In recent years, the values embedded in a classical liberal arts education have come under sustained attack, cannibalized from within and degraded from all sides. Deep explorations of philosophy and art are considered worthless in the labor markets of the vast data mine that increasingly dominates every aspect of our economies, our behaviors and eventually our souls. In order to remain “competitive” in the global rat race, we must – or so the prevailing narrative goes – accept our fate as rats in the labyrinth of an inverted utopia, where we can no longer imagine the implications of our increasingly lethal inventions.
This toxic narrative sustains and justifies both market economies that increasingly reward a minuscule percentage of the world’s population and authoritarian political movements where even mild civic engagement is criminalized and suppressed in the name of “national security”. The stakes for a defense of the classical “arts of freedom” have never been higher; thus we were delighted to come across the lucid eloquence of Marilynne Robinson in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books. The entire essay is worthy of careful consideration from DP readers; we relay a couple of excerpts below.
In the history of the West, for all its achievements, there is also a persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind. It can make us very poor servants of purposes that are not our own. A Benthamite panopticon would have radically reduced the varieties of experience that help to individuate us, in theory producing happiness in factory workers by preventing their having even a glimpse of the fact that there could be more to life. Censorship, lists of prohibited books, restrictions on travel, and limits on rights of assembly all accomplish by more practicable means some part of the same exclusions, precluding the stimulus of new thought, new things to wonder about. The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.
Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone whose vigor and good fortune allows her to prosper, apparently. With anyone who has done a clever thing we did not think of first. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product, or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation, and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music.
A music scribbled, we imagine, in what Carl Sandburg once called “the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints”. Then in closing, Robinson writes:
We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence. God’s grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism, or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age. The best argument against human grandeur is the meagerness of our response to it, paradoxically enough.
Then how to recover the animating spirit of humanism? For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can only be understood as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know. There is an unworldliness in the experience, and in what it yields, that requires a larger understanding than our terse vocabularies of behavior and reward can capture. I have had students tell me that they had never heard the word “beautiful” applied to a piece of prose until they came to us at the workshop. Literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced. I think this phenomenon is an effect of the utilitarian hostility to the humanities and to art, an attempt to repackage them, to give them some appearance of respectability. And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.