By William Murchison
It’s nice every once in a while — and maybe more often than that — to see reaffirmed the notion that higher education isn’t solely the new training ground for the realization of whatever dream Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos lay at our feet, leading to our enrichment and enjoyment. There might – duh –be something to the old business of producing free, humane, and enlightened human beings.
Thus a pair of academic humanists, Leonard Cassutto and Robin L. Caulin, in “Inside Higher Education,” unashamedly urge colleges and universities to market the liberal arts. You know – the way Bezos, say, markets Amazon’s intricate and endless missions of money-making: tell the story; brag by way of telling the truth.
Cassuto, an English professor and author at Fordham University, and Caulin, arts and sciences dean of Sacred Heart University, have what you might regard as a Catholic bias toward the life of the heart and the mind. But biases that elevate and honor the mind, which is the seat of ideas, and the heart, which determines the value of ideas, is a well-established human attribute.
What does a meaningful life look like? Wouldn’t that be the fundamental question? And could you distinguish such a life from a 30-year stretch in prison or a medal for Grand Theft Auto 5? You could, probably, if you knew squat about Shakespeare or Dante or Augustine or Homer or even someone as modern as Walker Percy, or…well, let’s say merely that the list of useful teachers and guides is as long as human history is long. And the more you know about, and understand such guides, in addition to the STEM subjects, the brighter seem your prospects for fulfillment.
Yet, as Cassuto and Caulin write, “too many college students and their parents don’t believe that the liberal arts are useful. That’s a failure of marketing, and popular culture has turned it into a meme…How can we regain control of this story? We could try to brand the liberal arts. We need to emphasize what we know to be true: that professional training and the liberal arts are compatible. And, moreover, that they inform [each other]…Liberal arts faculty members must own this challenge as their own…and sell the liberal arts proudly.”
The whirl of modern life tends to sow confusion. There’s always just one more skill to assimilate, one more area of STEM-ish knowledge to gather: so many, all in all, that more and more seem in danger of knowing less and less about the one great thing that unites us all. Which is…? Let’s just say it’s not Grand Theft Auto 5.