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Musings on Liberal Arts Education within Modernity
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-05-28 08:19:23
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There is a disturbing sense in the Western world that education is in a deep and critical crisis. A recent book by Martha Nussbaum (a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago) titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, attempts to diagnose this peculiar crisis, which in chapter one she calls “a silent crisis,” by stressing the importance of the liberal arts and humanities. These disciplines have always been considered essential to creating competent and responsible democratic citizens. Nussbaum argues however that lately the aims of education have gone awry.

As a global civilization focused on mere economic considerations we in the West have reduced education to a tool of the gross national product whose primary goal is to teach students how to be economically productive citizens; citizens for the market whose educational aims are not the Good but the goods. Not surprisingly, the sciences have pride of place over and above the humanities and liberal arts. 

What is neglected in this short-sighted reductionism to profitable skills, is critical thinking, the ability for self-examination and critique, for the criticizing of authority, for empathy with the marginalized and the different, and for the competence to deal with complex global social problems. The loss of these basic capacities, argues Nussbaum, represents a veritable existential threat to democracy, to the very hope of a just and decent world. Of the seven chapters in her book, Nussbaum dedicates one, chapter 4, to Socratic pedagogy titled “The Importance of Argument,” and another, chapter 6, to “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts.” The mere titles of those chapters hints at what the prognosis for this malady might be.

Nussbaum, in response to this sad situation, passionately argues that educators must work to reconnect education to the humanities in order to give students the capacity to be true democratic citizens in their own countries as well as globally. This is a rallying cry for a reconnection to the deepest roots of education which go all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

All of this is well and good and we can go all the way back to the mid nineties, to Michael Sandel’s Democracy and its Discontents: America in Search of a Public Philosophy to discover there the elaboration of a similar complaint and rallying cry within American political culture. There Sandel critiques what he dubs “the procedural republic,” that is to say, the political philosophy of John Rawls which allegedly had lost confidence in the formative character of politics and was happy with the mere establishment of conditions of minimal justice and fairness. What he found lacking in this procedural republic was the notion, which goes back to Aristotle and Plato and the Western political tradition that the state should be in the business of shaping the character of its citizens consonant to some particular vision of the good life. In other words, what seems to be lacking is a general consensus or a teleology, a sense of what constitutes a well formed human life with clear aims and purposes within a modern pluralistic society. Pluralism is often erroneously interpreted to mean the ability to remain neutral and non-commital vis a vis moral cultural dilemmas. Thus the political sphere gets sapped of its moral imperatives and political life becomes a contest of special interests with no sense of the common good directing the loyalties and desires of its people. The common good becomes the aggregate of all individually pursued private goods, the less regulation by the state the better, as the Republican libertarians and tea-party activists insist.

It is easy to see that the academy has traveled a similar path. Just as the liberal democratic state, the university confronted with pluralism, has gradually lost confidence in its traditional task of not only informing minds, but also, and more importantly, of forming character. Indeed, if we go back a mere sixty years ago we shall discover highly educated people driven by a fanatical ideology, with Ph.D. after their name, planning the Holocaust in ninety minutes and executing it with brutal efficiency in three years. A case can be made that, to use William James’ phraseology, the Ph.D. for those people had become a devouring octopus, that in fact it would have been better by far that these people had never gone to school.

The question thus arises: what are universities for? For without a well defined teleology or sense of purpose, the university has lost its center and it eventually devolves into a conglomerate of competing interests groups with no unifying vision. It should be mentioned here that small Catholic colleges (such as the one I attended in the 60s: St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.) have historically anchored their very existence to the task of shaping Christian character. But even there, some fifty years later, one discerns failure at this task. What is it due to? Leaving aside orthodox confessional answers which are not appropriate to this article, it is perhaps relevant to point out that this failure is mostly due to an inadequate philosophical anthropology. Indeed, behind every pedagogy there is a philosophical anthropology: a set of assumptions about human nature and what does it mean to be and to live as a human being. One even finds it in Aristotle’s treatment of the subject of slavery in his political writings.

So, let us examine briefly what exactly is the philosophical anthropology found even in Christian colleges and universities. It may well be that of construing the human being in a Cartesian fashion: as mere thinking things. It is well known that Descartes is considered the father of modern rationalistic philosophy; in fact many consider him the father of modernity. In such a view, we are primarily shaped by what we know: I think, therefore I am. This concept has a rather successful philosophical career even in the Church and spans four hundred years or so.

But there is another view, mostly neglected within modernity unfortunately, and it is the view of Pascal who said that the heart has reasons that reason knows not, and Rousseau who turned the Cartesian dictum on its head and said “I feel therefore I am,” and most importantly the poetic anti-Cartesian philosophy of Giambattista Vico (see his The New Science). All these philosophers, while appreciating the importance of reason in human nature, do not neglect the significance of the affective and the embodied dimensions of the human person. They do not make the mistake of Descartes, i.e., to reduce the human person to a disembodied mind.  This is the greater reductionism which encompasses the reductionism of the person to a cog in an economic machine called the market as analyzed by Nussenbaum.

What Pascal, Rousseau and Vico fully grasped is that we are not angels, or disembodied minds; rather we are an embodied, desiring being, albeit a “rational animal” to say it with Aristotle. Embodiment, rather than disincarnated mind, is the essence of our humanity. To be sure, this is also an Augustinian view. It is in fact even a Platonic view, as surprising as that may sound. When Plato says that poverty is determined by how big our desires are, he is admitting that besides reason we also have needs and desires that pertain to the body. The transcendence of the human body may occur at the end times beyond space and time, but even then the body remains essential for the retention of our humanity. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is instructive here. When he appeared to the apostles in the cenacle, he did not appear as a ghost but as transfigured spiritual body, to the point that he can say to Thomas: place you finger in my wounds. In Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, the persons who are resurrect at the final judgment at the end times, all have a body; none of them are disincarnated minds or ghosts.

Indeed, in our technology driven culture it has become fashionable to visualize a sort of transcendence of the human body: bionic man or Terminator are now common concepts: some call it “post-humanism” which is in itself an ominous term. It suggests a sort of disembodied existence and a human nature which is that of a disembodied mind. Spinoza may have had it more on target: the body and the mind are one and the same.

But as Vico, as well as Heidegger who borrowed much of his historicism from Vico, have well taught us, as embodied beings, our primary mode of intending the world is “care,” and our particular way of being-in-the-world is to feel, rather than think, our way around. This is another way of saying that a good deal of our experience and action is premised upon non-cognitive and pre-reflective dimensions of being which Vico places in the first cycle of history: the era of the gods. Augustine, even before Vico and Heidegger, speaks of love rather than care. We are agents of love endowed with a structure of desire and longing.

Here another question surfaces: how is our love, of which Augustine speaks, directed? The poet Dante intimates the answer with the very last verse of the Divine Comedy when he talks of “l’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle” [the love that moves the sun and the other stars]. And in fact, some seven hundred years after Dante, recent neurological research hints at a new unconscious which advances the Aristotelian account of habits and practices (see the research of Timothy Wilson, John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand) which points to the automation of certain bodily habits which become sources of our implicit understanding of the world operating just below the level of consciousness. Freud called the world below the conscious the subconscious; Aristotle simply calls virtue a good habit.

This automated knowledge is carried in the body as it were and plays a critical role in directing our desires and shaping our conscious thought. Because we are primarily embodied creatures who feel our way through the world, our loves are conditioned by habits which are inscribed in us by rituals and practices (hence the importance of the religious and symbolical and language preceding thought), in tandem with aesthetic phenomena like pictures and stories which, over time mold and shape our precognitive disposition to the world by training our desires.

As mentioned above, Vico is restoring the significance of our embodied status by stressing imagination and the aesthetic (poetry, the arts, the ritualistic, the symbolical by which whole societies remember) within the mode by which the human mind works, without however jettisoning reason. The body exists in space and time and interacts with the environment and defines the parameters within which the Cartesian cogitating mind can arrive at abstractions and certainties later on. Which is to say, the body makes the mind, as scandalous as that may sound  to assorted Platonists and modern Straussians residing in the abstractions of Mount Olympus.

This is a schematic outline requiring of course further study and research, but the above brief considerations lead us to some tentative conclusions which I’d like to mention here, namely these six: 1) institutions of higher learning which aim at forming the character and ordering the loves of desiring, embodied rational animals must once again pay attention to more than mere cognitive dimensions of being human, 2) that poverty is determined by how big our desires are (as expressed by Plato) may have been better understood by market capitalists on Madison Avenue than by educators at Yale and Harvard university. The capitalists out to make us consuming automatons, have well understood that we are embodied creatures, desiring creatures, whose being-in-the-world (to borrow from Vico and Heidegger) is governed by the imagination. 3) as Augustine originally suggested, we are creatures oriented primarily by love and passion and desire before we are thinking, rational beings, not to speak of disembodied minds. As Pascal has suggested, we aim at life with our hearts, (i.e., the heart being our emotional, affective, visceral, bodily dimension which Vico dubs “la feccia di Romolo” [the excrement of Romolo]), not our disembodied minds. 4) Cogitating is a later development present from the beginning but not prominently at first and it is a mistake to later make a duality between body and mind as Descartes did; they belong together. 5) The final crucial question in the context of education in liberal arts is this: are there any institutions of higher learning left with a passionate interest in forming and directing the character of their students and thus show them the path to a life-transforming experience, apart from the capitalistic marketing industry? 6) Perhaps this void can be filled by the small denominational college. Let’s hope it is so, or, as Vico hints in the description of his three historical cycles, we are pretty much doomed as a civilization and need to await the return of the gods.

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Prof. Robert Griffin, PH.2011-05-28 23:10:28
And yet - Isn't it time to give over the false blaming of Descartes for the mind/body mentalism of later "Cartesians?"
The disembodiment of Descartes by mentalists with a bent for math and physics - Does this really say anything historically basic about the famous early product of Jesuit education and culture? Are we better informed for knowing nothing about the genius of Descartes that won him an invitation from Queen Christine of Sweden? and before whom Descartes presented the embodiment of his philosophy in a ballet "The Birth of Peace," the final crowning of his philosophy?
Why are we in America forever presented with a pseudo-science, truncated Descartes who bears little resemblance to the famed product of Jesuit education and culture?
What is the message of "The Birth of Peace," or was it all just entertainment for the queen?

Emanuel Paparella2011-05-29 02:22:06
Indeed Dr. Griffith, some have called Descartes the last of the Scholastics and I tip my hat to the scholastics. There is no suggestion on my part to jettison reason and rationality, I simply wish to suggest in the piece above that there is an education of the emotions and feelings and the poetical, what used to be called in Jesuit schools character formation; it is often neglected in the academic world so bent on rationality and forming the mind and rationalizing what ought never be rationalized. I think Vico offers a corrective and Pascal had it on target: the heart has reasons that reason knows not.

Emanuel Paparella2011-05-29 15:44:35
P.S. Apologies for mispelling your name above.

R. Griffin, PH.D.2011-05-29 20:52:08
Hi, Lino,
Thank you for the dialogue.
You and I have discussed Vico a few times before, and I fully agree Vico's contributions to conceptual history have received too little recognition.
I presumed you knew more about Descartes and his scholastic heritage and merely regretted what I felt was a missed opportunity in your essay to set the record straight.
Poor Descartes, how few in America really know you?

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