Explaining the Value of Liberal Arts Education in New Zealand

An article in Wellington’s Dominion Post today describes how an “unpredictable labour market makes arts degree more relevant.” The gist of the article, by Richard Shaw, a professor and director of Massey University’s BA program, is that the workplace of the future will require more arts degree graduates. As the speed of technological change increases, technical jobs are becoming computerised, and entirely new jobs are being created. The workforce therefore needs graduates with “the capacities to think critically, communicate clearly, and cope with cultural diversity”, those skills that an arts degree teaches.

The argument is the one that arts and humanities programs the world over have been using over the past decade as the call for technical specialisation has seen graduation numbers decline. Arts programs have found themselves needing to justify their existence on the same terms as technical programs, which speak from ideas of productivity, employability, and ‘usefulness’. Specialised university degrees boast of higher employment rates of graduates, higher salaries, and moreover make the assertion that they are more practically useful to economies and societies. But by attempting to counter those claims, arts programs have merely subordinated the arts and humanities to the values of science and technology—values that the arts and humanities always stood as a counterbalance to.

I should say up front that I entirely agree all these arguments that defend the arts and humanities on terms of employability and usefulness. Arts degrees are the best foundation for anyone entering a world in which the meaning of work and technical skill changes annually. But while agreeing with the argument, I also think it is counterproductive; that by subordinating arts degrees to the terms of value set out by technical programs, we lose the essential values—and, yes, usefulness—of the arts and humanities. Simultaneously, we make it less likely that those students who study the arts and humanities will actually receive that kind of education; they will seek in it instead the kind of practical usefulness of technical programs, and look past what the arts and humanities truly offer.

Shaw fell into the trap when he says in his second paragraph, “Let’s put aside, for the purposes of this argument, all of those socially desirable things that a BA can impart: knowledge of self and curiosity regarding the world, the capacity to listen as well as to mount a cogent argument, and the ability to ask awkward questions of those in positions of power.” If we set those aside, we set aside the essence of an arts education. We set those aside, and then the only argument left is an attempt at saying, no, arts degrees are better for your job prospects. And if I were a prospective arts student struggling to justify that path against those who told me to be practical, to be realistic and think about a job, I’m not sure I’d listen to Shaw on blind faith that employers would leap at the chance of having me after graduation. And even if I did trust that, I would then be taking an arts degree for practical, prudential reasons—looking daily during my time at university for chances to improve a CV, taking classes and reading books for how they might put me ahead of others in the hunt for jobs. In doing that, I’d then have missed what an arts degree can offer that nothing else can—precisely those qualities that Shaw lists and then dismisses.

The real challenge for proponents of the arts and humanities—what a different tradition calls ‘liberal’ education—is to define its value on its own terms, and to resist the easy option of merely throwing statistics back at technical programs. Doing that makes for a neat op-ed, but does not help with the harder task of persuading students and society of the essential value of liberal education on its own terms.

In the United States this debate over arts degrees and technical training is much further developed, likely because the BA degree is the norm for American undergraduates. In the US, and in a range of other countries following the US system (including at my university, Yale-NUS College in Singapore), undergraduates complete a four-year BA degree, and then follow it by specialised training in postgraduate study. There, the debate is not so much on whether students should undertake BA degrees or other degrees, but rather what a BA should encompass—whether students should major in humanities subjects, or the sciences and social sciences for employability, within their BA.

As a result, most US colleges and universities take a broad approach to encourage students to study arts degrees, or the “liberal arts” as it is known. There is a focus on the intangible but very real benefits of a liberal education, captured in a slogan like “Four years to transform your life”, through to the same kinds of statistics advanced by Shaw in the New Zealand context. At the very least there is the recognition that the arts and humanities bring value of a different kind to the focus on statistics and productivity of other disciplines—and that those values are ones students should feel proud, rather than worried and concerned, to pursue.

Judging from this debate over the usefulness of liberal education in other countries, ours in New Zealand is just getting started. We should ensure that arguments made in favour of the arts and humanities demonstrate and advance the values that those disciplines bring, and not append them as garnish to the values of specialist university degrees.

Transforming the Gold of Our Lives into the Base Lead of Commerce

Recently I’ve quoted perhaps too often Annie Dillard’s slap-in-the-face line, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. It’s a slap in the face because of its simplicity and because of its great importance. And the “of course” tucked so effortlessly in the middle because, OF COURSE it’s true, though we forget it every day.

But I’ve wondered too about the choice of the verb “spend”. It’s not something I noticed on first reading, and yet after having discovered Mark Slouka’s line about any “loathsome platitude” that compares time to money—“the very alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce”—I can’t un-see it. (Mark Slouka, of course, also tucks his line inside brackets half-way through a separate paragraph, as if it were too obvious to mention).

What does it mean to “spend our days”, and to “spend our lives?” It’s as if we have a savings account, and the trick to life is to not deplete the account too quickly. The commerce metaphor conjures subconscious ideas of frugality and the time value of money; save today, for every dollar saved today will be a dollar and a bit the next. Be smart with your account, because you’ll need to support yourself for years to come.

Metaphors are dangerous, especially those that enter into daily usage. Rarely do we reflect on how they might shape our thinking, the ways in which our minds come to take on the ideas embedded within them. And the greatest risk of all is that we do not ask whether the metaphor is apt; whether by analogising the most important thing we have—time—we are losing sight of what is really at stake.

We cannot “spend our days” in the way we spend money; we do not know how many days we have, our days are not comparable to one another in objective quantities, and we cannot save a day today and get a day and a bit tomorrow. Time and money stand opposed; to get one, we must deplete the other. And yet by saying that time is money, and that we spend our days, we forget that we are not merely trading apples for oranges; to think that way is to be stuck still in the realm of commerce, where decisions are merely orderings of preferences. Instead we come to think the only thing we really have, and the very thing we cannot count on, is merely a kind of purchasing power. Time is outside the realm of commerce entirely, for it cannot be purchased. It cannot factor into preference orderings like an iPhone can. It’s the most crucial thing that Michael Sandel forgot to include in his book What Money Can’t Buy.

Let us say instead, how we live our days is how we live our lives. Living is what takes up time. One lives life and spends money; one cannot live money, nor spend time, though for too long we’ve pretended we could.

Reflecting

A birthday is perhaps the most appropriate time to reflect on time passed. It invites thought about a year of one’s life in its entirety, and comparison of that year to others. It can allow a deeper understanding of how we’re spending the only thing we really have—time—and whether we’re spending it the way we want to be.

But to reflect on a year of life is no easy task, and it is made more difficult by the reality that more recent events take on larger significance in the mind’s eye. Those events that happened 364 days ago may well have been the more consequential, but those that happened yesterday bear greater significance in how we’re immediately living life today.

The challenge is to attempt, as best one can, to get rid of the importance adjustments our minds make, and assess the events of a year without the effects of presentism. The only way I know to do this is through keeping a diary every day of the year.

A diary removes the presentist bias by showing what we thought of things as they occurred, and how we judged their importance at the time. It treats every day as equal, but allowed us at the time to make judgements of importance. When reading back over a year on a certain day, like a birthday, one can then see events as they were and how they affected one at the time.

A birthday can become hard work. Looking back over 365 days takes time, and especially when it comes to the reality of your life, it takes energy. But it’s a necessary excuse to take that time, and to spend that energy, to look back on how we’re spending our days.

For if how we spend our days is how we live our lives, and we wish to reflect on how we’re living our lives, we better record how we spend our days, and at some point we better make some sense of all that time.

The irony is that the presentist bias may be precisely what gets in the way of keeping a diary, by telling us that today is just too busy, or too important, or something or other, and that’s why we can’t write about it. Reflection takes time, every single day.

More—and Better—Liberal Education

In 2015 Fareed Zakaria joined the crowd of those publishing polemics on liberal education. His was different to many of the others, however, in that it self-consciously wrote for an audience far wider than academic circles. Where others were written from an academic perspective, and largely for academics, Zakaria took his experience growing up in India and then choosing to study at Yale to explain in more universal terms the appeal of a liberal education.

In amongst a range of issues, Zakaria suggests that “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more—and better—liberal education.”

That seems right to me, though why it does has taken some thought. The sentence even seemed vaguely circular, for to me liberal education’s problems are largely definitional: colleges provide the resources for a liberal education, but because students aren’t clear on what exactly that is supposed to mean, they don’t know how to best make use of them to gain a liberal education. Is a liberal education a faster way up a managerial career ladder? Or is it four years to transform your life, to discover how to build meaning into your days? Those two words can mean different things to different people, even in the same conversation, and solving liberal education’s “problems” has meant for me encouraging a coherent view about what value it can really bring to people’s lives.

And I found it hard to decipher which view of liberal education Zakaria subscribed to, since at various points he discusses both. The first part of the book focusses on the extrinsic reasons for a liberal education, repeating the often-cited data of how it encourages the skills that employers these days want most. And yet the latter part—and seemingly Zakaria’s conclusions—focus on a more intrinsic, meaning-focussed view of the liberal arts, where students learn to become good people.

I need to think more on whether the two views of the liberal arts are mutually exclusive, but for now I interpret Zakaria as intending a broad definition of the liberal arts. His view of the liberal arts is not so much what happens inside it—whether it is career-focussed or meaning-focussed—but rather that the liberal arts in general, as opposed to the education systems of the rest of the world, are a good thing and should be expanded. The “better” part of the sentence is what is particularly confusing, then, as that requires determining which parts of liberal education itself, and which interpretations of it, are worth pursuing and bettering. And ultimately, without at the same time bettering liberal education, I’m unsure if its mere expansion is enough to fix its problems.

Regardless, I’m merely questioning small parts of what overall I agree with. Zakaria’s is a straightforward and compelling exposition of liberal education and why it’s worth defending.

And in a separate discussion I’ll perhaps save for another day, it was interesting to read Zakaria’s strong case for Yale-NUS College, which he calls “the most interesting and ambitious effort to reform liberal education in the twenty-first century”. It is always fascinating to hear others speak of Yale-NUS in broad brushstrokes as an idea, a project, when I’ve lived it daily for three years.

A Video About Cycling (and Life)

I’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes thinking of what ideas have shaped my day today, and whether I could write about any of them. It’s not that there haven’t been ideas, and it’s not that I don’t want to write about them. But after cycling over 160km in the past 24 hours, my mind just isn’t sharp enough for that kind of writing.

So I’ll post something else, which in light of not writing today may start to seem somewhat meta. It’s one of those cheesy “take back your life” videos. But what’s not to like about beautiful Italian scenes, Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address, and cycling?

Creative Blindness

The idea of creativity conjures notions of newness in visual arts, literature and music. Of course, creativity exists in all fields in different ways, but it exists in an idealised form in disciplines with fewer constraints.

Yet the perennial challenge in being creative, especially in artistic fields, is in trying to throw off subconscious notions of the way things have been done before. Visual culture influences what our minds view as possible and impossible. It took centuries before artists, first in France, realised that art was more than a competition to reproduce real life on a canvas; and it took perhaps a century more for others to realise that art might specifically seek to create what does not exist in reality. That necessity of breaking out of mental silos could be thought of as the artistic struggle.

Wassily Kandinsky’s essay On The Spiritual Art captures this idea perfectly: that the artist is the person who sees his or her role as being creative in order to break through the invisible barriers of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, instead looking inside themselves for guidance.

“The artist should be blind to “accepted” or “unacceptable” form, deaf to the precepts and demands of his [or her! — Kandinsky published this in 1911] time. His eyes should be always directed toward his own inner life, and his ears turned to the voice of internal necessity.”

Kandinsky continues, arguing that “internal necessity” of the artist arises from three separate desires or drives:

“1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself.

2. Every artist, as child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time.

3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general.

Through following that internal necessity, and by being blind to what is accepted and unaccepted, an artist (or, anyone who sees creativity and innovation as necessary in their projects) can find what is larger, and can find what is universal.

That process drives progress, in the sense that progress represents a given culture’s new ways of doing and understanding universal and established tasks.

It Is Futile To Write About Liberal Education’s Value

How to explain the value of something whose value can only be understood by having been felt?

That is the paradox confronting anyone who has felt, and believes in, the power of a liberal education. By its very meaning (the liberal arts always stood in relation to the servile arts), a liberal education cannot be rationalised into a productive end. A practical education (vocational training, in other words) can be described in terms of its value in employment opportunities, and lifetime earnings—numerically measurable concepts that lend themselves to being understood in an instant. In explaining liberal education, by contrast, we can only fall back on vague notions of a transformative experience, life-changing and life-affirming ideas, and of learning how to live.

Those who read books about the value of liberal education are far more likely to be those who already understand its value.

The paradox cannot be resolved. And yet the knowledge that liberal education has this inexplicable value can make it far easier, in the moment when that value makes itself known, to actually grasp it, rather than pushing it away because it does not immediately serve one’s coursework or one’s career.

So, with an awareness of the futility thereof (and of the irony in this essay’s title), I’ll nonetheless keep writing and keep talking about that inexplicable power that some of us have felt in liberal education, in hope for the off-chance that others feel it too.