Roger Ebert, the film critic, recently wrote a piece about the possible death of the Liberal Arts. It’s disturbing, not so much for the dire forecast of a nation of business majors and software geeks who know nothing of Montaigne, Sontag, or Charlie Chaplin, but because of what it implies about those who keep track of Culture.
We are university-centric in our appraisal of where the Culture lies, where it is going, and what value we produce of what may be called a national geist. Ebert talks about the days in which writers were celebrities and the universities, if not the actual mothers of such luminaries, were at least their midwives. If there is one thing we have all learned in the last half century, though, it is that such institutions—and their products—are expensive.
Blame for the death of the Liberal Arts is lain at the feet of conservatives, but here is where I would like to start teasing these definitions apart. Genuine conservatives, those with whom I grew up and became most familiar, were the champions of the Liberal Arts. This was before the term “Liberal” became inextricably tangled with the concepts of “permissiveness” and “socialism.” Because of the constant hammering both liberalism and conservatism have taken in recent years from a class of philistine whose twin deities are money and conformity, we have lost sight of what both of those labels originally meant and, worse yet, the kind of country they informed.
William F. Buckley jr. may have been many things, but poorly-read was never one of them, nor was he an advocate for the kind of close-minded censoriousness that has poisoned the Right today. Presently, George Will carries the torch of a conservatism fast vanishing in the flood of a reactionary myopia that passes for conservative but is nothing but avaricious opportunism dressed up in an ill-fitting suit of Victorianesque disapproval.
But then Ebert goes on to remark on his comment log and how refreshingly well-read, educated, and enthusiastic his readers seem to be. The Liberal Arts is not dead or even dying.
But it may no longer have a comfortable place in universities, which charge a small fortune for an education with which the buyer not only wants but needs to cash in. Degrees in philosophy, except for a rare few, pay poorly in a job market grown increasingly cutthroat by dint of the exclusion of the kind of broad outlook once supplied by a Liberal Arts education. Why bother with Thomas Paine when he died poor, a loser? Or Herman Melville, who had to quit writing because it didn’t pay well enough to support him? One could go down the list.
People read. Widely. Minds rove over as broad a range of interests as at any time in the past—more, as there is more to learn, to see, to experience. It would seem the Liberal Arts is far from dying. It has only moved out on its own.
I’ve encountered students who refuse to read. They want to know only those things that will garner them good salaries and all that this implies. Success. Goodies. “Why read F. Scott Fitzgerald? Hell, I read Ayn Rand in high school. That’s my kinda culture. ”
I have no time for them. Were I a teacher in a college, I’d flunk them and send them from the hall. They are as clueless and feckless as they think others are who pay attention to the contents of the mind.
Tell me this—once you have the six-figure salary and the 2200 square foot condo and the BMW, what are you going to do with yourself in those moments when you’re the only one to keep you company? Other than winning a footrace, what have you done? When you look around for something to Do, how will you recognize what is of value, of worth, of substance?
I know, most people like this could care less. If they don’t have any culture now, they think, if they think about it at all, that they can always buy some later, when they’re “secure” or ready to retire.
Unfortunately, by then they may only be able to recognize “value” as the price tag on the frame rather than the world that’s on the canvas.