The Liberal Arts: Notes from Underground

I cross the border under cover of night and slip into the foreign capital. In my trench coat and hat, I hope to complete my mission unrecognized.  On the icy river, lights twinkle from the distant hotel. I hesitate a moment, but walk on; there is no turning back. I will execute my mission.

Spy fiction is littered with initials and acronyms: SMERSH, SPECTRE, NSA, KGB. My non-fiction world has its own: ALSCW, MLA, NAS, ACTC. Last month, on the night in question, I was in Ottawa for the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) conference. Core texts? 

Only months before, I had somehow been elected to the Modern Language Association (MLA) Delegate Assembly. In the MLA, to even whisper “core texts” or “great books” is to align yourself with racism, sexism, imperialism, phallocentrism, and white privilege.

I guess to the academy’s progressive politburo, my resume had appeared spotless:  ‘60s guy, Civil Rights medal, citation for Women’s Lib, Berkeley riots in `68 with tear gas cluster. But these days, that’s all deep cover for my real work: spreading the Good News about Great Books.

For twenty years, ACTC has stayed off the radar, quietly tending the garden of core texts and courses, Western civilization, and great books. A Google search for the Association produces just 55,000 hits. I’ve had more hits for a blog post.

That low profile is because everyone knows that “the first rule of Great Books is that you never talk about Great Books.” That is because, in academe, one slip and that friendly Foucauldian in the next office or the quiet multiculturalist down the hall will expose you to the deans, and then the whole messy business unfolds. Out come the knives and the gendarmes of the institution, dispatched to remove your offending presence. 

Just ask “Paul” who had dreamed of building a Great Books program like mine but gave up when he realized that “the social science teachers and literature teachers would never permit it.”

But off the grid in the frozen north, my comrades and I were free to speak about originality, Western civilization, genius, even religion and morality . . . approvingly. ACTC’s executive director, the indefatigable J. Scott Lee, framed it as our “opportunity to share and practice liberal arts education.” In fact, one thing that emerged from the conference was the necessity of describing our work as “liberal arts education” rather than “liberal education,” the once-honorable word “liberal” having acquired the opposite of its original meaning after years of political abuse. 

In Ottawa, the ACTC theme was “Re-thinking the Liberal Arts through Core Texts:  Science, Poetry, Philosophy and History.” Plenary speakers included Norma Thompson of Yale, speaking on “Jane Austen on Moral Education: the Liberal Arts in Mansfield Park”; John Churchill, secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, on that organization’s “New Advocacy Initiative for the Liberal Arts and Sciences”; Richard Kamber, ACTC president and professor of philosophy, asking “Can a Liberal Arts Education Really Make Us Good?” (no); and Victoria Mora, of St. John’s College (Santa Fe) on “Re-thinking the Liberal Arts in the Company of Miguel de Cervantes’ Sancho Panza.”

Panel presenters explored ways to bridge the religious and secular worlds, to put literature, philosophy, and science into collaboration (Kamber reminded us that in Brave New World not only were literature and high art banned, but also science), and to practice internationalism by engaging Europe, China, and Latin America. 

The cross-cultural appreciation of Western civilization was bracing, such as in this panel:

Employing Liberal Arts & Core Texts outside of North American Education.

Hanke Drop, Jeroen Lutters, and Olga Potters, Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, and Jos Kleemans, University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, “The Need for a New Core in Dutch Education”; Lisa M. Isaacson, Zayed University, “You Shall Not Look through My Eyes Either: Reading for Global Awareness”; Peter Heckman, Zayed University, “Teaching Western Literature in the United Arab Emirates”; Gangcheng Sun, Beijing Institute of Technology, “Confucius’ Theoretical Basis to Teach Students in Accordance with their Aptitude and Its Modern Edification.”

ACTC presenters do not flog multiculturalism, GLBT, or the oppressed minority du jour.  In contrast, the mighty MLA (795 panels to ACTC’s 60) has been stuck on spin cycle for decades, rehashing the same preoccupations of the Left:  sex, food, bodies, sex, animals, disability, hegemony, Theory, sex, workers, politics, ecology, and sex. 

At January’s MLA convention in Boston, Thursday alone offered an embarrassment of riches (or just an embarrassment) with sessions on “Literature and the Radical Left” arranged by the Radical Caucus; “Secluded Lives, Visible Bodies:  Representations of Zenana Fashion in Film and Literature”; “Early American Sex”; “Fantasizing Stardom”; “Queer Theory without Antinormativity”; “Networks, Webs, and Ecosystems”; “Sexuality and Form in English Literature”; “Interiorities of Disability”; “Dirty Chaucer”; “Madness in Black Women’s Diasporic Novels and the Aesthetics of Resistance”; and, “Movements, Incantations, and Parables of Queer Performance.”  

As the University of Virginia’s Mark Edmundson once said of the MLA’s myriad publisher’s stalls, “I walked through the book displays and marveled at the sheer intellect represented there. And so much of it … unreadable.”

To be fair, I did see glimmers of a light dawning at the MLA. 

For one, it’s hard to fire off a gender j’accuse of “the patriarchy” when the audience is 70 percent female and racial rancor has waned under Obama. That left only “class” from the multicultural trinity. Sure enough, two of the panels I attended did feature Occupy rants against “the rich,” “big corporations,” and capitalism (from well-heeled academics agonizing over a system that forces them to receive princely salaries and perqs. And by the way, one of the MLA conference sponsors was . . . Microsoft). Guilt rules. 

The most valuable panel was composed of former MLA presidents arguing against the emphasis on non-fiction in the Common Core (the federal government’s new set of K-12 academic standards) and the advent of “Rube Goldberg” teacher assessment based on measurable student “success” in everything from career and technical courses to philosophy and poetry. The student’s participation in his/her learning has been subtracted from the new assessment equations.

MLA and the ACTC have one thing in common—alarm at the growing emphasis on what Juniata College’s Wade Roberts (ACTC) called “the soft tyranny of instrumental and pragmatic education,” i.e., job training, careerism, and specialization to the exclusion of developing a more finely tuned self. Edmundson rhetorically asks, “What professor would have the bad taste to puncture the walls of his students’ privacy by asking them uncomfortable questions about ultimate values?”

Illustrating this common concern, Roberts’s colleague James Roney discussed one of my favorite books, Evgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian We. We depicts a society (for him, Russia, but today perhaps ours) determinedly stamping out everything individual and human in the name of order and efficiency. In The One State, people are numbered and genetically engineered into standardized units. They live in glass houses and are separated from Nature by “The Green Wall.” Resistance is met with an operation to remove your imagination. 

As T.S. Eliot framed it:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

But humans can’t escape the darkness and remain human; each human needs to find the good alone but also discover that, as Isaiah Berlin held, goods do conflict and life is tragic.

Many aspects of life today have become disassociated from such a fundamentally human journey. Both outside the academy and within, a new false god proclaims that learning is immediate, observable, and measurable, that the human condition is solvable technologically, and that the way to happiness is to love Big Brother in his many disguises. The false god’s creed is that “the unexamined life is well worth living.”

Facing this Moloch, perhaps one day the ACTC, the MLA, and other humanistic organizations will join forces to fight for human uniqueness and individuality. That battle will require the ACTC’s values and perspective married to the MLA’s muscle, a marriage deferred until the ACTC gets a bigger microphone and the MLA suffers a few more reality checks. 

In the predawn darkness, I ride along Rideau Canal toward the airport and listen as my Afghani refugee driver tells me about his children. What kind of education will they receive and what kind of world awaits them?  Will it be liberty, imagination, and a great humanistic tradition? Or will it be dehumanization, Moloch, and The One State? Clearly, I have not completed the mission. The mission has barely begun.