The Task of the Liberal Arts in Troubled Times
As universities reconvene after a summer of protests around race and policing in America, many of us are questioning what our response in higher education should be. Some universities have begun renaming buildings; more are discussing proposals for a renewed commitment to affirmative action in admissions and hiring, for better mentoring of minority students, and for more teaching and faculty workshops on race in America. Discussion of all these proposals is welcome and important. There is something else needed, however, that is less obvious but even more essential for the long term success of our immediate good intentions. We need a renewed commitment to a core task of the university, a task that schools and colleges of liberal arts, of all institutions, are best equipped to carry out: to serve as centers of deep, searching, courageous inquiry into our society and into the ideas about human nature and human thriving and justice that it rests on.
Our task includes putting problems in context. The relevant context for the current turmoil around race and policing in America is a crisis in American civil life. Political polarization is deep and deepening. Americans of both parties increasingly see members of the other party as irredeemably bad. Income inequality is high and rising, and Covid-19 has made it worse. Bipartisanship in Congress is moribund, and public trust in Congress is at an all-time low. Trust in science is eroding. Belief in democracy itself is waning among young Americans. Compared to other developed countries, we get poor results for the large sums we spend on health care and education, with especially dire consequences for African-Americans. We can mitigate but we cannot solve the problem of race in America without addressing the problem of inequality more generally; we cannot do that without systemic reforms to many of our public policies and institutions, and we cannot do that without bipartisan support, which is to say, without addressing the crisis of political polarization and distrust in our country.
How can we in the academy make a difference with any of this? As citizens we contribute and can contribute more by voting and serving our communities as mentors, commentators, volunteers, donors, and advocates for the candidates, policies, and organizations that we judge best. But as scholars the most important contributions we can make to a nation in turmoil lie not in the actions or even the stands that we take but in slowing down and asking the right questions, often the questions that no one is asking, listening to our first thoughts and our second thoughts, listening especially to the voices that the prevailing opinion within our own social bubble is inclined to scorn and to exclude, and creating constructive dialogue between diverse and even clashing perspectives. Our task is to be more helpfully relevant precisely by stepping back and being more deeply reflective.
Our task centers around asking good questions. For example, moments of impassioned demands for change such as the present one sometimes result in lasting reforms, but often do not. Do we know enough about what makes the difference, and about the pitfalls to be avoided? What do historical examples, from the French and Russian Revolutions to the American labor and civil rights movements, have to teach us about successful and unsuccessful reform movements and their leaders? Often, we discuss our problems in America as if no other nation were confronting the same ones. Are we learning all that we can from international comparisons? Many of us study pressing social problems, but how good are we at asking unfashionable questions and studying unfashionable topics? For example, have we been giving enough attention to studying the culture of armies and police departments, the character of those attracted to the military and to law enforcement, the problems of public sector unions, and the successes and failures of policing and criminal justice systems around the world?
On the topic of race, we recognize the dangers of prejudice and over-generalizations, but do we know enough about the diversity of the African-American experience in our own country? Do we understand well enough not only why many are suffering and some are failing but why many others are succeeding, and how their successes can be replicated? What do we understand about healthy and unhealthy communities and how the latter can be improved? About schools that succeed in these communities and those that fail? About psychological resilience and how it is best cultivated? Are we looking hard enough at all possible causes and all possible remedies for the troubles that concern us? To be sure, there are good reasons for our discomfort with certain questions: ill-meaning participants in public debates often raise questions and use data for self-serving or partisan purposes. But the misuse of information is not a reason for us in the academy to avoid hard discussions; it is a reason why precisely we, precisely here, precisely now have a duty to pursue them in a way that is searching, dispassionate, and fair-minded. There is no other institution in our society that is as well equipped to lead in this delicate but crucial work.
Our task includes listening to a diversity of voices and letting them challenge our own and our students’ thinking. How good are we at searching for wisdom among representatives of diverse schools of thought and bringing these views into constructive dialogue? How well are we doing in our writing and in our classrooms at helping left and right in America listen to one another with good will and with openness to finding, behind one another’s shrill rhetoric, experiences that we need to understand, grains of truth that we need to meditate on, and ideas that we need to challenge ourselves with? How open are we to the thought of other times and places with which we reflexively disagree?
Finally, our task includes pursuing our research and teaching in such a way that our work is practical in the highest sense, which is to say, informed by and conducive to the ancient virtue of phronesis, or practical wisdom. This task lies in between and connects a university’s other essential tasks of pursuing basic research and offering practical solutions to immediate problems. While both are important, perhaps most valuable of all is the critical work of modeling a way of asking questions thoughtfully and courageously and connecting them both to immediate issues and to deeper insights into human nature. In cultivating the virtue of phronesis, we cultivate thoughtfulness about what makes life worth living, in all its varieties and its commonalities; we cultivate clarity about the forces in human nature that make constructive change difficult; we foster the ability to negotiate these challenges with patient determination and without harsh vindictiveness.
Many of us try to do this in our research and teaching already, but it is hard to do it well. It is all too easy to get lost in arcane studies that advance our careers without shedding light on the most important human problems; it is all too easy to take shortcuts to relevance by connecting our research to contemporary causes that we join without demanding of ourselves the hard, unpopular work of challenging them where they need challenging; it is all too easy to teach critical thinking in a way that merely unmasks hypocrisy and makes cynics of our students; it is all too easy to content ourselves with attacking the evils that are clear to us and never get around to the harder work of understanding the complex ways in which good and bad are inextricably mixed in every human being, human institution, and human society. Especially at this moment of high passion we need to bring our best thoughtfulness to the conversation, because especially at such a moment of felt urgency about badly needed change, America cannot afford to get it wrong.
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