Lydia Davis has a wonderful short story called “Idea for a Sign,” in which she explores the dynamic of social settings where people who don’t know one another must sit side-by-side, as on a train. Davis suggests that it would be easier if everyone wore signs explaining exactly what they will and will not do while sitting there, to facilitate maximum comfort while in close quarters. As you might expect, this prompt to bullet-point basic attributes and actions quickly becomes an absurd and encyclopedic exercise in listing, as each tic, habit, and affect must be delineated and parsed to the point that every “sign” becomes a long stream of prose. Each person is revealed to be no more—and no less—than a complex self entangled in a densely social world. So much for the neat and tidy individual simply sitting on a train. It turns out that people are complicated, and that safe spaces are difficult to ensure.
At my university I was recently charged with helping define and articulate what we mean by “liberal arts.” This may sound straightforward enough: is there anything to explain or justify beyond a basic commitment to knowledge across multiple core disciplines? A balance of science, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, history, literature, and language…it is a model of education that goes back quite a ways, rooted in Greco-Roman ideals that balance modes of inquiry and intellectual study.
One might venture a simple definition and say that liberal arts education cultivates well-rounded individuals. Unfortunately, the well-rounded individual turns out to be slippery to describe, much less keep hold of. It is like Davis’s sign wearer, a vortex for every possible behavior and characteristic: what “well-rounded” means depends on who is in the room, and valuing what, at any given moment. As anyone who has sat on a committee knows, these interests and values can shift wildly depending on who is sitting where, from meeting to meeting. One imagines that even the notoriously meta-sounding “committee on committees” is hardly a neutral domain.
I’ve been thinking back on my own liberal arts education, which took place at a traditional small college in the Midwest. I’ve tried to understand what went on there, extrapolate what worked and what could work better. I remember one semester when I went directly from astronomy class to medieval philosophy—my mind would be spinning (in a good way) at dinnertime and usually well into the night. There were the three semesters of Latin: intensely difficult but also ineffably rewarding, working on basic Ovid translations. A stimulating biology class on Michigan flora, in which there were two of us students (!) and a professor named, improbably but truly, Dr. Crabtree. A small seminar on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard team-taught by four professors, one each from philosophy, English, psychology, and sociology. Discussing the complexities and subtleties of Walden in an American Literature course, then later going backpacking with the professor who would become a great friend long after my college years were over. My liberal arts education acted as a sort of safe space for these disciplinary forays and productive collisions.
What we mean by well-rounded, in a more careful formulation, might mean an acquired sensitivity to many ways of understanding the world.
Of course, there were also many uncataloged experiences and misadventures that occurred during my liberal arts education. These were the passions, attractions, predicaments, malaise, and weird encounters that also happen in college—the very experiences that college creates a time and space for. This is something that faculty members do not like to talk about or include as part of the mission of a college: the messy time and space required for awkward mental developments and incremental personal growth. These are things that occur outside (though they often necessarily intersect with) the classroom, but which could not happen without the pretense of college: being away from family, living with peers in a dorm or similar setting, learning how to manage one’s own time, and so on.
In Josh Radnor’s 2012 film Liberal Arts, one of the narrative arcs involves a minor character who goes from tortured, introspective soul, schlepping around a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, to an awakened spirit who might finally risk living in the world and not a book. Strangely enough, this conversion can be taken as a very distilled interpretation of Wallace’s “philosophy” of life, as it were, summed up by the end of the famous commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College (coincidentally where Liberal Arts was filmed) in 2005. For Wallace, the real takeaway from a liberal arts education is at once ambitiously holistic and utterly humble: “It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’” It is about day-to-day consciousness in a world that constantly distracts and evades our grasp. It is also, arguably, a tactic that does not work very well: too much awareness may result in paralysis. It’s one thing to give a motivational speech about being fully attentive, but it’s another thing to live like this, particularly “in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence,” as Wallace puts it.
But why are we talking about life as if it is a battlefield? When we refer to being well-rounded in a liberal arts context, we don’t mean becoming like Emerson’s detached, drone-like eyeball: “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me…” Taken too seriously this way, the well-rounded individual can be a repository for a kind of ruthless, rugged individualist—someone who confuses solipsism with sovereignty. Recall the nihilists in the Cohen brothers’ The Big Lebowski who “believe in nothing” but whine, “it’s not fair!” when they don’t get their way.
What we mean by well-rounded, in a more careful formulation, might mean an acquired sensitivity to many ways of understanding the world. Sara Ahmed has written compellingly (in “Against Students” in the New Inquiry) about the sensitive student, indeed the so-called “over-sensitive” student, who has been blamed for various assaults on higher education:
The figure of the over-sensitive student is invested with power. The story goes: because students have become too sensitive, we cannot even talk about difficult issues in the classroom; because of their feelings we (critical academics) cannot address questions of power and violence, and so on. A typical example of this kind of rhetoric: “No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress—no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change.” Or another: “While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom. […] Safe spaces are another technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The real purpose of these mechanisms is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen. So often those conversations do not happen because the difficulties people wish to talk about end up being re-enacted within discussion spaces, which is how they are not talked about. […] The very perception of some spaces as being too soft might even be related to the harshness of the worlds we are organizing to challenge.
I have quoted Ahmed at length here because she helps unravel several threads that together form the weave of liberal arts education—as well as spot some of its runs and frayed ends. I want to take some time working through these lines, as Ahmed’s points move our inquiry into liberal arts in useful directions.
First off, for Ahmed the “over-sensitive” student points to an imperative—and a skirting of this imperative—concerning “difficult issues” that should be broached and discussed in higher education contexts. Yet the so-called over-sensitive student becomes a scapegoat for closing down the very sorts of difficult conversations that college can be a space for. Ahmed suggests that we reevaluate our rhetoric and treatment of this straw figure—indeed, that it is our obligation as professors to be sensitive ourselves, and with no upper limit to that sensitivity. This is especially true when dealing with matters of racism and sexism, matters hardly settled, and with college serving as a safe space for these issues to be taken seriously.
Far from being a simple or static model, we should understand the liberal arts to be complex, continually transmogrifying, and up for debate.
Where Ahmed ventriloquizes (in order to critique) the generic assertion, “People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision,” we might hear a familiar specter of the liberal arts at work: the well-rounded individual, who now is also given the extra assignment of sharpening their wits. And we might recognize this latter skill as “critical thinking” by another name. But it would seem that these two metaphorical actions are in tension: broadening and sharpening. Ahmed picks up on this by locating a worry that over-sensitive students who require safe spaces will end up with “dull edges” rather than sharp wits. But a well-rounded individual should have dull edges, geometrically speaking. The liberal arts ideals of the well-rounded individual and the vague demand for critical thinking are thus at odds.
Ahmed carefully defends the safe spaces of college as sites where learners can deal “with the consequences of histories that are not over” in a conscious, conscientious, sensitive fashion. This reminds me of how Frantz Fanon, in “The Lived Experience of a Black Man,” frustratingly explains his dilemma as a black subject qua object in a white world. At one point, Fanon outlines a sort of ontological strategy as such: “If I were asked for a definition of myself, I would say that I am one who waits; I investigate my surroundings, I interpret everything in terms of what I discover, I become sensitive.” This would seem to be an excellent rubric for liberal arts education. However, it also requires an acknowledgement of the harsh realities of the world (how history hurts, to borrow a phrase from Fredric Jameson), as well as commitment to safe spaces—in ever permutating manifestations—in which earnest inquiry, intellectual development, and personal growth can take place.
Out of curiosity, I went back and looked at the mission statement of my alma mater, Hillsdale College. There are actually some terrifying parts of it (not surprisingly; this school is known for its brazen politics), but for the purposes of concluding this essay I want to focus on a seemingly innocuous section:
The liberal arts are dedicated to stimulating students’ intellectual curiosity, to encouraging the critical, well-disciplined mind, and to fostering personal growth through academic challenge. They are a window on the past and a gateway to the future.
Liberal arts are supposed to be a portal to the world: see through it one way, go through it another. This mixed metaphor may seem innocent enough, but it trembles on the fine point of the problem with liberal arts. We want college to be both practical (go forward), and theoretical (stop and wonder, look back). Notice too how “students” move from a plural entity to the singular “well-disciplined mind.” Here is anther paradox: even at a bastion of freedom and self-governance such as Hillsdale College, the collective looms and cannot be so easily shaken. Finally, there is the matter of “personal growth.” This is a delicate thing, a soft and squishy vector, something that professors often do not want to be held accountable for. I have heard colleagues recoil at the notion that we should teach our first-year students “life skills”—but since when is life not part of our purview?
This is an unfinished inquiry, necessarily incomplete. What I am advocating for here is an ongoing calculation about what the liberal arts are doing rhetorically, functionally, and philosophically. How they help us clarify the projects of higher education, and when they obfuscate or mislead us. Far from being a simple or static model, we should understand the liberal arts to be complex, continually transmogrifying, and up for debate. If they are to be a safe space, this makes liberal arts hard to pin down—for good reason. Like Lydia Davis’s awkwardly donned, itemizing signs, the liberal arts should be understood as capacious, indulgent, and fraught—but perhaps worthwhile if committed to, again and again, on ever changing grounds.