The Liberal Arts Are Too Important To Cede to Idiots

The United States is traditionally a practical place, being an overgrown British colony and dumping ground for European cast-offs of varying quality level. However, before the full onset of public education, the country was known for being unusually literate. The America of 1776 read at a higher level than the America of the early 21st century.

The post-colonial era up until public education annihilated our intellectual standards was one of surprising vigor in the liberal arts.

Even through the 20th century, the question of who would write the next ‘Great American Novel’ was a source of constant speculation. Although true reactionaries could quibble with the real quality of American letters on an absolute scale, for our purposes, the decline is what’s more important.

Most contemporary debate about the liberal arts is both insipid and toxic. This is true both on what passes for the right and the left.

The right tends to be of one of two schools:

  1. The liberal arts are for stupid women and fags. We should not teach them anymore. Instead, we should train students in science and technology, so that they can get good jobs and pay taxes.
  2. The liberal arts are these important great books which we must study as if they were museum artifacts, so that we can look cool in our tweed jackets and pretend like Communists don’t already run America.

On the left, it’s actually pretty similar:

  1. The liberal arts are taking valuable government dollars away from how they really should be spent: training more engineers so that we can pay lower wages to our employees and keep more of the profits for ourselves. Work is dreary and it’s better to pay someone else to do it for you with freshly printed money.
  2. The liberal arts are critical to fighting cishetero patriarchal homophobic oppression. Without teaching the liberal arts in our public universities, no one would read the great works written by trans-species authors of color.

My formulation of why the liberal arts are important is going to more crass and utilitarian than I’d otherwise prefer to frame it. I’m going to frame it like this because if I’m too delicate about it, I’m concerned that the message won’t be understood by various thickheaded conservatives.

The arts matter because they unify the culture

Culture tends to be what animates people, what keeps them from wanting to put a bullet in their own heads. It’s what they use to form important relationships with one another. Shared aesthetic sensibility is most of what draws one person to another, and what draws small clusters of people to larger groups.

Without people cooperating with one another, there’s conflict, anomie, unhappiness, and a lack of vigorous, happy cooperation.

Why do so many people want to kill themselves nowadays? Why are they having trouble remaining motivated? Why can’t they maintain happy relationships with one another? Why are they beset with vices and deficient in virtue?

It’s probably because the left has obliterated what was once a rich, animating cultural tradition which the American people took close to their hearts.

There is the sort of propaganda-poster unity common to socialist countries, and then there’s the unifying cultures indigenous to various European countries from pre-modern times. One is a unity that only exists on paper: in reality, everyone under Communism is out to fuck everyone else over. In a real culture, it’s a unity of attitudes, of life sensibilities, of morals, of stories, of vocal tone, and other intangible factors that prevent people within the country from behaving like vicious Communists eager to betray their neighbors.

People who share a common cultural framework are more apt to cooperate within their own groups. Preventing that common framework from forming, or forcing a dysfunctional framework upon the whole society, damages the ability of people within that country to cooperate with their fellows.

The study of the liberal arts should be an elite pursuit

When the highest standards of liberal education are not held by the political and social elite, their inferiors deteriorate rapidly, with no guiding stars to look up towards. Even a Napoleon is more respectable than a Snooki.

The left has denigrated the European cultural tradition, and has ceded it to idiots and junk-merchants. To care about culture is either to be a Social Justice Stormtrooper, or a hopelessly reprobate reactionary, out of touch with what’s important today.

Real elite people of Tomorrow’s Glorious Technocratic Future focus on their spreadsheets —

What crap is this? These idiotic proclamations are why the country has so often tended to veer towards inane, backwards-looking non-strategies which could have never succeeded. Americans are routinely bamboozled by people bearing spreadsheets with no sense of human life beyond that which can be modeled in Excel.

Part of this problem is baked into the American political design: if we’re all democratically equal, what sort of antisocial maniac says that the liberal arts shouldn’t be made democratically accessible? Isn’t this part of the whole centuries-long conflict between the animating philosophies behind Protestantism and Catholicism, bound up with politics, technology, and various local differences? Should the Word be equally accessible to everyone, or only through the interpretation of a hierarchical elite?

Well, yeah.

This is one of the reasons why there has been no meaningful resolution to the debate on this issue. The main premises are not being debated in an open way, because what passes for left and right share the most important premise in that education ought to have egalitarian aims, rather than aims that strengthen social hierarchy.

Because the aim of the liberal arts is to feed into the care and growth of a culture that strengthens a glorious civilization, the de-civilizing impulses glorified in just about every liberal arts department that matters in the US runs against their own proper aims. When conservatives think of the liberal arts, they tend to think of all the Communist petit-professeurs who tyrannize their students with their postmodern gibberish.

There can be no reconstruction of that hierarchy until conservatives realize that promoting any form of egalitarianism runs counter to their more important goals of living within a civilization that shares their values. The ‘everyone is equal’ value annihilates all other values in time.


15 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts Are Too Important To Cede to Idiots

  1. Pingback: The Liberal Arts Are Too Important To Cede to Idiots | Reaction Times

  2. When the barbarians conquered Rome, they knew that had conquered a people with a superior culture and adopted much of it. When the (relatively culturally barbarous) Americans conquered the world, they had no such humility.

    The intellectual vacuum created by America’s overwrought utilitarianism was bound to be filled by something. Second rate propaganda to control the midwitted seems for now to have won the day.

    • It wasn’t always like that in the US, but it’s always had this particular tendency.

      It’s just that this tendency overwhelmed the others. Part of it has to do with the anti-German fervor whipped up during both World Wars — Germany was the font of European culture from the 19th c. onward really, and we bombed it into oblivion.

    • This is simply not true. American literary nationalism MASSIVELY influenced the second and third wave of Continental (particularly French) Romantics. In fact, American and Russian literary culture dominated the second half of the nineteenth century. Edgar Alan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Nathanael Hawthorne directly influenced Arthur Rimbaud and the French Imagists while Henry James and a slew of Russians produced the great novels of the Late Victorian era at a time when the Germans were fighting a forty year civil war and the English poets of the time were writing decadent sonnets to little boy lovers and political screeds about Fabian Socialism.

  3. I pattern matched this against this and, slightly more light-hearted, this:

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma, according to Harry’s teachings, ran thus: Two prisoners had been locked in separate cells. There was evidence against each prisoner, but only minor evidence, enough for a prison sentence of two years apiece. Each prisoner could opt to defect, betray the other, testify against them in court; and this would take one year off their own prison sentence, but add two years to the other’s. Or a prisoner could cooperate, staying silent. So if both prisoners defected, each testifying against the other, they would serve three years apiece; if both cooperated, or stayed silent, they would serve two years each; but if one defected and the other cooperated, the defector would serve a single year, and the cooperator would serve four.

    And both prisoners had to make their decision without knowing the other one’s choice, and neither would be given a chance to change their decision afterward.

    Draco had observed that if the two prisoners had been Death Eaters during the Wizarding War, the Dark Lord would have killed any traitors.

    Harry had nodded and said that was one way to resolve the Prisoner’s Dilemma – and in fact both Death Eaters would want there to be a Dark Lord for exactly that reason.
    But, Harry had continued afterward, the fear of a third party punishing you was not the only possible reason to cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    Suppose, Harry had said, you were playing the game against a magically produced identical copy of yourself.

    Draco had said that if there were two Dracos, of course neither Draco would want anything bad to happen to the other one, not to mention that no Malfoy would let himself become known as a traitor.

    Harry had nodded again, and said that this was yet another solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma – people might cooperate because they cared about each other, or because they had senses of honor, or because they wanted to preserve their reputation. Indeed, Harry had said, it was rather difficult to construct a true Prisoner’s Dilemma – in real life, people usually cared about the other person, or their honor or their reputation or a Dark Lord’s punishment or something besides the prison sentences. But suppose the copy had been of someone completely selfish –

    (Pansy Parkinson had been the example they’d used)

    – so each Pansy only cared what happened to her and not to the other Pansy.

    Given that this was all Pansy cared about… and that there was no Dark Lord… and Pansy wasn’t worried about her reputation… and Pansy either had no sense of honor or didn’t consider herself obligated to the other prisoner… then would the rational thing be for Pansy to cooperate, or defect?

    Some people, Harry said, claimed that the rational thing to do was for Pansy to defect against her copy, but Harry, plus someone named Douglas Hofstadter, thought these people were wrong. Because, Harry had said, if Pansy defected – not at random, but for what seemed to her like rational reasons – then the other Pansy would think exactly the same way. Two identical copies wouldn’t decide different things. So Pansy had to choose between a world in which both Pansies cooperated, or a world in which both Pansies defected, and she was better off if both copies cooperated.

    So your ability to trust your fellow-man is based on the degree to which you believe he shares your values, and thinks like you. A rich, shared culture gives everyone in society a common set of values and experiences to draw upon. A common set of role-models to look up to.

    I wrote one of my final papers on trust at University. Social trust is a key factor in the development of civil society. Developing societies are often greatly hampered by the lack of trust between people from different tribes or villages or even different families.

    Culture is a pre-requisite for social trust.

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  5. (3) The liberal arts have largely sailed off into irrelevance and shoddiness, under their own power and direction. CP Snow diagnosed it in some detail in _The Two Cultures_, and CS Lewis added a useful bit of diagnosis somewhere in the space trilogy with acid remarks about how the mediocrity of the new people was a price worth paying for their political reliability. Their institutional response has been “full speed ahead, and pile on a lot more of the cultural Marxism.”

    Sure, there are interesting exceptions. E.g., there are various authors of popular fiction that have really a cultured style that would be exceedingly difficult for someone like me (Ph. D. in Chemistry, lifetime reader of zillions of books) to imitate, and when I happen to know their biographies they tend to have spent years in liberal arts at the college level. So people who want to can learn something neat that even an outsider can clearly see is nontrivial.

    Overall, though, the liberal arts have done embarrassingly badly on both sides of the values of Snow’s _The Two Cultures_, falling into mediocrity or worse in scholarship along prescientific lines and cultivating invincible ignorance of most technical scholarship, even highly relevant technical scholarship.

  6. (supporting my point about mediocrity or worse in prescientific knowledge:)

    On the classical-scholarship side, it should not be a commonplace that a history buff knows more than tenured professor (or that my father got a dismissive “what would an engineer care about history” when he asked a professor something at a social occasion). Organizations of tenured professors should certainly not make mistakes that display comprehensive ignorance that would embarrass a non-history-buff mere compulsive reader like me. (_Arming America_… even I know enough primary sources and contemporaneous military history to have been able to say WTF at several points without looking anything up.)

    I doubt the competence of a techie who can’t solve an equation or build something (preferably both), and I doubt the competence of a liberal artist who can’t write or speak clearly (p.b.). I informally proof-read some liberal arts stuff when I was a chemistry grad student, and while I freely admit technical writing tends to be pretty clunky, it is just the mediocrity of the graffiti in Purgatory; the liberal arts folk too often write the blather that is blasted out of the loudspeakers in Hell.

    Specialist grant-funded academic journals or entire subspecialties can inbreed and drift into the weeds in any field, literary or technical — but something like the Sokal hoax shouldn’t happen in a journal that is not already recognized as having drifted into the weeds. Defenders of the liberal arts who can’t find a way to express what they are defending without clearly excluding dysfunctional things like _Social Text_ are unconvincing. (To repurpose a comment of John Schilling on Gruber: if the liberal arts are lying, hypocrisy, and open contempt for other intellectuals, and if promoters of the liberal arts are not calling people out on their lying, hypocrisy, and contempt lest we frighten them away or shame them into silence, I am unconvinced of the value of this “defense” of the “liberal arts”.)

  7. (supporting my point about ignorance of tech scholarship:)

    On the technology side, the utter ignorance that Snow describes (and illustrates with his second-law-of-thermo example, among other things) is pervasive and extends down to knowledge that is directly relevant to the ignorant liberal artist’s specialty. Historians don’t feel a need to understand population genetics or disease organism biology. Historians of science make silly technical solecisms, and philosophy of science has solecisms and displays ridiculous levels of intellectual inbreeding. I once had a particular interest in Karl Popper, and took a semester of philosophy of science, and then read more on my own. He is justly famous, for he did indeed do some good work, but still his work has characteristically _Two_Cultures_-ish embarrassing limitations: he seems to have remained unaware of the mathematical/computerscience work that solved some of his technical problems in a powerful general way. (Generalizations of Occam’s Razor, especially, starting from information theory, running through Solomonoff induction by the 1960s, so he and his philosopher contemporaries should have been aware of it by the time Popper was wrestling unsuccessfully with induction and falsification w.r.t. evolution by natural selection in the 1970s.) And it’s doubly embarrassing that the liberal arts specialists in the field remain ignorant of the connections. which today run through several varieties of machine learning.

    E.g., I have Vapnik _The Nature of Statistical Learning Theory_ on my shelf; it shows how to make a computer learn to recognize handwriting, among other things, using rigorous generalized versions of the Occam/Popper line of analysis, and it cites back to Popper. Gruenwald’s _the Minimum Description Length Principle_ cites back to Popper extensively and goes into great detail how to use Solomonoff-based analysis. But if you read something like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it doesn’t cite forward to any of the techies who have worked the bugs out of these ideas so effectively that they can be automated, or cite backward to Solomonoff. Instead we learn that the important subsequent work related to Popper’s ideas is critiques from people like Lakatos and Feyerabend. If we woke Snow from the grave, he would be completely unsurprised to find that this important work is academic philosophy, not unwashed tech that vulgarly demonstrates it Just Works by automatically forming correct theories about the essential distinction between handwritten ‘2’ and handwritten ‘3’. He might also be unsurprised by the strength of its connection to Marxism.

    (Feyerabend quotes that I just stumbled upon that are too good not to pass on, from and wikipedia: “Scientists have more money, more authority, more sex appeal than they deserve. The most stupid procedures and the laughable results are surrounded by an aura of excellence. It is time to cut them down in size, and to give them a more modest position in society.” “The withdrawal of philosophy into a ‘professional’ shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth – and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.” That looks to me like a characteristically philosopher-side view of one aspect of what I described above.)

  8. Thanks for this. I definitely fall in to the STEM instead camp, but you make a strong case for the liberal arts of yesteryear. The question is, with our culture as devolved as it is now, is there any going back? SJWs own the liberal arts now, making them toxic in addition to unprofitable. Our cultural elite, who might share your thinking, are not reproducing themselves and their cultural mindset.

  9. “I definitely fall in to the STEM instead camp, but you make a strong case for the liberal arts of yesteryear.”

    I think yestercentury — as in pre-1914, not pre-2000 — is a more worthy candidate. The liberal arts of the 19th century seem to have been doing a better job of adapting to modernity, and were also more impressive at developing and expressing actual competence.

    ISTR reading that the math/science requirements for Harvard’s core curriculum were much more solid than today’s, and reading a time capsule like Macaulay’s _History of England_ you can see a ridiculously-well-classically-educated guy treating technology and the sciences with strange old respect. But the old political coalition between practical accomplishment and tax-paid non-aristo functionaries was pretty much extinct by 1900 century (perhaps because the old rivals who had united them, esp. hereditary privilege and the established church, were so thoroughly defeated that they could never unite anyone). And the alliance between tax-paid non-aristo functionaries, organized labor, and generally expanding electorate could be expected to breed active hostility to accomplishment which stands on its own instead of being reflected by official status. And by a curious coincidence, hard-to-fake competence in things like physics-not-just-for-poets is now largely gone from the cultured apparatchik’s concept of well-rounded man. (And it’s not just opposition to the novelty of technology: note that hard-to-fake competence in foreign languages is also gone. Go back to the time capsule again, and note how Macaulay unapologetically gives footnotes in untranslated French and Dutch.)

    Many people have argued that what’s going on is largely that far more people go to college and work as professors, so naturally they will be trained to a less impressive standard because they are less rarefied group. Naturally that can be expected to contribute, but I think that that is only a small part of what’s going on. Consider that the US Presidency is even more rarefied than it used to be, because we still only have one president every four years and our population has risen. And now the better kind of people coo over the cultured clever educatedness of JFK or Kerry or Obama, which is an interesting contrast to someone like Herbert Hoover. I heartily dislike HH, but that doesn’t keep me from being more warily respectful of the competence of a mining engineer who credibly contributes to a translation of _De_Re_Metallica_ than I am of someone who “authors” ghost-written fluff or is promoted to the status of editor a law journal but does not write for law journals. And I dimly remember some wag contrasting JFK being cultured for loving music while Nixon merely vulgarly played the piano. Performing music is one of the old hard-to-fake prestige things, common not just to the age of the Whigs but other times and places like classical China. To elevate the easy-to-fake trait of being a lover of music over the hard-to-fake trait seems characteristic of our civilization in the era that seems to begin around the Labour-whomps-Whigs transition I mentioned earlier. And it shows up strongly in various places, but particularly strongly in academic liberal arts.

    STEM has its quality issues, but the way that demonstration of competence is natural and expected provides a certain amount of natural protection from these trends. Note the recent tendency for people to react with various depths of wariness and alarm to attacks on a successful rocket scientist for his shirt. It would be unwise for a lit journal editor, however worthy, to expect a reaction like that if he were caught in a witchhunt of some sort. A polymath linguist who had translated the Rosetta stone or broken codes in WW2 might have enjoyed automatic credibility of that sort, but such scarily-high-performance liberal-arts folk seem to have been odd throwbacks even in 1950 and seem to be hen’s teeth in academia today. I am having trouble thinking of a single conspicuous academic accomplishment in liberal arts that can trump a hundred or more conspicuous accomplishments in STEM. (Things like a typical Nobel prize or Fields medal, or solving a Hilbert problem, designing and implementing TeX on one’s sabbatical, or designing an innovative top-selling IC or software application, or just being credibly close to central to the team that just successfully landed a robot on a comet.) So at the top in STEM the selection and incentive structure is somewhat scholarly, because to a considerable extent one is judged on results. Modern liberal arts academics instead lean very heavily on their position (and reputation among their peers — who are themselves almost entirely prestigious for their official position) for their status, not their results. Thus they seem to face selection and incentives more like civil servants or midlevel politicians than scholars, and it seems to me that this has had the obvious unsurprising consequences.

    • Look at someone like Stanley Fish. He sucks, but he’s probably the most famous English professor in America.

      Houellebecq is politically incorrect, but even the French were embarrassed into giving him a prize just because no other French author besides maybe that B-Henri Levy guy have even been noticed internationally in decades.

      This is a good overall observation that matches with some of Aristotle’s beliefs about what made a well-rounded free man.

      Late 19th c. in general was the last gasp of the West before WWI, but even the entire WWII generation was substantially more impressive than what came afterwards.

      I am personally quite conscious of my deficiencies compared to the men who came before me and feel embarrassed in light of that knowledge. I think we should judge ourselves on the historical scale rather than just by our peers, who are often pretty pathetic.

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