The Liberal Arts in a Global Age
The Big Question we have been assigned to discuss is this: “Should the global nature of our present life (economic, cultural, religious, intellectual) make any difference in how we shape a liberal education?”
One could be forgiven, perhaps, for being reminded of the story about the New England transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller, whose habitual affirmation of the grand scope and sway of things was to declaim the welcoming pronouncement, “I accept the universe!” Word of Fuller’s embrace reached the cranky English intellect, Thomas Carlyle, who is reputed to have rejoined, “Gad! She’d better!” In likewise, the global nature of our present life had better make a difference in how we shape a liberal education. The question is not whether we will accept globalization, but whether we will accept and work productively within the myriad ways in which it will shape us. Here we can think of Bertrand Russell’s distinction (in his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy) between the sort of reality possessed by Hamlet on the one hand, and Napoleon on the other. “If no one thought about Hamlet, there would be nothing left of him; if no one had thought about Napoleon, he would have soon seen to it that someone did!” If we don’t move ourselves to think about the relevance of our globalized context, the world will see to it that we do, with an impact we might not have chosen, had we taken the lead ourselves. So this project is upon us. We can shape our response to globalization, or have it shaped for us. There can be no question which course to choose.
As we shape our response we had better, I think, be ready for a great irony. The modern world has been shaped by the rationalization of all the processes of our lives into more orderly, more productive, more efficient means/end relationships. The big characteristic of life along these lines, as we have discovered over the last couple of centuries, is that we get much better at getting what we know we want. For the privileged sectors of the world and the privileged sectors of population within all sectors, this has been a great boon.
But the results are only as good as what we knew to seek, and only as easy and untroubled as the means we were able to employ. So while we are better and better at getting what we knew we wanted, we are worse and worse at coping with the consequences of not having understood what we ought to have wanted. We find that we did not understand the relationship between some things we wanted and other things we definitely did not want, and continue not to want, even though we are getting them. We do not know what to do about the goods that are left out of our means/end calculations, or how to balance competitive and incompatible ends. We do not know how to deal with unintended consequences. We have, really, no clue how to cope with the pressing need to deliberate in choosing ends, and to come to terms with competing claims in choosing means. We are, thus, set up for the ironic realization of all sorts of things that we did not intend, and perhaps could not have imagined.
Let me label this predicament as the irony of globalization. Simply put, it is this: What we should have expected to be a rich feast of unparalleled diversity may well turn out, instead, to be an unmanageable, unintelligible smorgasbord in which the cultural treasures of the world are thrown before us for our delectation, and reduced to trivial status by the very richness and variety of their simultaneous appearance. The world threatens to arrive, deracinated and in piecemeal fashion, like the biggest, brightest, most succulent produce section in the best market ever. And we will look on thinking, “How interesting. How pretty. How amazing. How different.” And our capacities of choice – which are, after all, what we signed up to cultivate – will be, first, bewitched by just those features. But the market has prepared us for this. We are trained to respond to what is pretty, interesting, amazing, and different. We have been taught how to shop. We will seek whatever strikes our fancy, seeking to secure it at, of course, the cheapest price possible.
No less than kiwi fruit and Gala apples, the market will bring us Maori mythology with, quite likely, no more impact upon our sense of what things mean, or what we should want out of life, or what life wants out of us, than the appearance of a strange new fruit. The global market of ideas, images, stories, ways of being in the world, is likely to merely complicate our occasions of meaningful choice with new options, without offering us any compensating advantage in the process we wanted to carry forward, namely, developing, cultivating, and refining our ability to understand what things mean and hence, to make good choices.
The real danger is that the mode of choosing that market thrust upon us will simply be reinforced. Willy-nilly, then, by bringing us the treasures of the world to delight in, and to contemplate, higher education will take us further into the identity of consumers, those who simply take in, use up, and discard whatever it is that they have recently found to be pretty, interesting, amazing, or different. Nothing is required of us for this outcome to ensue. All we have to do is drift along in the globalizing world, and it will happen. The universally engulfing character of market forces will take care of that.
It was Marx who saw that the market creates a reality that drives all others out of business. Before it, he wrote, “All that is solid melts into air.” Globalization turns the melting pot into a blast furnace: Unimaginably more arrives to be melted into commodities that will be worth just what the market says.
Am I saying that globalization is a Bad Thing? By no means! (Let those who recognize the rhetoric of the Apostle in Romans watch where the chips fly!) Let’s look at some of the good it brings. And these may, in fact, be the first things we should think about.
First, then, because a global perspective means a perspective that incorporates diversity, a certain characteristic perversion of the agenda of liberal education becomes immeasurably more difficult. (By the way, in such contexts, one doesn’t say that something becomes impossible, because there is no agenda so unpromising that someone, somewhere, will not be moved to press it.) But here’s something that used to be alluring and even easy: the Whiggish interpretation. (Named for Herbert Butterfield’s 1931 The Whig Interpretation of History.) This is the perspective embodied in my sixth grade European History textbook, which bore the title: Prelude to American Greatness. Even then I knew that there was something fishy. But there it was: Look, here are the Athenians inventing democracy for us. And check out these rugged barons at Runnymede, standing up for us in 1215! We needed to read Locke because he outlined what Jefferson got clearly. The Whiggish interpretation of history is the view that the past is prologue (Woops! Where can we read that?), the propadeutic to the pinnacle we have achieved. How nice of those Hebrews to have assembled all this Christian literature waiting to disclose its true meaning! And how considerate of Australopithecus, all that bipedal mucking about just to blaze the evolutionary path toward us! Whiggish interpretations are a constant temptation.
But they become harder to make plausible when we are confronted with meaning and value that simply can’t be appropriated as stages on the way to us. So there is a kind of Copernican revolution here. As Copernicus displaced humanity from the center of the cosmos, so globalization displaces us from the focus of history. It makes it harder – not, as I mentioned, impossible, just harder – to tell an us-centered, triumphalist story that gathers the whole sweep into one tale of progress.
By the same token it makes it harder to tell the same story upside down. I mean the story that finds Western civilization to be a sorry sequence of oppression, exploitation, and enslavement. There have been plenty of all those things, I assure you. But the sensibility that finds all and only the worst of humanity’s crimes in the chronicles of the West becomes less plausible in the face of comparable narratives of deplorable wickedness and shameful behavior pretty much wherever we look. The self-centeredness of finding the West uniquely culpable becomes likewise more difficult to assume as a posture.
Pulling these lessons together we can say that globalization makes us harder to claim that history is About Us, whether that was meant to suggest how great we are, or how depraved. It decenters things, which is all to the good, since there can be few less productive enterprises than debating who is really the Middle Kingdom or the City upon a Hill, and who are the mere pretenders. That’s like arguing where “here” is.
A decentered perspective delivers us from that folly. Moreover, if we are agile, it can put us onto a good alternative way of thinking about the multitudes of cases and cases of people doing this and that, carried down to us in history, literature, myth, and tradition. Instead of figuring out how to shoehorn this bit or that into a plotline that glorifies or condemns the outcome, we have the liberty to take things on their own terms or, if that seems implausible, to take them on a variety of terms, seeing how they fit this or that plotline. In so doing we develop the interpretive skills, the abilities of reading and construing human action, that we might have hoped for in undertaking college in the first place. Instead of constructing fables, we can construct our own capacities to assess them, and to deconstruct them when necessary. The subject matter, after all, is not the Greeks, for instance, but ourselves.
You may be forgiven for thinking that I just argued that history isn’t about us, until it is. Let me be clear. The history we study isn’t about us, but the study of history is.
The second opportunity arises from our not unreasonable conviction that the liberal arts in some way constitute an underpinning for democratic culture. This conviction is, arguably, a dominant feature of the “grand narrative” of higher education in America, turning up in the roles of the Founders in such way as Jefferson’s founding of the University of Virginia, Adams’ writing of support for public education into the 1780 draft of the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or the ringing affirmation in the Texas Declaration of Independence, from 1836, that “It is an axiom in political science that unless a people are educated and enlightened it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty or the capacity for self-government.”
Suppose something like this is true, and suppose also that we have an interest in the growth of democracy across the globe. One of the lessons, surely, of the last decade of American foreign policy would be the idea that it is naive and presumptuous to expect democratic institutions to take root in cultures lacking the social, cultural, and intellectual infrastructure to nourish them. Some of the conditions of democracy are, no doubt, economic in nature, and some probably have to do with a very basic freedom from a Hobbesian war of all against all. But some of them, quite likely, also pertain to a complex of cultural mythologies and perpetuated habits of thought and practice.
To the extent that such a complex is embedded in the content and practice of the liberal arts, we have to ask what it is, about that style and manner of education, that makes it useful in this way and, if we can isolate an answer to that question, we have to ask a further question, with all the fear and trembling thereunto appertaining. That further question is this – again, posed in full awareness of the excesses, ignorance, and arrogance of an age of imperialism and missionary zeal – how, if at all, can we export the benefits of the liberal arts in grounding democratic culture? This question forces us to ask what is essential and what is accidental. If it is true that Western democracy, as a matter of historical fact, emerged from Enlightenment views about human nature, coupled with capitalism and the rise of a bourgeoisie, aided by new confidence in the reliability of scientific knowledge, and revulsion over the 17th century’s wars of religion – or some such confluence of factors – how much of this must be absorbed and indwelled, as is, and by whom, in order to lay the groundwork for democracy in another setting?
Or shall we suppose that the task is not to inculcate the lessons of the West, but to find abroad the parallel versions that will lay analogous groundwork in local terms? Can we find liberal education in the Egyptian bureaucratic texts that were used to train officials to govern for the pharaohs? We know these texts as the Book of Proverbs. Can we find it in the works of Confucius and Mencius? Or shall we adopt the well-said remark, “If it’s not your problem, it’s unlikely that you have the solution”? The trouble with the absolution offered by that remark is that the whole point of globalization is that it’s all everyone’s problem. We are not free to ignore the social, economic, and political upheavals of far-off places. Nor can we impose solutions. Nor do we know, very well, how to cast in acceptable, general terms, what would count as a suitable way of working through the patterns of compromise, mutual accommodation, and outright change that would become a path toward understanding.
What we do know is that acknowledging this array of problems obliges us to confront the way in which we succeed or fail in living up to the very principles we would encourage others to adopt. I said a few minutes ago that the idea that the liberal arts are the underpinning of democracy is part of the “grand narrative” of higher education in America. Is this a gleam in our eye or is it a log that occludes our vision as we try to correct others? Several years ago I heard the leader of a respected Lutheran college call this the problem of Jellybyism. The allusion, of course, is to the long-range philanthropist of Dickens’ Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby, who spends her time organizing meetings, taking subscriptions, and doing all manner of general good for settlers on a distant African river, all the while through virtually criminal neglect relegating her own family to hunger, filth, rags, and dispossession. “Charity begins at home,” goes the saying, and so perhaps should our attention to the work of liberal education as a bulwark of democracy. If looking into the world turns out to be a mirror that impresses upon us no more than this, even that will be an improvement.
What more salutary effect of exposure to the rest of the world could we hope for, than to see ourselves more clearly, or as others see us? What would we see if we looked at the stranglehold of monied interests on congressional campaign funding and hence on legislation, or the de facto conversion of political power into a saleable commodity? Or the flagrant politicization of judicial decisions to serve the ideologies, and financial interests, of those who appointed the judges? Mrs. Jellyby may have some housecleaning to do here at home, before we wax too keen on the virtues of what we call democracy, for consumption abroad.
L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, begins with these lines: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Readers of Ian McEwan’s Atonement will recognize the problem of giving an account of the past that does justice to one’s own recollection and to the memory of others, while taking account of the sea changes wrought in both by the passage of time and the reworking of memory over the years, reworkings themselves hardly neutral and disinterested, and respecting, of course, in some sense, what actually happened. Let me make a confession. I am one of those people who can’t ever quite manage to finish one reading project without beginning another in media res. So at any given moment there are a half dozen books going, and sometimes – this is the unintended benefit of what must be a form of attention deficit disorder – the books take up conversation in my head as I am moving through them together.
So it was recently, when I found myself reading, at the same time, Dickens’s David Copperfield, Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Two Brits and a Southerner, spread out over a century and a half. What I discovered is that each is a first person, autobiographical narration, given from the perspective of a man in late middle age, carried out by a narrator whose unreliability in each case falls somewhere on the spectrum between subtle and outrageous, whose integrity falls somewhere on a spectrum between admirably, inquisitively courageous and cravenly self-deceptive. Reading Dickens, Taylor, and Barnes concurrently turned into a seminar on the construction of understanding out of an examination of one’s past. We all tell stories we are determined to live by. But some of us manage to do so with a kind of resolute, though necessarily imperfect integrity, while others of us fall for that most persuasive of intimate deceivers, ourselves.
But back to Hartley: “The past is a foreign country.” What this metaphor gives us is the explicit connection – the likeness, the affinity – between our need to situate ourselves in relation to the past, our past, and the parallel need to situate ourselves in relation to those who do things differently, not because they are in the past, but because they indwell some variant of the human condition significantly different from our own.
We readily accept the idea that our own past is critically relevant to our self-understanding. Hartley puts the contemporary on the same footing. We understand ourselves not at all unless we do so in relation to objects of contrast, objects which, in the dialectical play of such things, can merge, blend, or remain in continuing contrast with what we are.
It is important to see that this is not incidental to our identity, but constitutive of it. Philosophers have been worrying about the nature of memory since St. Augustine, at least. (If your unreliable narrator detector just went off, good for you.) At least since David Hume we have been keenly attuned to the role of memory in constituting personal identity. Now our popular culture, in everything from movies such as Fight Club, Total Recall, and The Matrix, to our worries about Alzheimer’s, presents us with vivid reminders that who we think we are – indeed, who we in fact are – is critically dependent on this strange, poorly understood system we call remembering.
In an analogous way, who we in fact are is critically dependent on our relation to others – individually to other people around us, and as a society on our relation to other societies, other cultures, other human communities. Now we have Margaret Thatcher to thank for the brilliantly mistaken aperçu that «There is no such thing as society.» Well, right. And there is no such thing as the human body, either, since it can be broken down into constituent parts, systems, elements, and pieces. There is no such thing as society if your criterion for anything being real is that it corresponds to one of the hard, indestructible atoms that have fascinated philosophers from Democritus and Lucretius to Russell and Wittgenstein. But that atom is an imaginative construct, hardly a «given» criterion of reality. The fact that there are indefinitely many ways of imagining societies, their boundaries, and their differences, and that these cut across each other as forms of analysis, is evidence of the complexity of our project of understanding, not an indication that there is nothing there. Differences are real. Societies are real. It is up to us to decide which ones to attend to, and what to make of them.
Much has been made over the last few years of important work by, for example, Martha Nussbaum and Anthony Appiah on these issues about the desirability of a conception of global citizenship and the cultivation of cosmopolitan identity and perspective. I commend to you their work, along with the work of Amartya Sen on justice, and Michael Sandel on the structures of just society, for your study and attention. I also encourage you to reach a little further back, to the Scottish Enlightenment, to remember that Adam Smith, now perhaps more worshipped than read as the author of The Wealth of Nations, also made important contributions to ethics in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments, and that David Hume, perhaps best known to us for his devastating critique of facile empiricism and his searching analyses of evidence and authority in religion, also did profoundly important work, in his Treatise of Human Nature, on the capacities of imagination and the resource of sympathy.
With these works, both recent and more distant, in mind, let me suggest that the most important aspect of the process of globalization may well be the expanded field it offers for the pursuit and cultivation of sympathetic imagination. Here’s the case for that. We see in every account of the benefits of education in the liberal arts and sciences, something about the importance of the development of powers of critical thinking. Certainly, even in the narrowest sense, critical thinking is an important ability. Analysis of arguments, evaluation of evidence, command of the principles of logic, argumentation, and rhetoric themselves, are all important outcome abilities. But the best and toughest work comes when disagreement arrives at the point where what one party admits as decisive evidence for some momentous conclusion, the other party deems insufficient, or even irrelevant. That’s the point we come up against when we can’t see how people apparently as fully human as we are could possibly accept the reasons they do for the conclusions they reach. This is the point where logic gives way to something very much like aesthetics.
This is also the point where carrying forward the effort to understand others – no, even more the effort to understand ourselves – demands large capacities of sympathetic imagination. You have to be able to see how the other person could “take” the facts as warranting the conclusion she reaches. You have to be able to get some critical distance on the fact that you yourself are perhaps “taking” some things as reasons that others find outlandish or beside the point. Socrates said that the whole game was about the maxim, “Know thyself.” To do that takes more than critical acuity, more than analysis, more than cleverness. It takes imagination, and sympathy. It takes an admission that knowing oneself requires an earnest, laborious comparison and contrast with other ways of thinking and being. It requires intentional cultivation of a range of sensibilities to which the market does not, of itself, point us.
So let’s hope that the grand irony of globalization can be avoided. Let’s evade the great flattening of diversity into trivial difference. Rather than permitting the bounty of a globalized perspective to magnify the chaos of inexplicable, incommensurable preference, let’s maintain our grip on the project of learning to choose well. We can do that to the extent that we keep our eye on the main purpose. What happened in history is not about us, but the point of our studying it is very much about us. History matters because knowing it shapes us – and ignoring it shapes us even more. How the rest of the world lives on the earth, thinks, talks, structures society, creates art and wealth, and so on is not, actually, about us. But the point of our studying those things is, among other things, about us. And if how we live matters – whether well or poorly, in praiseworthy ways or ways that should be scorned – then how we approach them matters just as much. This dimension of the project of the liberal arts and sciences is not a frill, not decoration. It is as serious as the difference between war and peace, between justice and exploitation, or between there being, or not being, a future.
It bodes well, then, for Concordia that your president has set this agenda. Your traditions take purpose seriously. They take reflection seriously. They take earnestness seriously. Let me encourage you – and your traditions are also of great depth and breadth here – to take sympathetic imagination seriously, directing it inward as well as outward onto the diversity of a globalized world, and to make its energetic exercise the hallmark of your sense that the world is not just a market where you take your pick, but a world of meaning, where the point is to choose wisely, and well.