Tuesday, June 25, 2013

And now for something completely different ...

Departing momentarily from my breathless anticipation of SCOTUS's same-sex-marriage and Voting Rights Act rulings, allow me to recommend this trenchant post from Stanley Fish (not that he needs my recommendation).

Fish decries the failure of humanities teachers (and liberal-arts teachers more broadly) to carefully describe the value of the threatened enterprise in which they are engaged.  He cites a recent pro-liberal-arts report by the Academy of Arts and Sciences as a case in point.

Reiterating a common theme in his blog posts for the Times, Fish suggests that there is a kind of noninstrumental value in studying the humanities, as "a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results."  Maybe so, but emphasizing the monastic nature of the enterprise is hardly an effective way to sell it to a skeptical, penny-pinching public.  And anyway, I think there is much more to be said in defense of the humanities.

Much more to be said, in fact, than can comfortably fit into a single blog post.  (And I'm supposed to be on vacation.)  But allow me to suggest in rough outline two central social goods that can flow, under the right conditions, from liberal-arts education.

First, liberal-arts education can teach young people to think and communicate effectively, skills that are every bit as valuable in a global economy as know-how in math and science.  As Fish intimates, the abilities to think analytically, and to communicate effectively the results of one's thinking, are threatened not just by the ongoing deemphasis of the humanities, but also by other forces, some internal to our educational system and some external.  Government education funding depends increasingly on quantifiable performance metrics, which in practice means standardized tests, which in turn pushes K-12 schools (and increasingly colleges) to "teach to the test" -- emphasizing discrete parcels of knowledge that are susceptible to multiple-choice assessment along with tactics for "gaming" the tests themselves.  The Internet, with its "preference for chunked-up bits of information" (Fish's apt phrase), has become our primary source of knowledge.  Texting and e-mailing, which reward informality and spontaneity and make physical proximity irrelevant, have replaced letter-writing (and increasingly even face-to-face conversation) as our primary means of communication.

I see the results of these forces in my law school classrooms.  Students are every bit as bright as they were ten or fifteen years ago, but on average they are noticeably less well-prepared.  The act of reading carefully for content and context often flummoxes them; indeed the very point of the enterprise often escapes them.  The notion that information they are fed by "authority" figures (including their professors) might not be fully trustworthy or comprehensive rarely occurs to them.  The ideas that there might be multiple viewpoints regarding an issue, or multiple reasonable arguments about the proper resolution of that issue, strike many of them as unnatural.  The capacities to develop an argument based on evidence and to communicate that argument in an effectively orderly manner typically must be learned almost from scratch.

Liberal-arts education, if done well, can lay solid foundations for each of these important skills.  In reading literature or history, a student is not just (or even primarily) absorbing a set of facts; she is developing the capacity to understand complex ideas and arguments, to evaluate those ideas and arguments for strengths and weaknesses, and to identify in them potential biases and information gaps.  In writing about literature or history -- a key component of a good liberal-arts education -- the student is learning to organize her own thoughts into a careful analysis based on evidence and to present that analysis in a way that can be understood by and persuasive to others.

These skills in analytical thinking and communication are not luxuries; they are core components of a person's ability to contribute to society.  Not everyone needs them in the same degree -- the world does need scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, after all -- but everyone should have them to some degree.  Even scientists and engineers need to be able to evaluate others' work and to present their own work to others.  No wonder a majority of Fortune 500 executives would choose a liberal-arts education for their own children, according to the AAAS report.

Which leads me to the second central point:  Analytical thinking and communications skills among the citizenry -- and the educational methodologies that cultivate them -- are crucial to a well-functioning democracy.  To put it more bluntly:  Liberal-arts education is essential to democracy.  The core democratic premise of fundamental political decisionmaking by the people themselves -- not by a disconnected, unaccountable elite -- becomes unobtainable, unrealistic, chimerical if many or most of the people themselves cannot effectively absorb, understand, and evaluate information, reach reasonable conclusions based on that evaluation, and communicate those conclusions effectively to other citizens.  These are the skills a liberal-arts education can teach.  And they are fading fast in our instant-gratification, hands-off-my-pocketbook, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society.

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