The purpose of liberal arts education: an examined life

A conversation between Professors Robert George Cornel West of the Princeton University (ht: The Heterodox Academy). I have extracted some portions that made me think and I am presenting them in this blog post. You can find the full transcript here.

  • It’s the gospel of liberal arts education. It’s a gospel that is all about interrogating your own assumptions and presuppositions. In an age of ideology, it’s hard to think of what could be more important than the self-critical attitude and the virtues of intellectual humility and love of truth that are at the core of liberal arts learning.
  • As Plato said, perhaps an unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps the wealth and the prestige and the status and the power and influence are mere dross. Maybe the real meaning of life, what it’s really all about is something different, something that can only be obtained through critical self-examination.
  • And to learn how to die is to muster the courage to critically examine yourself, the courage to interrogate yourself so that you must wrestle with a certain doctrine and dogma that may have to die — certain xenophobic prejudice, certain assumption or presupposition you’ve had in your life, you’re holding on for dear life and you have to let it go. That’s a form of death.
  • Spiritual blackout is about the eclipse of integrity, the eclipse of honesty, the eclipse of decency. And once that goes, no matter what our ideological or political orientations are, we’re just on the way to the survival of the slickest.
  • What we don’t want is for higher education across the board to be instrumentalized to the goal of, for the individual, career attainment, and for the society as a whole, simply training our workforce for the new economy or the next stage of the economy.
  • I do believe in all honesty that we’re in a deep moral and spiritual crisis. The liberal arts tries to get us to look at the world through moral and spiritual lens, whatever our traditions are, so that the sense of what it means to be human is not reduced to just money making, status seeking, manipulation, domination. Those are the dominant forces in human history. Human history is a cycle of hatred and revenge and resentment, domination, exploitation, and subordination. How do you interrupt those? That’s what Plato is concerned about. Why is Plato concerned about it? Because his mentor
    condemned — Socrates. He said, I’m going to make the world safe for the legacy of Socrates so every generation will have to come to terms with his example, the enactment of an examined life. And Plato pulled it off pretty well.
  • think the dominant goal for most people these days, or at least many people these days — perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so judgmental — is feeling good. It’s having satisfaction. People find it in different places, look for it in different places, often look for it in all the wrong places. But they’re after a certain psychological status, a certain desirable psychological state….something deeper and more difficult to handle.
  • Why do people want money? Because prestige comes with it. Why do — or status. Why do people want prestige and status? Because you feel good. It makes you feel good. It’s like a drug. It’s the same reason people like applause. It’s the same reason people, including students at universities, are so conformist, so unwilling to cut against the grain, so unwilling to question the campus dogmas and orthodoxies, because if you do, you get criticism, and that doesn’t feel good. What feels good is applause. It’s like a drug. It’s addictive like a drug. And to avoid that drug, you need spiritual strength.
  • What’s our age? Well, it seems to me that our age is the age of feeling,… And the age of feeling — feeling is what slips into the role of governor when faith and reason are abandoned, when they lose their status, when they lose their prestige, when they lose their authority. And that’s what you get — I think what Cornel is calling spiritual blackout. You get spiritual blackout when feeling is the whole thing and what we’re after is feeling good. Some people seek that in very, very bad and dangerous ways: through drugs, promiscuity. Other people seek it in other ways, less physically dangerous but perhaps no less spiritually dangerous: through the status and prestige that comes with wealth or power or what have you.
  • Again, there’s nothing wrong in itself about feeling or desiring to feel good, but if that’s your fundamental goal, then you’ve got a deep spiritual problem. And the last thing you’re going to be looking for is the examined life. You will not see the point of the examined life because what it does is make you feel bad.
  • The examined life is a life in which you’re constantly questioning yourself. You’re subjecting yourself to self-criticism. Intellectual humility is a central virtue because in order to carry out the enterprise of self-criticism, you have to actually deal with the possibility that you might be wrong, and that’s hard, especially if changing your view would result in your being stigmatized, ostracized, isolated on your campus or in your community, whether your community is right, left, center, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — whatever your community is. Seeking the examined life can be a very dangerous thing if what you’re after in life is satisfaction and feeling good. It’s a probe. It’s a prod. It’s a disruptor.
  • People don’t feel as though anything matters, that they’re looking to feel good, something that will make them feel good. People want to at least feel like they matter, something matters. And when they can’t find that, when they’re in the condition of nihilism, you will turn to something else. Now, drugs are just the kind of gross, obvious example for people who are very poor, who don’t have an alternative, although it also affects people who are very rich. But for a lot of people who are very rich, they can find that. They can look for that in a less obviously physically dangerous way. And it can, in its pathological forms, take the form of not just power but domination; not just influence, but narcissism — can take these kinds of forms. And there’s an awful lot of that about.
  • So the call for the restoration of liberal arts ideals is necessarily a call for a sort of spiritual reawakening, a revival, which is at the same time a condition for anybody’s truly appreciating that it’s worth working hard for things, that there are things that are worth having that go beyond how they make you feel, things that are worth having even though — you know, the drug rush is not going to be the reward but, nevertheless, whose value we can perceive and appreciate and struggle for and dedicate ourselves to.
  • So this is not an argument that you have to have a college education or a liberal arts education to be a good person. It’s just that the value of a liberal arts education consists at least in part in its capacity to contribute to our spiritual and moral fulfillment, our spiritual and moral well-being, and there will be a certain number of people for whom, absent that provision, the path is going to be the wrong one. It will be down the path toward seeking wealth and power and status and prestige and influence because there will be a certain number of people who will confront Shakespeare or confront Plato and suddenly realize, “I’m on the wrong path. I’m going the wrong direction. I need to reevaluate my life. I need to assess what really matters. I need to rethink what I’m going, what I’m going to dedicate these next 60 years or 70 years to doing.”
  • My brother David Brooks talks about this in terms of the shift in his own life from being obsessed with his resume as opposed to becoming obsessed with his eulogy said at his funeral. That’s a very different set of stories and narratives and analysis of what’s said at your funeral as opposed to just what’s on your resume. I think what’s said at your funeral is very much about integrity and honesty, decency, love, sacrifice, self-surrender, service, and what have you.
  • On Liberty” — there Mill makes the point that we should value dissent even when we are confident that the dissenter’s wrong because that dissent will enable us by way of defending the truth to deepen our understand and appreciation of it.
  • We human beings wrap our emotions around our convictions, which is not a bad thing in itself, but it can become an impediment to having an open mind. So, you know, I’ve got a lot of stuff against Nietzsche, and yet I read him and I assign him not only because I know that trying to respond to his criticisms will deepening my understating of what I believe to be true, but also because I know that there is a chance — maybe an outside chance, but a chance — that he’s right and I’m wrong.
  • … a true liberal arts education with that openness of mind, with that intellectual humility, that willing to recognize that one might be wrong, that willingness to engage the greatest that’s been thought and said by the greatest minds, the greatest people, it’s like getting on a train not knowing where you’re going to get off and maybe even not recognizing who you are anymore when you get off that train.

I had read about Professors Robert George and Cornel West last year in a Bloomberg article. Their collaboration, despite different ideological viewpoints, was refreshing to read. They reminded me of Professor Daniel Kahneman who had done that too, in practice. This is the original Bloomberg article and this is my cover story for Swarajya for December 2015 (‘Who is a Liberal?’) in which I had mentioned them and Professor Daniel Kahneman.

 

5 thoughts on “The purpose of liberal arts education: an examined life

  1. Dear Ananth,

    “Liberal arts education” is about as liberal as most “liberal” people. While in principle there is nothing wrong with what Prof. West said, in practice, the overwhelming majority of liberal arts professors are nothing more than third-rate minds and ideologues. In the USA the percentage is between 80% and 90%, while in India it is between 90% and 100%. I am sorry to be so harsh but that is my considered opinion. So Prof. West and others like him should think about is: How can liberal arts education be rescued from (the current crop of) liberal arts professors?

    Also, by saying: “What we don’t want is for higher education across the board to be instrumentalized to the goal of, for the individual, career attainment, and for the society as a whole, simply training our workforce for the new economy or the next stage of the economy.” he is looking for a life of comfort without accountability. He and others like him can engage in such activities, provided they don’t ask someone else to pay their salaries.

    Just my 1 Rupee worth.

  2. Thank you for your comments. From having read the entire transcript, I can say that I disgree with your judgement that Prof. West was looking for a life of comfort with accountability. One needs to know a lot more about the person, their professional reputation and achievements to make that statement. It is not reasonable – even if it were tempting – to make such a statement from selected extracts from one conversation.

  3. Dear Ananth,

    You are quite right. I do not know Prof. West and have no right to comment about him specifically. I should have said “liberal arts professors in general are looking for a life of comfort with no accountability, though there might be honourable exceptions.” With that amendment however, I reiterate my original statement.

  4. Every generation bemoans the shortsightedness of the next one. If the social declines decried over millennia actually were the unmitigated cataclysms that pundits purported them to be, civilisation as we know it would not exist. The ideals of liberal education are aspects of civilisation that are certainly worth keeping, since they guide future generations of sensible thinkers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s