Learning in Recession-Time

Should we even bother with the humanities and arts?  A recent article in the New York Times raises an issue that I'm fairly certain we're going to hear more of soon: in a time of recession, every institute of learning will be reconsidering how they spend their money.  When budget-fixers go hunting, I suspect that more often than not, the arts and humanities will have a big bulls-eye painted on them.  Here at TWU, we have a firm commitment to the liberal arts tradition, which means we will have a mix of humanities, sciences, professional programs, arts and more.  The question is: is this foolish and a waste of money?

The case against disciplines in the arts and humanities is fairly simple: they're not very practical, and we're entering a time when we will not easily be able to afford impractical stuff.  Theology, history, music and so on may make you a wiser person, a deeper person, someone with bigger perspective, but it doesn't make you more employable.  There is, of course, the common come-back that humanities students do in fact get good jobs, and that practically all humanities disciplines teach good writing and good thinking, which can come in handy in lots of occupations and careers.  I believe that.  But if that's the primary defense for the arts and humanities, we'd be better served by only offering programs that focus exclusively on writing or other marketable skills.  (Actually, our Communications program has lots of valuable skill training.  But we insist that our program as a whole contains courses that are primarily theoretical and critical--so we're in for exactly the same criticism.)  There has to be more to the defense of the arts and humanities than "hey, you know, it's actually somewhat practical after all!"

I have two things to bring to this discussion of economic pragmatism and academia: an argument questioning the blindspots of the anti-art & humanities attack, and an argument made by C.S. Lewis.  the first point: we need a critique of pragmatism itself and the arts and the humanities are the place to find it.  There is a very dangerous logic to the idea that we should ditch non-pragmatic forms of learning.  On the surface, it would seem obvious that when people go into survival mode, we keep the essentials and ditch the luxuries.  Essentials means the most important stuff.  What a college or university graduate needs is marketable skills that increase the chance of employment as soon as possible after graduation.  The rest of the stuff is just window-dressing, pleasant extras, the kind of fat that should go when the going gets lean.

While this line of argument might seem obvious, it in fact reveals the deep need for arts and humanities.  What seems obviously pragmatic to us here and now is in fact deeply culturally and ideologically conditioned.  A simple survey of history reveals this.  The ancient Egyptians thought that it was quite practical to lavish huge amounts of time, money and lives on preparing their aristocracy for the afterlife with giant pyramids, dead slaves and eye-poppingly endowed graves.  And rather than spend their money on extra food production or commerce or lessening the detrimental effects of war, medieval Europeans thought it best to build giant cathedrals that normally required decades to complete.  From our position today, these are phenomenally impractical projects, and we might even be tempted to argue that those cultures worked on these things due to non-pragmatic impulses.  But this line of argument would fundamentally fail to understand the mindsets of these societies.  Everyone dies: it's quite pragmatic to prepare for death.  And given the Egyptians relgious beliefs, they prepared in the way they thought was most practical. 

One culture's pragmatism is another's lunacy.  And in fact, all cultures do have flaws in their standards of pragmatism.  As a fellow Christian, for example, I seriously question the medieval predilection for monuments to God trumping service to God (stop hitting me, medieval historians! I understand that's an oversimplification on multiple levels... I'm trying to make a point in a short-form blog...). 

The trouble is, the people who are most focused on pragmatism are typically least able to consider the rights and wrongs of that pragmatism.  This is one of the major roles of the arts and humanities.  They allow us to get a broader consideration of what it means to be human, they give us the time and space to test and challenge the philosophies that--unnoticed by many--have enormous impact on very real and tangible things.  Our current pragmatism is the same one that led to the current recession.  We need the wisdom and insight of people who don't fit comfortably with our current standards of practicality.

C.S. Lewis makes a different argument in defense of seemingly impractical academics.  When he first preached his sermon "Learning in War-Time," the university students and professors he addressed were just entering the opening stages of World War II.  This amazing speech addressed the validity of scholarly endeavour at a time when death and suffering seemed to make education an unnecessary luxury--a similar sentiment to today's crisis, albeit for very different reasons.

Lewis starts by noting that we are always in the midst of a crisis of some sort.  There is always something more important to do than learn--and yet we continue to create and study and think.  "The insects," he says for a comparison, "have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward.  Men are different.  They propound mathematical theorems in beleagured cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.  This is not panache: it is our nature." 

We can't help but study and think and critique: that's the way that God made us.  "An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain.  We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God oursleves or indirectly helping others to do so."  The arts and humanities are inherently good because they are part of what it means to be fully human.

His justification for learning, however, ends on a more pragmatic note (ironically) and one that better says what I was trying to say above: the world is full of ideas, philosophies, and art, whether we will it or not.  We cannot abandon the world to the bad versions of these.  We need constantly to improve our own thinking to combat that which is problematic or downright evil.  The world needs artistists and humanities scholars of good skill and integrity, because if we don't have them, we might as well hand the world to those of ill will and dishonesty.


p.s. Lewis' article is brilliant, and not always easy to find.  There is a site that shows up in the first page of Google results that has a full-text pdf of the document.  But since I'm not sure if it's legal, I'm not going to link to it.  I'd encourage you to try and find (preferrably legally) if you're at all interested.

Last updated Mar. 19th, 2009 at 6:51pm by Kevin Schut