A Defense of My Life's Vocation

Author: Peter Wicks

The end of the world could not have come at a more inconvenient time.

On the day when it was drawn to my attention that the world was undergoing a financial meltdown of apocalyptic proportions, I had been trying to come up with a short answer to the question “What’s your thesis about?” It was the “short” part that was giving me trouble.

I had plenty of experience explaining my thesis. Since I started working toward a Ph.D. in philosophy I had discussed it with professors, graduate students, curious undergraduates, the occasional taxi driver and, once or twice each year when returning from trips home to England, immigration officers. I felt confident in my ability to explain what my research was about and why it was worthwhile, or at any rate unlikely to contribute to the overthrow of the United States government.

The problem was that I couldn’t see any way to sum it all up in 60 seconds. I had been told that, in the fiercely competitive academic job market, having a good short answer to the question “What’s your thesis about?” would improve my chances of being asked for the longer version. The fact remained however that summing up an 80,000-word thesis in a few sentences felt rather like trying to fit an aircraft carrier into a baby carriage.

As the afternoon went on, my wastepaper basket slowly filled with the crumpled white meteorites of my failed attempts. I eventually decided to take a break after I remembered a Woody Allen joke: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”

In the corridor I saw a professor with whom I am on friendly terms. I told him I was having difficulties coming up with an elevator pitch that wouldn’t require me to hit the emergency stop button. He told me the stock market had crashed.

Education’s economics

On television that night the economists — practitioners of what Thomas Carlyle called “the dismal science” — delivered their predictions, each worse than the last. After a while I began to suspect that they were engaged in a private competition to see who could come up with the bleakest prognosis. It seemed as if no sooner had one tenured professor appeared on NBC and declared that we were entering a new Great Depression than a rival network produced a Nobel Laureate to announce that by Thanksgiving we would be living in a new Stone Age. It occurred to me that the Paleolithic era was not a period in which the services of professional philosophers had been in high demand.

As time went on and the world kept spinning on its axis, the tone of the commentary became less eschatological. Civilization would survive, but the recession would be severe and there was no way that higher education could escape its effects. State schools would obviously feel the strain of falling tax revenues, but many private institutions were also in trouble. Even Harvard, the Ozymandias of American higher education, proved startlingly vulnerable.

Before the stock market crash, Harvard’s endowment, the largest of any university in the world, was approaching $37 billion. Some critics were beginning to wonder out loud whether Harvard had ceased to be a university and become a hedge fund that maintained a university for tax purposes. Since then, $8 billion of Harvard’s endowment has disappeared, like the Cheshire Cat, and the university’s finances have been thrown into turmoil. Those less wealthy institutions with more cautious investment strategies and less lavish spending commitments have generally fared better, but the urgent need to cut costs is being felt everywhere.

In times of economic hardship the academic disciplines that suffer most tend to be those which have the hardest time explaining their value in economic terms. Historically, recessions have been toughest for the humanities, those subjects concerned with history, literature, the arts, philosophy and religion.

Last February The New York Times published an article about the effects of the current recession on the humanities with the headline “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” The title referred to the present state of the humanities, but it served equally well as a statement of a general principle. The article was filled with disturbing statistics about canceled job searches and budget cutbacks across the humanities disciplines, and the author concluded that “the humanities are under greater pressure than ever to justify their existence to administrators, policy makers, students and parents.”

No one in my position could regard the canceled job searches as good news, but it was less clear how I should feel about the pressure the humanities were feeling to justify their existence. After all, wasn’t this a challenge the humanities should be able to meet? And shouldn’t those of us committed to teaching humanities subjects be in the habit of defending their value whatever state the stock market is in?

The value of philosophy

Those of us who want to make the case for the continuing importance of the humanities often find that we have several answers to the question of what a humanistic education is for. The challenge is to show how they fit together.

One type of answer is quasi-vocational. When asked about the advantages of studying philosophy, to take my own subject as an example, we can say that while philosophy does not lead directly to a specific career it does involve the cultivation of a range of useful skills, including the interpretation of difficult texts and the analysis of complex arguments. We can, and often do, cite statistics showing that philosophy majors tend to do well in law school.

All this is true, but defending the value of philosophy in this way can leave us feeling uneasy, because it has so little to do with the reasons we ourselves were drawn to the subject. We were drawn to it not because we were hoping to cultivate our transferable skills but because we had questions about the existence of God and the foundations and limits of our knowledge. We wanted to know whether a scientific view of human beings left room for free will, and we wanted to understand the mysterious relationship between our physical brain and our mental thoughts.

When NASA finds itself under pressure from policymakers to justify its existence it often issues press releases drawing attention to the tremendous technological advances that have resulted from its work. The Apollo mission led to major developments in medical and solar technologies, textiles and insulation. Firefighters now use equipment adapted from NASA spacesuits, and even the lowly Dustbuster has cosmic lineage, being the direct descendent of a portable drill once used on the lunar surface. All of these things are useful, some have saved lives. But that’s not why we went to the moon.

A different kind of justification for the humanities places them at the heart of a liberal education, the purpose of which is to prepare the student not for the workplace but for life as a whole. This is the answer that comes most naturally to those of us who teach in the humanities, but as it stands it is vague. It tells us what a liberal education is not but only gestures toward what it is.

Since, in addition to working on my summary-defying thesis, I have spent the last two years teaching Notre Dame undergraduates, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of a liberal education and how best to articulate its goals. Most of my students are taking my class in order to fulfill the University’s philosophy requirement. It seems to me that if I am going to make students read Plato and Aristotle, not to mention the notoriously difficult writings of Immanuel Kant, then I owe it to them to offer a plausible explanation of why Notre Dame might view a serious encounter with philosophy as an essential part of their education.

Life’s meaning

I decided to ask some members of the Notre Dame faculty for their thoughts about the role of the humanities and the idea of a liberal education. I also wanted to find out what they made of the claim made by Anthony Kronman in his recent book, Education’s End, where he wrote that America’s colleges and universities have largely abandoned their purpose of acquainting students with the tradition of humanistic learning through which they can confront the most fundamental questions of life’s meaning.

Kronman places the blame for this abdication of purpose on two forces that exert a powerful influence within U.S. higher education: political correctness and the research ideal. The ideology of political correctness encourages students to see themselves primarily as members of various identity groups and is suspicious of the implicit universalism of the humanistic tradition. When the dominant interpretive themes are the divisions of race, gender and class, and when “otherness” is a scholarly leitmotif, the words of the Roman playwright Terence that were once a humanist credo — “I am human, nothing human is alien to me” — appear naïve, if not reactionary.

With the research ideal, the primary function of the university is the production of knowledge, rather than its preservation or transmission. Status and career advancement are determined primarily by scholarly productivity, and an incentive scheme is created in which the desperate search for something new to say about Hamlet takes precedence over teaching a new generation of readers to unlock Shakespeare’s riches. If modern interpretations of classic literature often seem crazy, that does not mean that those offering the interpretations have gone mad. On the contrary, they are behaving rationally in a system in which one must always have something new to say and all the sane interpretations were already taken.

The Classics

I asked Elizabeth Mazurek, the chair of the Classics Department, what she thought about Kronman’s bleak assessment of the state of liberal education in America. She noted that his charges were familiar; a decade ago Victor Davis Hanson had argued that Classics had become a moribund discipline and that fashionable politics and the overemphasis on research were to blame.

Both authors, Mazurek said, were addressing real problems while exaggerating their severity. She also noted that their pessimism was at odds with something they both wanted to insist upon: the intrinsic power of the classic texts.

“I think what [Hanson] underestimates is the sheer appeal of Greek and Roman literature, and Greek and Roman mythology. . . . I think there’s something so compelling about the literature itself.” At Notre Dame at least, far from being a subject in decline, Classics is showing signs of increasing popularity. Next year will see the highest number of students enrolled as Classics majors since Mazurek joined the faculty 19 years ago.

Mazurek’s view of the benefits of studying Classics for a student’s intellectual development centers on the worth of mastering the classical languages. “If you understand the way that Latin and Greek work then you’re learning how English works, and your view of English is forever changed,” she said. “You cannot be the same kind of writer or speaker that you were before you learned Latin or Greek.”

It occurred to me that in a certain sense a liberal education might be not just non-vocational, but anti-vocational. A man who is unable to utter phrases like “We’ve developed a new paradigm for product synergy” without suffering from involuntary spasms will find that certain career options are forever closed to him.

Mazurek also argued that familiarity with classical texts leaves students better equipped to reflect upon their own life experiences. One has to be careful here, because some attempts to get students to relate to literature devolve into invitations to simply identify with the characters they read about. John Fleming, who taught literature at Princeton, made fun of this way of reading: “Oh, Hamlet is just like me — because, like, I can’t decide what to major in, either.”

Mazurek had something more nuanced in mind. Reading the literature of ancient Greece and Rome we encounter both commonalities of human experience and tremendous difference. The study of ancient literature is an education in that which is changeable in human nature and that which is constant.

Ancient wisdom

I spoke next to David O’Connor, a Plato specialist who teaches in Notre Dame’s Department of Philosophy, where he is also the director of undergraduate studies. I was especially eager to discuss a course he teaches called Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love. The class is concerned with themes of erotic love, friendship and desire. The syllabus changes each year, but it is always built around Plato’s Symposium and includes a play by Shakespeare and a papal encyclical, along with works of contemporary fiction and film.

Like Mazurek, O’Connor felt that rumors of the death of liberal education had been greatly exaggerated. He did, however, agree with Kronman that an academic culture which prized original research above all else provided an inhospitable climate for such an education. The problem becomes most acute at the level of graduate education, which is increasingly geared toward preparing students for highly specialized research, often at the expense of the intellectual breadth needed for professors to exemplify the benefits of a well-rounded education. As O’Connor put it, “You can’t make the students more liberally educated than the faculty.”

O’Connor also said that rather than focusing on the benefits students would receive from a liberal education in the future, he preferred to place the emphasis on what they gain from their classes as they take them.

“I’m suspicious of justification by results that will happen later,” he told me. A core purpose of a humanistic education, he said, is the appreciation of human achievement — and this is an appreciation that can start now. By introducing students to great works of literature, “My experience is that you can make the world larger.”

My final interview was with John Cavadini, the chair of the Department of Theology. He acknowledged that those who wanted to defend the humanities often felt torn about how best to do so. These disciplines do possess social utility, he said, but he feared that making the case for them in this way would miss too much of what makes them important.

“If you go down that road you are basically conceding that the humanities . . . have no intrinsic value,” he said, adding that one of the challenges which we face as teachers is to show students how to appreciate what is valuable about the works that we study.

Cavadini offered a more optimistic assessment of the tension between the demands placed on professors by an academic culture that insists upon ever more original research and the requirements of undergraduate instruction. Teaching itself can provide a corrective to the tendency of specialized research to devolve into ever narrower conversations among one’s fellow specialists. Undergraduates, he said, tend to ask the basic questions that force us to go back to the foundations of our academic disciplines.

Midlife crisis

Each of the faculty members I spoke with was more sanguine than Kronman about the prospects of the humanities, though none was dismissive of the problems he identified. Kronman’s book is a polemic, so a certain amount of overstatement is to be expected; it comes with the genre. As Tom Lehrer once observed, you can’t write a satirical song that includes the line, “But on the other hand . . .”

Still, this approach has its dangers. Exaggerating the obstacles to humanistic education in the modern academy can make them appear insurmountable. A tactic meant to convey urgency instead leads to despair. This is why it is important to point out that despite politically correct orthodoxies and inflated research demands, which make it increasingly difficult for professors to combine the roles of teacher and scholar in a way that does justice to both, humanistic education has not vanished from America’s universities. There are still teachers dedicated to showing students that the deepest questions of life needn’t be left to private speculation but can be studied with the aid of the great thinkers of the past and present.

Kronman is right to insist that in a liberal education questions about life’s purpose should be tackled head on rather than relegated to the dorm room, although he sometimes makes it sound as if what really matters is just that students choose for themselves which answer they shall live by.

But there has to be more to it than that. These aren’t the kind of questions where the answers are in the back of the book, but it doesn’t follow that any answer is as good as any other. If it did, then it would be hard to see what made the question of how we should live so important in the first place.
The question of what the humanities are for has no simple answer, but if I had to sum it up in 60 seconds here is what I would say:

The best time to have a midlife crisis is in college. I don’t mean that anyone should expect to graduate feeling as if they have life all worked out, but by the time they graduate they should be in the habit of thinking seriously about what gives life meaning and value.

The humanities equip us for such reflection by cultivating our historical imagination. By studying the literature and ideas of those who came before us we learn that, like them, we are living in a particular historical period, and we come to recognize its prejudices and blind spots. We also discover that our sense of what is obvious has a history, and that what now seems obvious once seemed revolutionary. We don’t just learn to quote the great thinkers of the past; we learn that we have been quoting them without realizing it for a long time.

C.S. Lewis put it this way:

In the individual life . . . it is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us. I think the same is true of society. To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians.

The humanities will survive these tough times. They will survive because what they offer is something we badly need. Those of us who teach a humanities subject should not expect the pressure to justify what we do to ease in the foreseeable future. Even if it does, we should go on defending the value of the humanities anyway, so we won’t be caught off guard the next time the world ends.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department at Notre Dame.
Photo of Peter Wicks by Matt Cashore.