Why the liberal arts are important: Learning to reflect

I hold a degree in computer science. I’ve been employed for 10+ years as a software developer. When the occasional news story comes out about liberal arts majors having trouble finding employment in today’s economy, there’s a part of me that feels smug. It says, “Yeah. All right. Go us. We made the right choice. We were rational about the job market.” And it is indeed very easy to indulge that part of myself by lapping up news that confirms my life choices.

But I’m also something of a contrarian. (Actually what’s probably more accurate is I hate to be wrong, so I feel compelled to understand the pro-arts side of the argument to prepare for it.) What is the appeal of the liberal arts in 2012? Are they necessary? In the end, I think my final position is that the liberal arts are important, and if a comparison must be done, they’re likely to  be more important than computer science or engineering. My reasoning: Engineering may allow us to live longer and better, but liberal arts let us find understanding in others and ourselves.

As evidence, I offer portions of a piece from 1997 by the late Earl Shorris. It’s about his attempt to teach a group of impoverished Americans about the humanities. It’s really quite profound and, I think, one of the only true ways to permanently solve poverty in the world. Enjoy the read.

Harper’s Magazine – On the Uses of a Liberal Education, Part II: As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor

We had never met before. The conversation around us focused on the abuse of women. [Viniece Walker]’s eyes were perfectly opaque—hostile, prison eyes. Her mouth was set in the beginning of a sneer.

“You got to begin with the children,” she said, speaking rapidly, clipping out the street sounds as they came into her speech.

She paused long enough to let the change of direction take effect, then resumed the rapid, rhythmless speech. “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown.”

I smiled at her, misunderstanding, thinking I was indulging her. “And then they won’t be poor anymore?”

She read every nuance of my response, and answered angrily, “And they won’t be poor no more.”

“What you mean is—”

“What I mean is what I said—a moral alternative to the street.”

She didn’t speak of jobs or money. In that, she was like the others I had listened to. No one had spoken of jobs or money. But how could the “moral life of downtown” lead anyone out from the surround of force? How could a museum push poverty away? Who can dress in statues or eat the past? And what of the political life? Had Niecie skipped a step or failed to take a step? The way out of poverty was politics, not the “moral life of downtown.”

But to enter the public world, to practice the political life, the poor had first to learn to reflect. That was what Niecie meant by the “moral life of downtown.” She did not make the error of divorcing ethics from politics. Niecie had simply said, in a kind of shorthand, that no one could step out of the panicking circumstance of poverty directly into the public world.

Although she did not say so, I was sure that when she spoke of the “moral life of downtown” she meant something that had happened to her. With no job and no money, a prisoner, she had undergone a radical transformation. She had followed the same path that led to the invention of politics in ancient Greece. She had learned to reflect.

In further conversation it became clear that when she spoke of “the moral life of downtown” she meant the humanities, the study of human constructs and concerns, which has been the source of reflection for the secular world since the Greeks first stepped back from nature to experience wonder at what they beheld.

If the political life was the way out of poverty, the humanities provided an entrance to reflection and the political life. The poor did not need anyone to release them; an escape route existed. But to open this avenue to reflection and politics a major distinction between the preparation for the life of the rich and the life of the poor had to be eliminated.

A few days later Lynette Lauretig arranged a meeting with some of her staff at The Door. We disagreed about the course. They thought it should be taught at a much lower level. Although I could not change their views, they agreed to assemble a group of Door members who might be interested in the humanities.

Having failed in the South Bronx, I resolved to approach these prospective students differently. “You’ve been cheated,” I said. “Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political, and I don’t mean political in the sense of voting in an election but in the broad sense.” I told them Thucydides’ definition of politics.

“Rich people know politics in that sense. They know how to negotiate instead of using force. They know how to use politics to get along, to get power. It doesn’t mean that rich people are good and poor people are bad. It simply means that rich people know a more effective method for living in this society.

“Do all rich people, or people who are in the middle, know the humanities? Not a chance. But some do. And it helps. It helps to live better and enjoy life more. Will the humanities make you rich? Yes. Absolutely. But not in terms of money. In terms of life.

“Rich people learn the humanities in private schools and expensive universities. And that’s one of the ways in which they learn the political life. I think that is the real difference between the haves and have-nots in this country. If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics. The humanities will help.”

One Saturday morning in January, David Howell telephoned me at home. “Mr. Shores,” he said, Anglicizing my name, as many of the students did.

“Mr. Howell,” I responded, recognizing his voice.

“How you doin’, Mr. Shores?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I had a little problem at work.”

Uh-oh, I thought, bad news was coming. David is a big man, generally good-humored but with a quick temper. According to his mother, he had a history of violent behavior. In the classroom he had been one of the best students, a steady man, twenty-four years old, who always did the reading assignments and who often made interesting connections between the humanities and daily life. “What happened?”

“Mr. Shores, there’s a woman at my job, she said some things to me and I said some things to her. And she told my supervisor I had said things to her, and he called me in about it. She’s forty years old and she don’t have no social life, and I have a good social life, and she’s jealous of me.”

“And then what happened?” The tone of his voice and the timing of the call did not portend good news.

“Mr. Shores, she made me so mad, I wanted to smack her up against the wall. I tried to talk to some friends to calm myself down a little, but nobody was around.”

“And what did you do?” I asked, fearing this was his one telephone call from the city jail.

“Mr. Shores, I asked myself, ‘What would Socrates do?’ ”

David Howell had reasoned that his co-worker’s envy was not his problem after all, and he had dropped his rage.


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