the Arts of Choice
William Morris, The Defence of Guenevere1
What, today, is the purpose of an education in the Humanities? What does a student gain from an Arts programme? Are those gains worth the time and the cost that they entail? In recent years, these and similar questions have frequently been answered by defenders and advocates of the Arts or Humanities in terms of the skills and abilities that can be gained or enhanced through a study of literature, history, philosophy, classical and modern languages, and the visual artscritical thinking and knowledge-building skills, for example, and the ability to conduct research, organize information, and communicate effectively. Such skills and abilities, students and their parents have been assured, can be readily transferred to a wide variety of professions and vocations and are highly desired by employers in business, industry, and high-tech. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime runs the favoured saying: in an Arts or Humanities programme, students acquire or hone the tools that will make them not only desirable as employees, but also continuously capable of adapting to the new situations that they encounter as they move through the sequence of jobs that is to be their lot in a world of accelerating change and uncertainty. In short, a degree in the Arts or Humanities is a superb qualification for the new knowledge economy.
Of course, there is a great deal of truth to this argument and a considerable body of testimony from employers and graduates alike that the skills and abilities associated with an education in the Arts or Humanities are indeedand are likely to continue to beboth valued and remunerative in the real world beyond (and now quite often within) the universities gates. But is the acquisition or enhancement of transportable know-how the primary purpose and benefit of an Arts or Humanities education? Or, for that matter, is it a purpose or benefit that programmes in the Arts or Humanities are uniquely, or even best, equipped to fulfil? Merely to ask these questions is to cast doubt on the proposition that the goal and competency of Arts or Humanities programmes and their instructors lies in the inculcation of so-called employability skills and abilities, for surely most professors and students in, say, a department of Philosophy or Visual Arts are primarily engaged in teaching and learning a discipline, and Philosophy and Visual Arts are not necessarily better arenas for acquiring or enhancing employability skills and abilities than, say, a department of Political Science or a Faculty of Engineering. To be sure, departments of English, French, and Modern Languages frequently (and often out of economic necessity) mount courses in written and oral communication, but communication skills are (or should be) a component of all university courses, and to centre them in a few departments in faculties of Arts or Humanities is to risk transforming those departments in whole or in part into service units. Nevertheless, even as they train students in their particular disciplines Arts or Humanities instructors are engaged directly and/or indirectly in activities through which students do acquire or enhance skills and abilities that are attractive to employers. To the very extent that employability skills and abilities are among the benefits of Arts or Humanities programmes they should not be ignored but, on the contrary, emphasized and, if necessary, explained whenever and wherever those programmes need to be defended against the charge that they are less worthwhile because less obviously practical than programmes in business, the sciences, and other areas that now enjoy political and, hence, financial favour.
And there can be no doubt that in the corridors of power in most capital cities and on many university campuses less favour has been accorded in recent years to sectors of the university whose primary focus is on culture and mental cultivation than to those that are directly concerned with human physical and social needs and those that are widely assumed to be incubators of innovation and productivity. As these trends have become more pronounced and apparent, numerous efforts have been made to align the Arts or Humanities with the financial beneficiaries of current assumptions and policies, for example, by emphasizing the importance of culture to peoples overall sense of wellness and by calling for greater recognition of such factors as artistic creativity, cultural diversity, and disciplinary interaction in the fostering of innovation.2 These efforts, too, must continue and for much the same reason as the arguments pertaining to employability skills and abilities: they have validity; they have met with success; and they are a means of at least stemming the tide that has in many places and for some time been flowing against the Arts or Humanities.
That both these lines of defense and attack might be joined by a third that is entirely consonant with the foundational commitment of the Arts or Humanities to culture and mental cultivation became vividly apparent to me on September 12, 2002 when I listened to President George W. Bush address the United Nations on the need to disarm or remove Saddam Hussein. More specifically, it became apparent in the closing moments of the speech when Mr. Bush confronted his audience with a stark choice. Events can turn in one of two ways, he argued,
If we fail to act in the face of danger, the people of Iraq will
continue to live in brutal submission.
The regime will have new power to bully, dominate and conquer its
neighbours.... The region
will remain unstable....
These were powerful and portentous words whose author was almost certainly familiar with one of the great themes or topoi of Western culture: the Choice of Hercules. Beneath the surface of Mr. Bushs Churchillian rhetoric of gathering dangers to be overcome lies a pattern traceable to Xenophons Memorabilia Socratis (circa 380 BC), elaborated by the Earl of Shaftesbury in his Characteristiks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), and deployed in different ways by Raphael, William Hogarth, Susanna Moodie, Archibald Lampman, and countless other artists and writers4the pattern whereby the young Hercules is confronted by a choice between, on the one hand, heroic virtue (virtus), and, on the other, sensual pleasure (voluptas), chooses the former, and thus embarks on a course of action that leads him to an excruciating death and entry into heaven. The recognition of this pattern was startling and illuminating, it clarified, contextualized, and complicated the choice that Mr. Bush was placing before the United Nations, and it was a result of studying art, literature, and the scholarship surrounding themthe heritage, it might be said, of the Arts or Humanities.
Mr. Straw [the British Foreign Minister] used part of his speech
[to the United Nations] to attack the French Foreign Ministers
reasoning for giving Saddam more time in the face of less-than-full
Dominique [de Villepin] . . . said the choice before us was
disarmament by peace or disarmament by war. Thats a false choice,
he said. The choice, the choice, Dominique, is not ours as to how
this disarmament takes place. The choice is Saddam Husseins. Its
his choice. (Saddam A18)
than a week after Mr. Bushs
speech to the United Nations, an article in The Financial Post
reinforced for me the value of the Arts or Humanities as a framework for
understanding and, by extension, making the sorts of choices that seem
to be the staple of these interesting times.
It was an article entitled Weighing
the Cost of a Canadian MBA: Whats
It Really Worth?
that concerned itself with what Michael Bloom, an Associate
Director at the Conference Board of Canada, described somewhat clumsily
as the trends
devaluating the degrees
offered by Canadas
numerous business schools (McNamara 10).
In it, Mr. Bloom expressed the view that, [w]ith [the] emphasis now placed on corporate governance
in the business world, it
is critical that managers have a broader understanding of issues around
management and not just technical skills
and intimated that such understanding
is less common in MBAs than in the graduates of other
in which [t]here is a much stronger tradition...of thinking critically and
reflecting on choices, on judgement.
Later in the article an unnamed spokeswoman for a [h]igh-end
firm confirmed that fewer
MBAs and more lawyers, doctors, engineers, English lit grads...people
from a wide range of disciplines
are now being hired by Canadian businesses and a recruiter
who asked not to be named
observed that the desirable employee in todays
corporate world is not the
kid with a spreadsheet
who can lead one of [a businesss]
divisions in 10 years. And
that includes putting your hand up when you see something wrong; [w]here
were those people at Anderson Consulting?
A few years ago, articles like Weighing
the Cost of an MBA
offered defenders and advocates of the Arts or Humanities little comfort
beyond their welcoming gestures towards critical thinking and other employability
skills,5 but in the wake of
the scandals surrounding Enron and other American corporations, their
emphasis on choice, judgement, and moral discernment is bringing to the
fore capacities and qualities whose development and refinement was for
centuries one of the highest goals of the humanistic programme
in which lie the roots of todays
study of the Arts or Humanities. On
the evidence of Weighing
the Cost of a Canadian MBA
and, indeed, Mr. Bushs
address to the United Nations, the time may well be ripe to revitalize
those roots and draw more succour from them than has recently been the
case in many if not most universities.
A week or two after hearing Mr. Bushs address and reading Weighing the Cost of a Canadian MBA, these lessons were again brought home to me in the September 2002 issue of my daughters Glamour magazine, where the question advanced in the glamour debate was Is it ethical for a couple to choose to create a deaf baby? (Bollinger). The couple at the centre of the debate were deaf lesbians and the four women chosen to represent the pros and cons of the question were the author of a book about the deaf, a fourth-generation deaf graduate student, the vice president of a company that manufactures hearing devices who had received a cochlear implant after gradually losing her hearing, and a paralegal intern in a law firm specializing in cases for the deaf who was born deaf. The responses of the four women were placed in two perfectly balanced columns headed Yes and No, but when read in sequence they told a story of gradually dawning awareness, beginning with the first Yes response (I know that being deaf is not a medical misfortune from the author, who, interestingly was not deaf herself) and ending with the second No response (If a baby is born deaf, OK, but lets not create deaf children from the paralegal intern). A sidebar recorded the responses of readers, 57% of whom agreed with the statement that in light of increasing scientific advances...the government [should] restrict a persons right to genetically engineer a child. At the foot of the page readers were invited to participate further in the debate by logging on to the magazines website and casting their vote. In short, the article was a brief but concerted assault on the shallow relativism whose stock reply to any awkward dilemmaWhatevercan be heard all-too-frequently on university campuses. Not only did it effectively position itself within the feminist tradition of choice to confront its target audience with a complex moral and definitional issue (deafness was variously called a handicap and a challenge as well as not a medical misfortune), but it did so using generic, spatial, and narrative elements in a quite subtle way that demanded both analytical skill and cultural experience if its design(s) and agenda were to be fully discerned and understood.
To be born is both to be born of the world and to be born into the world. The world is already constituted; but also never completely constituted; in the first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to an infinite number of possibilities. But this analysis is still abstract, for we exist in both ways at once. There is, therefore, never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a thing and never bare consciousness. In fact, even our own pieces of initiative, even the situations which we have chosen, bear us on, once they have been entered upon by virtue of a state rather than an act. (Merleau-Ponty 527)
Different as they are in almost every respect, the glamour debate and Mr. Bushs address to the United Nations both illustrate the way in which patterns and procedures made available through studying the Arts or Humanities can enable and encourage a sophisticated understanding of a wide variety of texts and issues. They also make plain the fact that, whatever their nature and whatever their context, choices involve a reflective process that includes the dilemma (or problem) at hand, an analysis of its components and implications, and a referral of these to as much pertinent knowledge and cultural experience as possible. Needless to say, this process is not restricted to the realms of addresses and articles but occurs continually in the sphere of personal decision-making, where the dual nature of a choice as something that we make at a particular moment in time and something with which we must thereafter live is, if anything, even more starkly clear: to opt for the road less travelled is to exercise individual agency and to accept irreversible consequences and responsibilities. Here, too, someone exposed to the Arts or Humanities will be at an advantage by virtue of having, not merely a personal context of desires, motives, goals, and capabilities upon which to base choices, but also a culturally rich understanding of choices and their consequences gleaned from art, history, literature, and philosophy.
Did you know [my] order forbidding such an act?
It is probably unnecessary but nevertheless important to observe that what I am advocating is not an ideologically driven approach to pedagogy thaιt uses the Arts or Humanities as the pretext for political suasion. As an aid in the process of sharpening students' moral awareness and ethical intelligence, an office door plastered with insights into current events from one's favourite newspapers, magazines, and websites may be a thought provoking as well as cathartic, but it should not be confused with the real work of drawing out from the texts that students are studying the issues that will help them come to their own moral, ethical, and, yes, political conclusions. In fact, there may even be sound reasons both pedagogical and perceptual for not advertising one's political orientation so crassly. Alerted by the evidence of his or her instructor's ideological position, a student may decide for pragmatic reasons that are quite legitimate to refrain from offering different, let alone opposing, opinions during class discussion, in a piece of written work, or on a term test or final examination. Less important but also worth consideration in these highly polarized and culturally diverse times, an office door plastered with caricatures and critiques of whatever political figures or positions the occupant of the office finds reprehensible can scarcely appeal to all students or, on open-house days, to all parents and other visitors. If doors must be plastered, then in the interests of encouraging moral awareness and ethical intelligence, the should record, not one, but several ideological and political positions and arguments. It was in this spirit that in the period that in the period leading up to the recent war the office door of a colleague of mine at the University of Western Ontario carried articles containing the views of Noam Chomsky, Jean Chrιtien, David Frum, Michael Ignatieff, and Jeffrey Simpson by no means the full spectrum of available views but enough bands of it to provide a good sense of the various arguments that the imminent war was generating on an almost daily basis.
Buridans ass, an ass starving to death between two equidistant and tempting piles of hay . . . may . . . [have] originated as a caricature of Buridans theory of action, which attempts to find a middle ground between Aristotelian intellectualism and Franciscan voluntarism by arguing that the wills freedom to act consists primarily in its ability to defer choice in the absence of any compelling reason to act one way or the other. (Zupco)
No very deep or detailed knowledge of the history of Western culture is necessary to recognize that choices and their consequences tend to come to artistic, historical, literary, and, indeed, linguistic prominence during periods of turmoil and change such as those surrounding the Copernican Revolution (which, of course, marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance) and the Kantian Revolution (which marked the next stage in the emergence of modern, subjective individualism). The strong evidence that for some three decades Western culture has been moving through another period of turbulence, one characterized by the transference of many human capabilities to the computer and other mechanisms (the Turing Revolution)6, suggests that there may be merit to examining a couple of texts from the Renaissance and post-Romantic periods that focus directly on choices, their procedures, and their consequences to see what lessons they might hold for a culture that is saturated in the rhetoric of choice but nevertheless leaves many people with the sense that the political and economic system for which the right to choose has become almost an article of faith has also reduced choice to little more than a matter of likes and dislikes within a seemingly diverse but actually very narrow band of options (as in I like Gap jeans, I dont like Britney Spears, and He likes me).
Finlay said when he came in that the heat for May was extraordinary; and
Advena reminded him that he was in a country where everything was
accomplished quickly, even summer.
In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton gives first to Eve and then to Adam a choice whose outcomethe future of all humanitycould not be greater or, as it turns out, more grave. What makes them, in Gods words (and, surely, the finest use of the comma in English literature), Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall (3:99) is a combination of unblemished human reason and complete personal freedom, for, as Milton explains in Areopagitica (1644), [w]hen God gave [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing (732). To Milton, reason and choosing are aspects of a procedure whereby knowledge and analysis are brought to bear on an issue or problem to achieve clarity, come to a judgement, and make a decision. Of course, Miltons reason is not mere ratiocination, but right reason (ratio recta), a faculty that consists of intellect informed by moral and spiritual values and thus capable of referring a specific issue or problem to patterns found in the Bible and in the Divinely authored Book of Nature. With the Fall of Adam and Eve, right reason was compromised, but it remains the best tool that human beings possess for making choices in accordance with moral and spiritual values and, therefore, for the good of both the individual and the community. Moreover, in the fallen world, right reason can and should be strengthened (re-righted) through intellectual discipline and the acquisition of knowledge. If he were to read Weighing the Cost of a Canadian MBA Milton would doubtless disapprove of that shy recruiters decision to remain anonymous and thus to avoid responsibility for his statements, but he would surely agree with the same recruiters point that accounting practices are no more exempt from moral judgement than any other human activity. He would also agree, I am fairly certain, that disciplined exposure to the Arts and Humanities is a valuable means of providing reason with the moral, spiritual, and cultural frameworks that are essential for making right choices in complex situations.
As Milton tells the story in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, Eve makes the wrong choice because she is overwhelmed by the sensual appeal of the forbidden fruit and by Satans specious argument that it will make her god-like. In contrast, Adam eats the forbidden fruit because he cannot bear the thought of living without Eve. Although her decision is the dramatic climax of the poem, Adams is the theological culmination of the tragedy of the Fall and it dramatizes a dilemma that few people will fail to face at least once in the course of their lives: the choice of either doing what they know to be right and, as a result, losing a person about whom they care deeply or doing what they know to be wrong and retaining that persons affection. That Adam does not call upon God for help in making his decision (as he most certainly could have) merely serves to reinforce the sense that he was facing a dilemma as lonely as it is profoundly human, a dilemma also faced by Huck Finn when he has to decide whether to obey the laws of the land in which he finds himself or remain loyal to his friend Jim. Students and teachers of Paradise Lost, Huckleberry Finn, and other works are doing much more than analysing texts and acquiring or enhancing employability skills. They are also, among many other things, strengthening and refining their ability to appreciate how difficult and complex a matter choosing can be, to identify the components and ramifications of choices, and to understand that it is in the nature of human life that some decisions are both right and wrong.
then I [Huck] happened to look around, and see that paper [the letter he
had written revealing Jims
whereabouts].... I took it
up, and held it in my hand. I
was a trembling, because Id
got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.
I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to
Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe (Carlyle 192). Delivered several decades after the Kantian Revolution had prepared the way for Romantic individualism and the strutting egotism to which it perhaps inevitably gave rise, Thomas Carlyles imperious injunction that in The Everlasting Yea section of Sartor Resartus (1833) was a timely rejection of self-indulgence (voluptas) in favour of duty to God and community (virtus). Like Milton and numerous subsequent writers and thinkers (not least the Swift of A Modest Proposal ), Carlyle recognized that reason decoupled from moral and spiritual values can become the destructive madness for which the twentieth century will forever live in infamy. (Eerily, the projector of A Modest Proposal suggests that human skin would make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for Fine Gentlemen .) Like Goethe and numerous other Romantic and Victorian writers (not least the Dickens of Bleak House ), Carlyle believed that duty and responsibility must begin with family and friends but must also radiate outwards like ripples in a pond to encompass at its furthest limits the rest of humanity and the earth itself. The Situation that has not its Duty, its Ideal was never yet occupied by a human being, he asserts later in The Everlasting Yea: [y]es, here, in this poor, miserable, hampered, dispicable Actual, wherein thou even now standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal: work it out therefrom, and working, believe, live, be free (196). To analyse a Situation, to establish an Ideal, to recognize and act upon a Duty: these were, are, and never will be simple or easy undertakings, which is exactly why the Arts or Humanities will remain essential components of human existence.
[A] lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that were written. (Jefferson 1:77)
the distant background of Carlyle and the more immediate background of
Milton lies the extraordinary work from which I would like to draw by
way of conclusion, Pico della Mirandolas Dignita
delluomo or De
hominis dignitatethe Oration on the Dignity of Man that he delivered
at Rome in 1486, when he was only twenty-four years old.
Envisaging the moment when God created Man and set him in the middle of the world
beneath the angels and above the animals, Pico imagines God explaining
to Adam that by virtue of his intermediary
(3) position he has unique abilities:
...whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision.... We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine. (7-8)
Surely one of the highest purposes and goals of the Arts or Humanities today is to assist in the process of premeditation, select[ion], judgement, and decision through which people fashion their higher and better selvesselves capable of properly responding to the moral, social, political, and personal choices of todays and tomorrows world. During the Renaissance and in the classical tradition from which it drew so much of its inspiration, one of the ideals of the educational activity known as philosophia was to enable the student to live a good life. As the twenty-first century dawns, the cultivation of an ethical sensibility alongside cultural and other forms of competency is surely no less important than it ever was; indeed, there may never have been a greater need for the Arts or Humanities to reclaim and proclaim their high calling as schools for the moral arts upon which society and humanity depend.
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