Red and gold waves
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Boundary Conditions

Originally published in the Spring 2016 MLA Newsletter

Boundary Conditions, the theme for our meeting in Philadelphia next January, will provide the convention not with a focus but with a set of challenges. For mathematicians, boundary conditions are the parameters that define the space within which one seeks solutions. So the theme offers, first, an invitation to reflect together on the parameters within which our profession takes place. One of the most evident of these is the increasing pressure we face to abandon the ideal of a college education that prepares you not only for success at work but also for a meaningful life. And that’s what I’d like to write to you about, briefly, in my first president’s column.

As humanists, we are inevitably drawn to reflecting on these questions historically as well as theoretically. And, in thinking about our situation today, I find myself reminded of Matthew Arnold’s claim that “culture seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light” (79). The word culture can mean many things (and nothing), but Arnold is talking here about the ideal of a liberal education, an education for free women and men.

None of this could be put in exactly these terms today. Even aside from the reference to “all men,” rather than “everyone,” many today would be skeptical of the idea that we could identify “the best that has been thought . . . everywhere” without presupposing standards that came from somewhere in particular. But I am happy to endorse the vision of a liberal education that is of value to people independent of wealth or occupation and that gives us more than a marketable skill.

Most—though, happily, not all—MLA members are college teachers. What we teach ranges over space and time, language and culture, genre and medium; our tools are as diverse as the subjects and the objects about which we think, teach, and write. In helping our students to think and to read, to write and to talk critically and knowledgeably about our diverse subject matters, we are surely developing skills that will profit them in their lives at work, inside or outside the academy. But members of our profession are inclined to believe, too, that a college education is a preparation for life and that our place in the system of labor, however important, cannot define the scope of our lives.

The novels and poems you read, the plays and movies and television you watch, the poetry slams you attend, the song lyrics you listen to, the blogs you scrutinize—our understanding and appreciation of all of these are deepened by a well-conceived education in the liberal arts. And they are as much a part of our lives as the goods or services whose provision earns us our daily bread. To say as much is not, for better or worse, to offer an instrumental defense of the humanities. An instrumental defense justifies an activity by reference to values external to that activity. But the experiences and capabilities conferred by humanistic learning are themselves of value.

Many students might flourish in the humanities but avoid humanistic subjects because they’re worried about preparing themselves for the job market. The choices they make often depend on misunderstandings about how the subjects they are studying instead will train them for work. A degree in economics is not a particularly good preparation for a career in business; studying the discipline of psychology does not necessarily equip you to be a therapist or a social worker. Yet such students are making a broader error, too—of thinking that college is the gateway to only one part of life, the life of work.

So we need to make the necessary arguments on both fronts: insisting that a major or a minor in our fields, or a substantial exposure to our courses as part of a general education, prepares you for life as it prepares you for work. To conceive of the humanities in humanistic, noninstrumental terms isn’t to deny their practical dividends. As I have already maintained, the students who study seriously with us think more critically, write more intelligibly, and interpret the world with a richer range of intellectual and moral resources. This is why we can claim that they are likely to be better workers, and better citizens, and that they will live better lives.

I suspect that many of you will wonder about our authority to make such claims. But that’s not because you don’t believe them. Few would commit themselves to a life as a scholar-teacher unless they thought that their work was a profound benefit to their students. There will be reasonable disagreement about how to conceive and assess these benefits—but surely a critical engagement with such questions helps establish the boundary conditions of our profession.

Work Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.