Do the Liberal Arts Matter?

I was asked by the local university paper to chime in on the question that is the title of this post.  I started writing something short, but then it got longer and longer.  Eventually, I thought… hey, this could turn into a blog post!  So here it is:

Because this is totally how I see my discipline…

I’ve never been satisfied with the idea that there are indeed two solitudes between the so called “liberal arts” and the “hard sciences.”  Indeed, the division is based on the eighteenth century rejection of the liberal arts as a hold-over from the medieval university system.  At that time, the liberal arts were seen as contributing to the mythical thousand years of darkness that would come to be known as the middle ages, yet, while we have largely revised that historical model, our culture still has a deep mistrust of the humanities, the arts, the liberal arts, or whatever you so decide to call them.

Guess where I stand on the Red Square movement?

Today the primary reason for reinforcing the divide between the arts and the sciences is financial rather than strictly ideological.  That is, shrinking budgets, government endowments, and university administrations that have tasked professors and departments with “deliverables” have turned to each field to justify its own existence.  This has a two fold effect – it reinforces traditionalism within scholarship while at the same time entrenching the alienation between academic disciplines.  It is no surprise that whenever there is a downturn in the economy, English departments will still hire Shakespeare scholars.  Nor is it a surprise that whenever there is a downturn in the economy, the threat of merging departments arises, causing individual departments to fight for their unique and separate existence by appealing to what makes them special… what makes them “matter.”

Yep.  Ahh, trolls. Incapable of dealing with apora since 1977.

Suppose we accept that there is an academic posture of engagement with the world that is, broadly speaking, shared by the humanities, what might that be?  I think it would be the acceptance that meaning is subject to debate and thus that “objectivity” is really a chimera.  This might be opposed to the position that there are literal and objective truths that can be known and comprehended by the human brain, which might characterize the so-called sciences.

The “scientific” position is one that has been imported into “humanities” discourses with increasing frequency over the past hundred years or more.  In the religious sphere, the rise of literal interpretations of the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran have caught on in the latter half of the twentieth century.  The idea that there is a knowable, literal truth carried in the holy texts that humans can not only access, but justifies all sorts of abominable behaviour, is at odds with almost the whole of collected history where religious scriptures were subject to debate.  The scholars of the dark ages read the Bible as a series of figures like metaphor and simile.  Today, fundamentalists who have imported a scientific, digital understanding of the world read the Bible as literal.  Here, the “scientific” position is impoverishing these texts, rather than enriching them.

Wordle: Untitled
Wordle of this blog post

That said, the “scientific” model has also been imported into the “humanities” in a way that is actually enriching the study of texts.  Digital humanities – the application of computing power to traditional (and non-traditional) texts – is a growing and fascinating field.  For instance, Shakespeare has long been presumed to have been the greatest inventor of neologisms from his period and  THAT was touted as one of the reasons why we study him.  Digital humanities has looked at the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s vocabulary and others and pointed out that, in fact, he was not creating neologisms with any more frequency than his compatriots.  If we want to understand why we study Shakespeare, we have to look elsewhere.  This is something that could only easily have been recognized through statistical modelling and analysis.

Don’t talk to me, what I am doing is more important!

The problem for me is that this vision of two approaches – the “scientific” and the “humanities/liberal arts” – doesn’t actually hold.  Not only are there instances of academic disciplines that are somewhere in between the arts and the sciences – digital humanities for one, but also medical ethics or bioethics, the history of science, linguistics – the distinctions begin to fall apart even within the most hard of the hard sciences.

Medicine & physics, for instance, are deeply invested in the problematics of meaning. 

With physics, once you start pushing down below the level of the atom, or above the level of the solar system, we begin to lose the ability to comprehend things easily.  We start to turn to analogies and metaphors to begin to grasp what the mathematics is telling us.  It was only through active imagery that Einstein was able to piece together the Theory of Relativity, after all.  He imagined himself catching a beam of light speeding away from a clock, and all the rest followed from that moment of insight. 

With medicine, while the patient is alive, you are always dealing with probabilities rather than certainties.  The same symptoms can have multiple causes and the same causes can have multiple symptoms and it is only through the negotiation of how one thing MEANS – how one cause emerges as one set of symptoms – that you can actually do medicine.

Right, because we are orthagonal to each other…

So, do the liberal arts matter?

In some ways it is a moot point.  That is, if university administrations decide to eventually kill off English departments around the world – an eventuality that seems increasingly likely – then the understanding of meaning as a negotiation will emerge somewhere else.  It won’t be through Shakespeare, but it may be in a mathematics department, or a linguistics lab, or a robotics lab as we try to teach an AI to pass the Turing test. 

In another way, the liberal arts matter deeply because they provide an alternative vision of how to think and how to relate to the world.  The digital, “objective” truths of the so called “scientific” vision of the world are not only an impoverishment of science at its core, but are paternalistic and represent a dumbing down of our capacity to engage with the world.  The arts can help to prevent this, but only if we ourselves resist this temptation towards dumbing down.


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