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Speaking With The Dead (The Defense, Part 1)

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So, I have been thinking about how to go about this, and it occured to me that we actually have two problems here, not one:

First we have the question of in what way the knowledge of in what way a thorough knowledge of the liberal arts (yes, including the hard sciences) is of value to the individual.

Second, we have the question of in what way the fact of such knowledge being in possession of a good number of people is of value to the rest of us.

The two questions are intertwined with each other and complicated in the extreme, and they’ve got multitudes of answers that, although not contratictory, are sometimes paradoxical.

So let me try to start with what seems to me to be the beginning, and barrel through to the end.

In the aid of actually getting somewhere, though, I’m not going to respond directly to comments until the exposition is done.

Or I’m going to try not to.

Me being me, there may be some backsliding here.

So let me start here:  the liberal arts (yes, including the sciences) are the record of human culture generally and Western Culture in particular.

Human beings have been alive on this plant AND able to write things down–as far as we now know–for about 7000 years. 

During this period of time, we have written down a lot of things–stories and poems, diaries and reports, histories and works of religion and philosophy.

We wrote them down because we wanted people to be able to hear us even when we weren’t that, across space (in another city or country) certainly, but also across time.

The liberal arts are what is left to us of all the generations that came before us, of all the men (mostly) and women who lived and tried to understand what it meant to live, what they should do to live well, what the universe was and if it had a purpose, if they had a purpose,  what evil consisted of, how hurricanes could be explained,  the nature (or even existence) of good and evil), what could be done to control chance–and a lot more.

The people who thought about these things and wrote down their thoughts and discoveries did so because they thought these things were vital to their lives, that they were not only relevant but the most relevant of all possible uses of their time.

And one of the things you discover when you start reading the old stuff is that human beings have changed very little in all this time.  We’re still asking the same questions.  We still need the same answers. We’re still the animal that cannot live well by instinct and sensation alone.

Sometimes, when I get through reading the posts that go “what value is it to the individual–will it make him more money?  will it make him better able to reach the top of his profession?”–my instinct is to go:  well, for a start, it will teach him that that is a mean and self-destructive standard of value to hold, and give him a few others for comparison.

As knee-jerk reactive as that response is, however, on reflection I find that it’s not that silly–that IS, in fact, one way in which a knowledge of the liberal arts

We have exactly one chance to live this life on this earth.  If we’re very, very lucky, we’ll get a full century with our minds intact.  Most likely, we’ll get twenty years less.

That’s not a lot of time, and the vast majority of us spend far too much of it frittering it away. 

You can, of course, fritter it away by caring for nothing but will make you money–large scale (a fortune) or small (a living)–or for what will bring you the temporary prestige of being the top of your profession.

Please note the NOTHING BUT–the qualifier is there for a reason.

Here’s the thing–I have seen people live their lives like that, and I have seen how they end, and I will guarantee you do not want to go there.   It’s an ugly thing.  And it makes no one happy in the long run.

But it’s not only individuals whose lives are corroded by this kind of thinking–society doesn’t do so well with it either.

And I think, right now, we are living in the midst of a positive orgy of people who think like this.   That’s why we have so many institutions–schools, hospitals, police departments, corporations–whose first answer to any problem is to engage in frantic and completely unprincipled self-preservation, at the expense of anybody or anything that gets in the way.

That’s why we have so many people who don’t care what they do–steal, murder, betray their friends, betray their country, screw donkeys in public–as long as it makes them some money and makes them “famous.”

That’s why we have so many people who accept and admire and envy the fame of people like Paris Hilton, Heidi Fleiss–and, yes, even Casey Anthony.

This is an objectively bad way for people to live, as individuals or as a society.  It makes no individual happy and it makes the society that individual lives in increasingly dangerous and hostile to his well being. 

And here’s the thing–we didn’t discover this with the rise of reality TV.  This particular approach to life has been with us since the beginning.  and the problems with it have been obvious to at least some people since the beginning.  Other societies in other places and other times have seen the rise of it and tried to cope with it.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. 

What’s more, other individuals in other times or places have run smack into that brick wall which is the only place such an approach to life leads, and they’ve tried to find answers to it, ways around it, and ideas and practices to escape it.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, either.

So the first thing–and the most important thing–a thorough knowledge of the liberal arts can give you is this:  the ability to read the sign, prominently posted, which says “cliff ahead!  stop now!” before you rush right over it and break your neck.

So I’ll start here.

There’s a lot more particular stuff to say about the value of the liberal arts to the individual, and how it will in fact make you a better doctor and a better architect and a better engineer, but this will do for a start.

But I’ll get to that tomorrow.

It’s Sunday, and I have tea and Frescobaldi, and Quintillian and Tacitus.

And a continual desire to own every single book in the Loeb Classical Library.

Written by janeh

September 18th, 2011 at 10:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Speaking With The Dead (The Defense, Part 1)'

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  1. Well, I can see how I can dispute what you say about the liberal arts, but one of my favorite wastes of time on TV is “The First 48”, and I’ll pretty much guarantee that the subjects of that TV documentary wouldn’t benefit from any attempt to teach them the liberal arts. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Then there’s St. John’s. Yes, looks like a fascinating program. If one has 120,000 dollars to spend.

    But still, how much of their graduates success, in any field, has anything to do with their program and how much is due to the front end filter – and I don’t mean ability to pay.

    Take an execrable degree mill like Liberty University.

    One can easily find the SAT scores for the incoming classes for both institutions:

    Test Scores-Middle 50% of First-Year Students
    SAT Critical Reading: 430 – 570
    SAT Math: 430 – 550 83%

    So the middle of the SAT “Critical Reading” score is just below the exact middle of the distribution – 490.

    Middle 50% translates into +-1 Standard deviation, so the +2 SD score translates into 630. A visual reminder of a normal distribution is at http://www.regentsprep.org/Regents/math/algtrig/ATS2/NormalLesson.htm

    Now. St. John’s:

    SAT Scores of Current Freshmen

    Middle 50% Verbal 630-740
    Middle 50% Math 570-680

    Notice that +2 SD at LU corresponds to -1 SD at St. Johns.

    If you work it out, that means that the AVERAGE student at St. John’s has a SAT verbal higher than 99.9% of the student’s at LU.

    So when the recruiter is going for the St. John’s graduate, what is really making any difference – the liberal arts/great book curriculum — or that fact that an average student at St. Johns is head and shoulders above all but the most exceptional students at someplace like LU?

    Which is to say that if you’re going to make a case for the value of a liberal arts program, you need something other than the success of the students from places like St. John’s or the “Ivy League” schools to make it. Recruiters are hardly ignorant of the staggering difference in the student bodies beteen Ivy League schools and LU or a “accepts all in state high school graduates” state teaching university.

    The caveat is that of a correlation/causation fallacy. It’s almost certainly NOT the difference in curriculum that’s making the difference — it’s that the school one graduates from stands as a very reliable proxy for general intellectual ability, regardless of program.


    18 Sep 11 at 11:23 am

  2. Oh, ack.

    First, this entire post is about how the value of a thorugh knowledge of the liberal arts is NOT that it will get you a job.

    And, in fact, that part of that value is to jerk you ought of thinking that “what will it pay me if I do this?” is a BAD value that is destructive to yourself and to your society.

    Second, I ALREADY SAID–in the last post, I think–that the issue is not WHAT you study but WHERE you study.

    In fact, I even think I capitalized it like that.

    My problem is the delusion that getting a “practical” degree at Southern State U will get you a job either. It probably won’t.

    As to the money–most students at St. John’s won’t pay a tenth of it, and most of them will in fact be less out of pocket in cash and loans than will the students at Souther State U.

    The idea that public universities are “cheaper” than private ones is a delusion, too–based on the misconception that the sticker price means the same thing in both places.

    But–ack again–I was NOT talking about “getting a liberal arts education at a college or university.”

    This is not about schools, but about what is or isn’t valuable IN THE STUDY ITSELF.


    18 Sep 11 at 11:34 am

  3. You hit at one of the biggest problems I have with administrations – as well as with many faculties – which is the myth we are selling that a degree guarantees you a job in the field in which you have studied or, for that matter, that it guarantees you a job at all. More disturbing to me is the growing belief that selling jobs is what we should be doing.

    This myth has become so pervasive in our system that we actually give college credit for life experience. Seriously. In the attempt to make it easy for working adults to ‘earn a degree’, there is a program that ‘equates’ their life and work experiences to specific college courses. So, for example, if in a particular student’s work history they have spent quite a bit of time making presentations, the logic is that they should not have to take a college course in Public Speaking — we should just give them credit for the course based upon their ‘prior learning’.

    If the Public Speaking course were no more than a skill development course I might be able to buy that, but Public Speaking isn’t only about actual delivery skills (delivery skills being the topic that we spend the least amount of time on). The study of Public Speaking requires students to use logic, analysis, reasoning, and critical thinking. It requires them to know how to acquire information from valid sources It requires them to be able to sift through the information on a particular topic to pull out of it the most valid and useful, the most significant to the argument. It also requires from them a thorough grounding in philosophy and ethics in order to use their skills to create arguments that don’t violate ethical principles.

    When we equate a college education with the acquisition of only ‘skills’ we have lost something very significant. The point of the educational process is for the student (no matter their age or life experience) to engage in the process of challenging the way they have traditionally thought of things and seeing through different perspectives – and I do mean ‘perspectives’ not opinions. If they can’t examine a topic and have a fundamental working understanding of the economic perspective, the historic perspective, the philosophical perspective, the scientific perspective – then any examination of any topic is going to be limited and less than fully useful.

    Will a student at my college get the same education as one that comes out of St. Johns? Absolutely not. Would we all be better off if they did? Absolutely. Do I have students in my classrooms that have the intellectual ability to attend a St. Johns? Absolutely also. They just don’t know that such a place exists and they’ve been convinced that place doesn’t matter – what matters is the diploma. WHERE does matter – it matters a lot.


    18 Sep 11 at 1:23 pm

  4. I stumbled across this article in the NYT yesterday, and found some of it interesting. How do we teach our children values, in fact, how do we define those values, that will let them lead satisfying, productive lives. Whether or not they study liberal arts, it may be character that brings an integrated mind to maturity.

    I particularly like that they have completely done away with artificial “self-esteem” bolstering and tried to let kids fail enough to learn what success feels like. Not directly related to studying the liberal arts, but perhaps setting people up to benefit from said study in ways that the grasping after money or demanding a profit-based evaluation of everything does not.



    18 Sep 11 at 1:27 pm

  5. “As to the money–most students at St. John’s won’t pay a tenth of it, and most of them will in fact be less out of pocket in cash and loans than will the students at Souther State U.”

    Well, considering that most students who can get into St. John’s at all would be eligible for oodles of financial aid (depending on parents financial situation) if not full free ride 4 year scholarships ANYWHERE they applied, I’m not sure what that proves.

    I will grant there’s a qualification on the St. John’s page that you won’t get at any state run institution I know of in that they state that they consider the families debts. The FASFA does NOT take debts into account. You can be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and your kid is still screwed on financial aid if your income is too high at State U.

    You can trust me on that one.

    “Second, I ALREADY SAID–in the last post, I think–that the issue is not WHAT you study but WHERE you study.”

    Well, if you can get admitted to St. John’s or someplace equivalent then as I pointed out this serves as a proxy to anyone interested for overall intellectual ability. But in the real world, unlike in Lake Woebegon, not everyone can be (3 standard deviations) above average.

    So what you’re saying boils down to is that getting the right stamp of approval for being smart is more important than actually knowing something, (unless you’re a Spielberg or a Gates).

    None of this is surprising. All that someone who is essentially a random stranger can really know about you is what you can prove you’ve done – and getting through an Ivy League (or equivalent) school is pretty solid documentation that you’re smart and capable and able to finish difficult projects.

    Someone from LU could be all that, but they would be the exception rather than the rule.

    Even then you get an Ann Coulter or a Ben Stein. Two people who should know better, yet ardently embrace Creationism.

    Talk about brilliant but stupid. Cornell and Columbia, Suma Cum Laude and with honers — but clueless.

    But we can simply consider them the other end of the curve from the Spielbergs and Gates of the world.

    Which leaves you at the problem of teasing the value of the liberal arts apart from the value of just being smart.


    18 Sep 11 at 4:41 pm

  6. Michael said:

    >>>Which leaves you at the problem of teasing the value of the liberal arts apart from the value of just being smart.

    And I say–no it doesn’t.

    I’m NOT arguing about the “value” of majoring in English or history at some university.

    I’m defending the possession of a knowledge set–a particulr understanding of a particular range of a particular kind of knowledge–to the individual and to society.

    “It gets you a job” is a value, of course, but it’s not the only one.

    And it doesn’t matter what you major in, because you cannot–CANnot–get a liberal arts education at any public college or university in this country under the level of, maybe, a Berkeley.

    Oh, you can major in English or chemistry, of course, instead of education or nursing–but that won’t get you a liberal arts education.

    (Yes, chemistry is one of the liberal arts. So are biology, physics, mathematics, astronomy, history, philosophy, and economics.)

    At the best of the private colleges and universities, you can get a liberal education if you work at it–but you have to work at it. They no longer require such a thing for graduation, unless they’re a St. John’s.

    I think a liberal education is a very valuable thing, for the individual and for the society that individual lives in–but there’s no use talking about it in terms of what to “major” in in college in the US at the moment, because that’s not a liberal education.

    And as for reducing “valuable” to “will it get me a job and make me some money”–well, that’s what the post these comments are attached to was all about.


    18 Sep 11 at 5:14 pm

  7. “I’m defending the possession of a knowledge set–a particulr understanding of a particular range of a particular kind of knowledge–to the individual and to society.”

    I understand that. Let me try to clarify what I’m saying at this point.

    Unfortunately, as you point out, a “lberal arts” style of education is not available outside of a handful of extremely selective schools, if you’re going to go to school to get that knowledge which is not unreasonable since self education can leave you with odd gaps you’re not even aware of.

    But those schools are extremely selective – which still leaves you the problem, quite independent of employment considerations, of teasing apart the value of the liberal education you support from the value of just being “smart”, and maybe curious.

    So, to proving that “a liberal education is a very valuable thing, for the individual and for the society that individual lives in”, where the only places you can GET that education select for the top 1 or 2 percent of the population in the first place.

    How do you tease apart the value of liberal arts from the value of just being pretty smart if the only way to get the one is to be the other?


    18 Sep 11 at 5:34 pm

  8. I’m going off at a tangent to the previous comments. The title “Speaking with the Dead” is very thought provoking. By coincidence, I’ve just started reading a book called “This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly”.

    I’m also reading a Usenet newsgroup with a lot of liberal Democrat posters. They are presently bewailing the folly of workers who “vote against their own interest” and support the Republicans or Tea Party.

    The dead of Nazi Germany speak to me and remind me that Hitler was The Leader who knew what was best for the German people.

    The dead of Stalinist USSR also speak of Stalin’s knowledge of “the dialectic of history” and what was best for the workers.

    Please preserve me from people who know what is best for me!


    18 Sep 11 at 6:18 pm

  9. Aha. I get it now.

    I don’t think you could tease it out in this generation. Fifty years ago, you could go to any decent state university and get a liberal education if you wanted it–you could also major in recreational management.

    What has happened in the years since is that we have “given more students the opportunity to go to college” by pretty much making sure that the one thing they can’t do is go to college.

    That said, there are some interesting anamolies. Victor Davis Hanson runs a full-blown hard-core Classics program at Cal State-Fresno that is successful as a department (they’ve got lots of majors) and also successful in being able to document the jobs its graduates get (necessary to convince parents it’s okay for the kid to take all that Latin and Greek stuff). It might make an interesting longitudinal study.

    That said, a serious liberal arts education is by definition very intellectually rigorous. The chances are that anybody able to complete one is either smarter than most of the people around him or incredibly determined, both of which are good indicators for success in life no matter what the kid studies.

    But the kind of indicators I’m looking for are not “success” as currently almost monolithically defined–lots of money and a flash car and that kind of thing.

    So maybe I’ll just keep on keeping on here and see if I answer your question.

    That said, I don’t think “smart” is, in fact, the most important variable even in the big income/flashy car/McMansion version of success.


    18 Sep 11 at 7:06 pm

  10. If we could isolate a number of people who were educated to your standard, we might be able to look for other indicators, from personal satisfaction to doing or not doing certain things.
    But I hope at the end of this series of posts there will be some consideration of why there has been an absolute–not a relative–decline in liberal arts educations. Universties could, after all, have “given more children the opportunity” by turning out more recreational management majors. Instead, they’ve wiped out whole areas of study.
    Success. “Smart” is, I think, about fourth–behind “driven” “ruthless” and “lucky.” But there is probably a minimum smart below which, even if you lucked into the flashy car and McMansion, you couldn’t keep it.


    18 Sep 11 at 7:24 pm

  11. Oh, there are many more than two questions. Perhaps we’ll get to some of them, if I’m not too dead :)

    And yes, I’m familiar with that quote.


    18 Sep 11 at 7:51 pm

  12. Jane said at the outset that she would ignore comments until she was done with the plan she had in mind.

    She also emphasised very carefully that she was talking about the value of studying the liberal arts FOR THEIR OWN SAKE, and not JUST as means of getting a job.

    Can I suggest that we all keep our powder dry until she gets through this? Please. Diverting this is just a waste of her time.


    18 Sep 11 at 7:55 pm

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