A meaningful philosophy of life is more essential these days than ever
Philosophy, the Queen, is at the center of the circle, surrounded by the seven liberal arts — grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy — in “Philosophia et septem artes liberales,” Latin for “Philosophy and the seven liberal arts.” The artwork is from the illuminated encyclopedia, “Hortus deliciarum,” meaning “Garden of Delights,” compiled by Herrad of Landsberg, 12th-Century abbess of Hohenburg Abbey in the French region of Alsace. The encyclopedia was used by young novices at the abbey and is thought to be the first written by a woman.
I would like to make a case for the study of the liberal arts in higher education but the deck is stacked against me.
The Internet is full of sites warning against academic money-losers and the arts and their literary entourage sit atop the list. Championing the liberal arts to bottom-line thinkers is like waving a red flag in front of a bull or more correctly watching the bull walk away with disinterest.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report this year, “The Economic Value of College Majors,” and among the disciplines resting safely in the food-stamp bin are: drama and theatrical arts; art and music; theology; studio arts, human services; language and drama education; and social work — never mind Greek and Latin (they died with Caesar) — in short, all the disciplines that feed the soul and help aspiring students frame a holistic vision of life.
Ranked at the top of the big-ticket diplomas in the report are: petroleum engineering ($135,000); pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences ($112,519); metallurgical engineering ($97,743); mining and mineral engineering ($97,372); chemical engineering ($96,156); and electrical engineering ($93,215).
It’s a riff on the old “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” joke and the answer is: engineering, engineering, engineering, and making the pills to dull the aches that living in a drum breeds.
The Georgetown report says early-childhood education majors — prepped to guide (not “lead” as their professional protocol asserts) kids 2 to 5 with the Piaget or alternate instructional methods — average $39,000 a year, which is little more than the presently-suggested upgrade in the minimum wage of $15 per hour.
This is not to say that early-childhood education is a liberal arts discipline but it can be when education is studied historically and in context where questions are asked like: How would Socrates handle a classroom in the city of Albany’s high school today? Would he reach for the hemlock once the kids saw his toga?
The majors that continue to remain popular among students are: business management and administration; accounting; general business; and nursing which means, QED, that Truth and Beauty, to cite Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect much less Truth and Beauty’s love child, Justice.
Is it not a sad irony that gold mined in the soil of the Earth is more highly prized than the gold sitting in classroom seats, never mind that seated behind the desk, those who guide or direct or teach or prime — pick your term — the kiddos for adolescence and adulthood.
The politically conservative columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks, has spoken with fervor in favor of the liberal arts — of self-reflective study that nourishes the soul — but a conflicted Brooks seems unable to shake himself free from a political-economic ideology that refuses to give the liberal arts equal footing in the marketplace.
He says he admires the saintliness of the modern social justice gadfly Dorothy Day — the pacifist anarchist who started the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 — but refuses to accept, no, will not acknowledge, Day’s political economic stance on justice that caused civil and religious authorities much consternation. He stacks the deck against a holistic view of thinking (and living) that his beloved liberal arts are said to foster.
When the earnest student peruses Aeschylus, Arthur Miller, Dante, James Joyce, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, or experiences the music compositions of John Cage and the dance sequences of Merce Cunningham, she sees the dangers of living a schizoid life and how such a life grates on well-being — though the liberal arts have never been guarantors of happiness.
And yet the liberal arts remain as contemporary as any course of study even when reflected in the lives of the ancients. The insights of sages east and west serve as a sword for cutting through the insulating jibber-jabber of any age. The aforementioned Socrates said that: No person desires evil; and no person errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly. Very intriguing postulates.
Whether one agrees with their assumptions or not, they can serve as an analytical sword for piercing the motives of, say, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump when he says that women are “slobs,” “dogs,” “pigs,” “bimbos” and then avers “I cherish women.”
This is a different kind of divide from which Brooks suffers but it shows a person in conflict over the value of Truth. The curse of the House of Atreus shows there is a price to be paid for trying to inhabit two worlds simultaneously and making believe you’re whole.
And this curse can be seen spilling over into the modern family as an exasperated, despairing Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) tells his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) in “On The Waterfront” that it was he, Charlie, his brother — not some ruthless mobster — who destroyed his career, indicating that familial death-like treachery persists among us.
How does a brother respond to: “You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley [my brother, who destroyed me].”
The art of cinema as well as dance and music and literature exposes the student to Truth, Beauty, and Justice with bold and ineluctable lessons and helps the true aspirant develop a well-thought-out and meaningful “philosophy of life,” which is more essential these days than ever.
Since 1966, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles has asked in its survey of first-year college students about the importance of school in developing a sound philosophy of life.
As Fareed Zakaria points out in his recent “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” in 1967, eighty-six percent of the first-year students said college was important for “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” but a year ago, in 2014, only 45 percent of students thought it was.
Has the “American mind” officially closed down as Allan Bloom asserted in his controversial 1987 best-seller, “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.” It has (but not for the reasons Bloom asserted).
Wellesley College, one of the bastions of liberal arts education since its inception in 1875, has not backed off of but doubled-down on its commitment to the liberal arts in the 21st Century.
Its website says Wellesley is addressing the current challenge to the liberal arts “not by abandoning its belief in a liberal arts curriculum, but by working to ensure that students themselves understand — in the course of every learning challenge — that the disciplined thinking, refined judgment, creative synthesis, and collaborative dynamic [of the liberal arts]...are not only crucial to developing their leadership abilities, but are habits of mind that will serve them well throughout their lives, and be primary contributors to their success.”
Though such a commitment one can become Secretary of State, a screenwriter, president of a college, indeed a nationally-recognized editor of an award-winning newspaper — even its publisher some day — prying back open the American mind, weekly edition after weekly edition.