Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Fun, Interesting, and Useless Liberal Arts

President Roosevelt once paid a visit to Oliver Wendell Holmes on the judge's ninety-second birthday. Entering his library, Roosevelt found the ancient Holmes reading Plato's Republic. "Why are you reading that?" he asked. Holmes replied: "To improve my mind, Mr. President."

In our fondness for Justice Holmes, it's easy to miss the stupidity of this answer. What did Holmes need to improve his mind for? He was ninety-two! Unless Holmes agreed with Plato about immortality (he didn't), he was either lying or being foolish.

This brings up an interesting point, though: what is the point of Plato and the liberal arts? There are more arguments in their favor than there are words in this post, and all of them are wrong.

The liberal arts teach you how to think and write.” Meh. The students who excel are the ones who already know how.

Literature, art, and philosophy make us better people.” Wrong! The Nazis were erudite murderers.

"Books are valuable for their own sake." I have no idea what that means. I'm starting to think it's just nonsense.

The liberal arts give you the key to our civilization.” Maybe the civilization of 1876. Today, it’s only okay to talk about Socrates at the University of Chicago—anywhere else, you’ll be carefully avoided.
"Cultivating the intellect lets us apprehend God and speak prophecies."
Why, then, do I study the liberal arts? Not because I want to prepare myself for the working world. (If I really wanted to do that, I would be learning economics and spending my summers in New York instead of Maine.) Nor to improve my cocktail-party schmoozing—I already know enough trivia for that. And least of all because I want to "improve my mind"—I'll forget most of my education soon, and anyway I'll be dead one day. So why make improvement my goal

No: I study it because I like it, and there’s nothing more to it. I study it because I like Plato and Thoreau and Calvin, and because I love Wittgenstein and Milton and Tolstoy. Those people make my life fun and interesting. They teach me new ways of thinking about life and death, and they give me a hint of beauty beyond the mundane world. They also save me from spending my time dripping millimeters out of a pipette or doing regressions to test the effect of SAT prep.

(Meanwhile, a happy accident makes me grateful and bewildered: my society deems it worthwhile to let me sit down with a book for four years, and end up with decent job prospects in the end.)

So that's the bottom line: it's fun to read good books. I suspect that Holmes really thought so, too.


Avi Levin said...

I find it slightly disingenuous that you omit "They teach me new ways of thinking about life and death, and they give me a hint of beauty beyond the mundane world" from the list before your answer - I think that's the reason most people would give, irrespective of whether it is fun or not. This also has knockoff effects on "teaching you how to think and write" and "keys to civilization".

And if I learned one thing in Paris, it was just because we ignore people like Aquinas, Luther, and Voltaire in our day-to-day life, their writings better help us understand how and why society is the way it is today.

Jonathan S Nathan said...

I'd distinguish between learning critical-thinking skills and reading a good work of philosophy. The one is merely practical; the other is a fun adventure. The latter is a romp through a field of interesting concepts that our already-sharp minds are hungry for. It's like dessert after the broccoli of cognitive development. All I'm driving at is that the value of the liberal arts is the pleasure that they give us, not whatever use they might have.

And as for Luther and Aquinas, we can definitely teach ourselves contempt for modernity by immersing ourselves in the ancients. We can survey grotesque modernity from on high like a wise eagle, knowing how it got that way and why it sucks. But that project doesn't teach us much about how to live happily in the modern world—at best, it can make us feel stranded. Being that eagle might be strangely fun, but I wouldn't call it useful.