described themselves as engaged in constant revolution. In 1848, Marx already spoke of how “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Today, they call this “thinking outside the box” or “disruptive innovation.” The ideology is even capable of knowingly caricaturing itself; take, for example, the endless proclamations of The Office’s Michael Scott that he is a different kind of boss. No icy waters of egotistical calculation here. So, to the extent that the liberal arts portrays itself as a source of eternal verities, it runs the risk of being cast as fusty and outmoded; to the extent that on the other hand it presents itself as inculcating criticism and distance, it finds that its counterparts in professional training have already talked this to death.


Modestly, then, it seems to me that no discussion of this topic can go without a face-to-face reckoning with our real conditions of life. Whether one calls it the “neo-liberal university” or by some other name, the so-called crisis of the humanities is embedded within a much larger process of economic transformation encompassing faculty, staff, administration, and students, to say nothing of state legislatures and federal policymakers. Precipitous declines in funding from state legislatures have led public schools to drastic austerity measures (or, more cynically, enabled administrations to justify shifts in policy they were already contemplating), including the steadily increasing reliance on non-tenure track, adjunct faculty labor that has created today’s majority-temporary faculty. Private schools have done the same, even those sitting on top of huge endowments, which they would rather invest in newfangled financial instruments than spend (even on athletics). The nostalgic longing for a time in which the humanities were more central to a college education must reckon with the fact that this period was also the time in which a college education was restricted to a much smaller social elite; conversely, the massive expansion in the number of people seeking undergraduate degrees coincides seemingly perfectly with the increased emphasis on professionalization.

In this environment, simply arguing for the “relevance” of the humanities to professional studies may not be enough; worse, it may be a rearguard action destined to watch powerlessly as whole departments of languages and cultures are eliminated and higher education continues to be streamlined into what are essentially factories for the production of employees of the largest local outfit. As uncomfortable, indelicate, and “disruptive” (in the non-“innovative” way) as it may be, we have to consider the possibility that only action outside the classroom will make the difference here. Whether that means solidarity with adjunct or graduate labor in their attempts to unionize, lobbying at the state level for increased funding to higher education, or openly contesting administrative priorities, faculty and aspiring faculty need to consider what kind of citizens they want to be. And as for those who advocate “saving the world on our own time,” they will have to reckon with what they will say when we have no time left to call our own.

One thought on “Laboral Arts

  1. Pingback: Employment is the New Citizenship: The Liberal Arts in the Global Economy | The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

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