Employment is the New Citizenship: The Liberal Arts in the Global Economy

I would like to circle this discussion of Peter Kaufman’s article back to the academic discipline of religious studies. In general terms, Kaufman encourages humanities teachers to work together with our colleagues in pre-professional programs to find ways to make sense of humanistic study as contributing to the professional development of students. This is insofar as those students will become professionals, and even leaders in their professions, for whom the challenge of responding to the unfolding exigencies of their work lives will require skills beyond those learned in their pre-professional classes. They will require, Kaufman writes, the skills we teach in the humanities.

First, I note my general agreement with Kaufman. I believe that the walling off of the humanities does a disservice to both humanities and pre-professional students by segmenting their education for them in ways they would likely not do themselves. Very concretely, I think it would benefit the curriculum and student experience at institutions like the highly ranked small liberal arts college where I teach if pre-professional programs like education or counseling were available to students. This would allow students to, for example, combine a major in a humanities discipline with the required coursework in a pre-professional program so that by the time they graduate they are prepared to be certified and hired. There are significant administrative, financial, and public relations hurdles in the way of such a proposal, not the least of which is that some (perhaps many) would view such a move as the very destruction of the liberal arts college.

It is those who hold such a view to whom I direct this next statement: in more fundamental terms, the pro-segmentation view that Kaufman discusses, epitomized by Stanley Fish’s “save the world on your own time”, mistakes what it means for humanities to be the study of the art of being human. In particular, to conceive of the humanities disciplines as stopping short of making any recommendations for courses of action falsely and damagingly separates the thinking subject from the acting subject. All of our students, of whatever disciplinary major or proposed career trajectory, already are and will continue to be both thinkers and actors. And their thinking will always inform their acting. Sam Brody has already made this point, using Hegel’s language of spirit and body, with an emphasis on the necessity that we teachers of the humanities attend to our own conditions of labor: material, institutional, economic and political. I make this point now as something that I think we learn from the humanities: to be human is to be, among other things, a social, political, and economic actor. If we as humanities scholars and teachers represent our work this way at every turn, it would I think start to look obvious what the humanities have to do with the professions, and the battle between humanities as means and humanities as end-in-itself could be brought to a halt.

But I think there is also a more specific point that follows from this for the discipline of religious studies. Kaufman’s reference to our students as future professionals rightly takes for granted a transition that has occurred over the past decades: colleges and universities no longer train future citizens; instead, we train future employees and employers. We should then think about our students not primarily as citizens, but instead as workers. Now if the discipline of religious studies, with its normative claims to non-normativity with regard to the questions allocated, in the division of labor, to religious traditions over and against the state, is then a cog in the machine that supports and promotes the reigning ideology of the modern-era, that of the nation-state as primary, then this transition from citizenship to employment as the primary concern of the patrons of higher education means that religious studies (as a center of power and tradition of inquiry whose home is the university) is, effectively, behind the times. Its members and constituents are future employees, not citizens, except secondarily. The kinds of criticism they need to be engaged in are, therefore, the kinds of criticism suitable to future professionals, especially future professional leaders, whose charges will include creating visions and critiquing existing structures and modes of operation.

wall-copyThis further supports Kaufman’s point: the wall between the humanities and the professions must be torn down if only because the wall itself was simply in service to the scholar-student as future citizen, in particular the scholar student as a child of the aristocratic or bourgeois classes of that nation-state, which most students of the liberal arts in days past (certainly pre-WW2, and probably for much of the post-war years before Vietnam) surely were. The fact that the liberal arts were until the past fifty years available primarily to men (until it was of economic and social importance to manage women’s entry into the professions by limiting our access to professional schools) is also an index of its primary concern with citizenry, for women have not historically counted as citizens in the ideologies supported by the imagined political contracts of the early theorizers of the nation-state (on this, see Carol Pateman’s The Sexual Contract), or for that matter in the conception of democracy promoted by Western political theory’s early imagined ancestors in Athens. And a similar story can be told about access to the liberal arts for people of color in the United States.

But religious studies as a discipline takes as its objects of inquiry and its data the ideas, practices, institutions, and social and economic realities produced by or acted upon by things called religions, which, like the discipline of religious studies, are centers of institutional power, traditions of inquiry, and disciplines of self-formation. The difference is that religious traditions are distinct from both the nation-state and what was previously the finishing school of citizens, the university. Recent work in religious studies has shown that the nation-state itself was in large part created over and against these religions, at least in its first home, the West. So inasmuch as the nation-state is organized around its distinction from religious traditions, religious studies as a discipline served the interests of the state when it tutored future citizens in the practices of criticism targeting the normative claims and actions of religious institutions.

But now that religious studies’s charges – like those of the liberal arts broadly – are primarily understood as future employers and employees, what about religion? In other words, if religion is the dark other of the nation-state, what is it to the global economic system whose future managerial class will be formed in part by the majority of those with liberal arts degrees?

I suggest that religious institutions, traditions of inquiries, and disciplines of self-formation should be understood as viable alternatives that are, in some cases, transgressive (in the sense proffered by Kaufman) of the norms of that global economic system. In other words, I think that the practitioners of the discipline of religious studies can and should look without fear of ideological infection to religious institutions, ideas, practices and disciplines of self-formation as sources of authority that can provide transgressive responses to the vagaries of the global economic system, and that we permit ourselves to do so, when appropriate, without apology, and without the brackets provided by the idea of phenomenology. If we do this, then we set the academic discipline of religious studies as a center of power, tradition of inquiry, and discipline of self-formation alongside religious traditions insofar as they serve those same functions. We would also critique our own boundary-maintaining practices by asking to what degree they serve the imperatives of the global economic system and whether we as individuals, members of a discipline, or those charged with the formation of the future managers of that system want to ally ourselves with that global economic system or rather with transgressive responses to it, which could be informed by religions themselves.

It is impossible to distinguish the ascendancy of that global economic system from the prior ascendancy of the nation-state, nor is it possible to distinguish religion as it is currently constructed from either of those two ascendancies. This means that I am not suggesting that there is a way to appeal to religious traditions that is free of the baggage of the nation-state or the global economic system. In practice, the transgressive possibilities offered by religious institutions, ideas, practices or disciplines will often, or even always, be mired in the same sorts of iniquities, injustices, social, psychological, and emotional systems of management and control that we find in nation-states or the global economy. But if they were not, they could not offer to us anything transgressive, for they would simply be alien, of another world.

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