I would like to draw a contrast between what the liberal arts, if it can still be called that, has become and what it used to be. I do so in order to track how the Principle of Utility insinuated itself into an institution–by which I mean, the university–that, before the 1800s, would have regarded such a claim as mere folly. And now? Most any education can only be justified on the grounds that it’s providing its graduates with something that is or shall be (professionally) useful.
What in the world happened?
The Liberal Arts As A College Career: The New Dispensation In The Twenty-first Century
Let’s start out at the end. In September 2013, Bates College President Clayton Spencer gave “Some Thoughts on Work: Remarks at Convocation”
in front of newly arrived freshmen. Bates College, a small private, liberal arts school, was founded in in Lewiston, Maine, in 1855. Let’s keep that date–1855–in mind since it is within three years of the publication of John Newman’s The Idea of the University
(1852), a book to which I’ll be returning below.
But first Clayton Spencer’s talk, which opens with a remark upon the “core purpose of the liberal arts”:
I like the notion that we, at colleges like Bates, are both motivating and equipping our students to lead an examined life. Philosopher Jonathan Lear has defined this notion elegantly as “living with the question of how to live.” If you believe Freud, love and work lie at the heart of the question of how to live. If you get things right in these two spheres, you are well on your way to living a fulfilling life.
This is a curious move: to take the liberal arts’ commitment to “knowing thyself,” a commitment that stretches back to Aristotle’s Politics and forward to Newman’s The Idea of the University and then to transform that commitment from an intrinsic to an instrumental good. Examining how to live becomes already seeing how such an inquiry can lead you to place “love and work,” two bourgeois foci, “at the heart of the question of how to live.” In short order, then, the liberal arts education has been put in the service of finding meaningful or purposeful work.
Notice how the move recurs later on:
My overarching suggestion is this: Ask the big questions–Who am I, really? What am I interested in? What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of work do I want to do? How can I connect with my fellow human beings and contribute to purposes larger than myself?
These, I’ve tried to argue (most recently in this anticareerist piece
but also in The Good Life and Sustaining Life
), are different, heterogenous orders of questions. “Who am I?” is an ontologically primordial question that is different in nature and in kind from “What kind of work do I want to do?” To be sure, asking the former question may
shed some light on the latter question (and indeed it often does), but asking the former in order to
answer the latter is a mistake readers of this newsletter should now be wary of.
Spencer, despite her good intentions, is an advocate of total work. Thus in her hands does the liberal arts education lose its status as a body enjoined to cultivate the mind and the heart, to sharpen the judgment, to forge human beings into rational persons, and to make freethinking citizens–all this, and more, in a way had once preceded whatever professional or vocational goals one may later on endeavor to pursue. Hence, it’s self-evident to Spencer that students are starting their “college careers”
on that ordinary early September day in 2013, and even more so that human beings are Workers: “Work [in the sense of making] is fundamental to who you are and who you will become. And I hope you realize by now that you have been working all of your life.” 
The Liberal Arts As Cultivator Of The Person: Newman’s University
During the early and mid-nineteenth century in England, Oxbridge was confronting three novel forces. The first was the popularity of utilitarian philosophy whose centerpiece is the principle of utility. The second was the birth of mass public education and, with it, the emergence of colleges loyal to the “mechanical arts,” arts whose purpose is to train young persons in relevant skills. The third was the pressure from Catholics and nonconformists to be admitted to Oxbridge (for Oxford and Cambridge had, as I understand it, only admitted Anglicans). In The Idea of the University, which consists of lectures Newman originally delivered at a new Catholic university where he was recently appointed rector, we see a nimble mind trying to define the telos of the liberal arts in relation to, and sometimes in contrast with, these aforementioned forces.
Newman’s basic argument is that (1) the chief purpose of the liberal arts is neither to engage in novel scientific experiments (for there are research institutions committed to doing just this) nor to be professionally useful but to cultivate each student’s intellect so that he or she can see how the various forms and fields of knowledge can be fitted together into a whole; (2) that “training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself, best enables him [also] to discharge his duties in society” (p. 102); and (3) that, in actuality, “mental culture [of the kind Newman is describing] is emphatically useful” (p. 81) as well.
According to the first, and preeminent, aim, a student is to become a rational being capable of exercising his or her judgment to best effect. According to the second, he or she is to acquire the intellectual virtues necessary for becoming a good citizen, fellow, and well-socialized person fluent in the arts of conversation. And according to the third, “I say, then, if a liberal education is good [and Newman believes that he has shown that it is], it must necessarily be useful too” (p. 87). To be perfectly clear, it’s not that what is good is good because it’s useful; it’s rather that what is good also tends to be useful. You might say that usefulness is a fine byproduct of goodness but not what goodness aims at for goodness, of course, aims at itself. Being eminent rational may, for instance, be an excellent intellectual virtue to have in an age such as ours, one in which ideas matter and make a tangible social difference. Newman, in brief, is not beyond saying that the cultivation of the intellect also, and this as a “fruit” rather than as the base or the tree itself, pays off.
2050: Yuval Harari’s Future
Yuval Harari has recently argued
(see the fourth linked article above) against the idea that education should be about content acquisition. He worries that mass education is woefully inadequate to the demands posed by the near future. It is a future, he reckons, that will be even more “liquid” and much more complex. It will also–hey, surprise!–be a philosophical future
, a future, that is, that belongs to the philosophically-inclined.
He concludes by suggesting that that “knowing thyself” should be one’s biggest responsibility:
To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the 21st century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account – they are in a race to hack you, and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.
While I agree with Harari that knowing thyself and “self-reinvention” should be put first, I think, with Newman, that he gives short shrift to the need to synthesize vast, if fluid, bodies of knowledge. Philosophy, after all, makes three demands upon us: that we know ourselves
; that we know the world
; and that we be able to see how we fit into the order of being. Self-knowledge. World knowledge. And cosmic consciousness (or “meaning,” which I define
as the ludic interplay of the finite and the infinite.) NB: to investigate the self, however, is a form of introspection that is not amenable to the tools brought to bear on the world–and vice versa. Hence, insights from meditation may not tell you much about economic or political theories and vice versa.
In sum, what if an education weren’t myopically focused on work and on what is conducive to careers but rather on self-knowledge, world knowledge, and meaning? That would certainly be a liberal arts program, a lifelong one to be sure, that I’d want to enroll in.
 I’m convinced that we can find the proposal that a human being just is a worker (just is homo faber) in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. I hope to write something about this important treatise in the future.