The Liberal Arts in the Modern World: A Defense

Posted by Tillman W. Nechtman

In a recent essay, the Editorial Board of The Skidmore News spoke out against the recent string of disturbingly frequent bias incidents on campus. I applaud their efforts to make the campus a more welcoming and inclusive space, particularly given the graphic nature of some of the episodes our community has witnessed this past semester.

In the final (edited) version of that essay, the Editorial Board made it clear that they would like to see curricular changes be part of the college's efforts to prevent bias incidents and to make Skidmore a better community in the years ahead. I am not averse to the idea of re-making the college's curriculum vis-?-vis questions of diversity. The current Non-Western/Cultural Diversity requirement has been around for some time, and it has been rightly critiqued on a number of fronts. Just last year, the Committee on Educational Policy and Planning (CEPP) proposed a major overhaul of the requirement, and the CEPP has promised to continue that reconsideration this academic year.

The work that the Editorial Board suggests, therefore, is in progress and welcome. But, the suggested changes that the Editorial Board has offered leave me rather concerned about the future of the liberal arts in general, and it is that concern that I would like to address here.

In their editorial, The Skidmore News writes that the current Non-Western/Cultural Diversity requirement fails because it does not ensure that students focus on questions of diversity "in a contemporary context." The essay notes that "while several of these courses [that meet the current requirement] may touch upon contemporary issues in addition to their historical significance, a modern perspective is not necessarily guaranteed." Setting aside any objection I might have to the potentially dismissive attitude towards my chosen discipline (History) reflected in that last sentence, the argument itself demonstrates a bold misunderstanding of what exactly it is that a student of the liberal arts ought to get from her or his education. This argument assumes a fundamental divide between a so-called "modern perspective" and the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts. No such divide exists.

The reference to "liberal" in the label "liberal arts" draws from the same linguistic roots that give us the word liberated, for to be educated in the liberal arts is to be liberated. But, what does that mean exactly?

To get at an answer to that question, we must understand the liberal arts as a habit of the mind and a culture of ideas. The liberal arts have always rested on the notion that one can only ever find true knowledge and valuable wisdom if one is able to liberate oneself from a given situation to get at the core principles and ideas at work in that context.

Let me offer a more concrete example of what I mean here.

In their essay, The Skidmore News Editorial Board addressed the idea of installing surveillance cameras around campus to prevent future bias incidents. Some have floated this solution, and a few have declared themselves in favor of it publicly. The Editorial Board stepped back from endorsing the idea of cameras on campus on two grounds. First, they noted, some students might be "disgruntled" by the use of cameras. Second, two of the three bias incidents they were responding to happened in residence halls, which are, they argued, "the most private sanctuaries on campus." Both of these arguments reflect deeply "modern" perspectives. They are rooted in the immediate here and now, the sensibilities of today's Skidmore students, and the specifics of the bias incidents we have experienced here at Skidmore this fall.

We could, though, read the question of posting surveillance cameras across campus from the vantage point of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts have much to say about our campus's present situation and about the question of surveillance more broadly. They also have the advantage of opening profound considerations about the human condition more broadly. Let me demonstrate with some examples.

The first work that jumps to my mind when I consider questions of human behavior, discipline, surveillance and punishment is Michel Foucault's philosophical masterpiece, Discipline and Punish. There, Foucault speaks to the power of a surveillance state - in the form of Jeremy Bentham's terrifying design for a panoptic prison - to discipline both a person's public social behavior as well as the inner workings of his or her mind.

After Foucault, my mind wanders to the world of literature, where I am reminded of great works of fiction on the subject of surveillance and social control. I am, of course, thinking of Franz Kafka's The Trial in which the central character is arrested by a distant and unaccountable authority and tried without ever being told why. I might also call to mind George Orwell's wonderful 1984. When considering the possibility of posting surveillance cameras around our campus, we would do well to reflect on that novel's protagonist, Winston, who could only live out his private life when he huddled in the few small corners of his home where Big Brother's all-seeing eyes could not reach.

Here at Skidmore, we can also turn to the Government Department where our own Professor Flagg Taylor continues to study the limitations on human freedom that accrue in totalitarian regimes. To read his edited book The Great Lie is to understand that the promise of liberty, freedom and intellectual inquiry is a mere chimera in any atmosphere where the individual is subjected to centralized monitoring and observation.

I could walk through countless instances from History that would offer equally salient perspectives on the question of whether or not we should install surveillance cameras around the Skidmore campus, but I will allow these few examples to stand.

Certainly, though, there is every reason to think - contrary to the argument offered in the Editorial Board's essay - that courses in History have a pivotal role to play in our campus conversations about diversity and inclusivity. For instance, when I teach my FYE students about "beach landings," those moments when Captain Cook and his crew first landed on the shores of South Pacific Islands and first encountered Polynesians and their culture, I am teaching about the very process of experiencing difference. Of course, Cook's "beach landings" are specific and historically contextual, but I trust that the lessons of those moments of historical contact have something to say to me and my students about the interactions we have here at Skidmore. How did Cook and his crew help shape contemporary racial and ethnographic stereotypes? Is it just possible that my classroom, the Case Green, Burgess Caf??, or the Dining Hall are "contemporary" beaches? Is it just possible that the encounters we have in these locations are more like Cook's "beach landings" than we might at first imagine?

My larger point, though, remains. The liberal arts education speaks directly to questions of fairness, equality, justice, liberty and freedom - all issues at stake in our on-going debate about the campus climate here at Skidmore and the possibility of curricular change vis-?-vis the Non-Western/Cultural Diversity requirement. My survey of these few core disciplines of the traditional liberal arts demonstrates that our curriculum has a great deal to say about the "contemporary context" we face here at Skidmore today. They speak to our "contemporary issues" and they do so without ever actually addressing "modern perspectives" per se.

But, how can that be? If we believe the argument proffered by the Editorial Board, studying odds and ends from the past can never solve problems in the present. But, you see, they can. The Editorial Board seems to suggest that there is a gap between what students learn at a liberal arts college and the intellectual skills they need to make their way in the "real world." But, you see, there is no such gap. The liberal arts tradition allows us to liberate ourselves from the specificities of our own context and our own situations precisely so that we can achieve a level of objective distance on the core issues at stake. Because we are freed by that distance, we see our own world and our own lives in new lights and at new angles. We find perspectives we would have missed had we focused only on the here and now, only on "contemporary issues."

I recall a commercial from many years ago that advertised for over-the-phone degree programs. One of the programs was a specialization in TV/VCR repair. The Editorial Board at The Skidmore News might have praised that program for its contemporary relevance. To have studied TV/VCR repair back in my childhood would have been to collect useful applied job skills and to have had a reasonable likelihood of getting a job. But, few households have a VCR anymore. The contemporary context has shifted and those skills that were useful yesterday are pointless now. That is the great difference between a liberal education and vocational training.

The liberal arts education has outlasted other forms of pedagogical training. Indeed, one might go so far as to argue that the modern world is the by-product of minds trained in the liberal arts tradition. Skidmore students are fortunate to be the heirs and the future of that great tradition. They have the opportunity before them to train their minds and develop intellectual habits that will enable them to see the deepest issues at play in any situation and to address those issues broadly, creatively and wisely. That is the great and perpetual utility of a liberal arts education in the modern world.

Does the current Non-Western/Cultural Diversity requirement at Skidmore need revision? Almost certainly. But, the current requirement does not, I want to offer, suffer from a lack of "modern perspectives" and "contemporary contexts." Let us not retreat from the collective intellectual tradition we share - not just among ourselves but also with fellow intellectual travelers across the ages. Let us insist here and now that the liberal arts matter in the modern world and that the world of ideas can shape the future. 

The Saratoga Film Forum Presents "Compliance" in Tandem with Panel of Guest Speakers : A Car Chase and a Kiss: Admittedly Optimistic Reviews of Upcoming Films at the Saratoga Film Forum

Support-a-Family raises money for Thanksgiving dinners: Skidmore College has donated nearly $100,000 in funds over the past 20 years