Can a liberal arts ethos and a professionalized research faculty co-exist?

I’ve been reading Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent book, Humanities and the Dream of America, whiling away the hours on my exercise bike.  Ok, half hours.  I’ve been struck by the similarities in analysis between Harpham and Andrew Delbanco’s analysis of the college as a distinctly American achievement, having just finished Delbanco’s meditation on the nature of the college a week or so ago.

For both, the fundamental antagonist to the ideals of the liberal arts has not been professional programs per se–though undergraduate programs in things like businesss, nursing, and engineering (and a host of others) are favorite bete noirs of our current humanistic discourse about the purposes of education.  Rather, for both the real threat lies in the research university and the ethos of specialization that it entails.  This emphasis of specialized knowledge is itself inherently narrowing, and is opposed to the generous expansiveness of spirit that, at least in theory, characterizes the highest ideals of a liberal arts education.

Like Delbanco, Harpham draws on Newman as a first resource for the fully articulated ideal of the idea that education should enrich our human experience, fitting us primarily for a life well lived, rather than for the specifics of a living.  I’m intrigued, though, that Harpham brings out this ethos not only as characterizing the curricular choices and the spiritual, ethical and cultural teloi of the undergraduate [side note, we no longer would use a word like teloi; we would invoke learning objectives];  more than that, this ethos characterizes the faculty and their understanding of their role in the life of the mind.

Moreover, the institution devoted to producing Newman’s protege bears little resemblance to today’s institutions of higher learning. Newman’s idea of a university had no room for either specialized or comprehensive knowledge, and the professors who taught there should, he fervently believed-it is the very first statement in the book-have nothing to do with research, an obsessive activity best conducted by those whose minds were too sadly contracted to engage in full life. …

Newman intuitively understood that the real threat to liberal education in his own time was not the shade of Locke but the spirit of research then crescent in Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had begun to Germanize its academy, with some university faculties organizing themselves into departments that granted degrees that came to constitute credentials. With credentialing came professionalism, and with professionalism growth. President Lawrence Lowell of Harvard (1909-33) laid the foundation for Harvard’s eminence as a research powerhouse by encouraging his faculty to think of themselves as professionals.4 This meant adopting impersonal criteria of scholarly competence within each discipline, cultivating a spirit of empirical and methodological rigor, and coming to agreement about what would count as standards of achievement in a small, self-certifying group of mandarins

The new professionalism functioned as a way of insulating the university from extra-academic pressures by creating a separate world of academe that could be judged only by its own standards. But professionalism was accompanied by its dark familiars, partition and competition. A professionalized faculty was a faculty divided into units, each claiming considerable autonomy in matters of hiring and promotion, and competing with other units for salaries, students, office space, and prestige. Such competition naturally placed some stress on amity, and so while undergraduates were expected to enjoy four stress-free years in the groves of academe, the faculty in the same institutions were facing the prospect of going at it hammer and tong, competing with each other virtually face to face, for the rest of their lives.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.

This seems about right to me, and it might pass without comment, but it raises a troubling contradiction.  In most of the strong defenses of the liberal arts that I hear, the notion that faculty should abandon research or that the fullness of the liberal arts spirit is best embodied by a faculty full of generalists is never among them.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  We want an institution to display its commitment to the liberal arts precisely by giving more support to faculty research so that faculty can become more and more specialized, more fully recognized in their professional disciplines, more disconnected from the immediacy of their liberal arts institutions, and less able to exemplify the generalist qualities that we say we value as fully humanizing.

What this argument for the liberal arts wants (I’m not saying there aren’t other arguments), is a research university, or at least a research college, with a commitment to research in the liberal arts and all the prestige that entails.  What we definitely do not want to do is give up the right to writing books that no one wants to read so that we can demonstrate our particularly specialized knowledge.

The faculty, as Harpham recognizes, is fully professionalized, and in many respects in the liberal arts we have created specialized professional programs, imagining that our students are professors in embryo.  The college major is now, in many respects, a professional program ,and it is worth noting that the idea of a college major is coextensive with the advent of the research university.  Indeed, I have heard the argument that we should have much larger majors in the humanities than we do have because the size of the major is a measure of its prestige in the college, competing then as it would with the gargantuan programs in engineering, nursing, and many of the hard sciences, programs that students can barely finish in four years, if they can.  So much for our sentimental sop about the value of breadth of mind and spirit.

Can a research faculty that shows no real interest in giving up the ideals of research exemplify and support a genuine liberal arts ethos in an American college today (leaving aside the question of whether liberal arts colleges will survive at all)? I am not sure what the route out of this conundrum actually is.  I stopped in the middle of Harpham’s chapter where he actually has just noted that faculty in the liberal arts are essentially professionals and conceive of themselves as professionals in ways quite similar to their brethren in professional programs.  I am not sure where he is going with that insight, but I look forward to finding out.

2 thoughts on “Can a liberal arts ethos and a professionalized research faculty co-exist?

  1. Matt Stephens (@mattstephens268)

    Thanks, Pete, for sharing this excerpt and your commentary on it. This is a seemingly glaring contradiction at first glance. As a communication major at a Christian university (general comm, no specialization), I drank the whole pitcher of humanities-ethos Kool Aid. When it came time to find a job right out of college (my internship was essentially worthless), it took me six months to land a $25k/yr social services job, which I quickly left to work for a few hundred dollars less at a nearby community non-profit. I had intended to pursue my masters in comm right out of college, with the intention of eventually becoming a prof, but the timing (mainly cost) was prohibitive. I ended up moving to Chicagoland a couple years later to study for an MDiv.

    At any rate, the tension between breadth and depth of expertise is significant, but not irresolvable. Call me an idealistic optimist, but I believe every college/university student should receive a hearty, well-rounded liberal arts education. If they taught these things in high school, it would be a different situation. But for the sake of developing the basic competencies required for responsible, ethical engagement in public life (parts of which we all share by virtue of our various citizenships), I believe a robust liberal arts education is indispensable.

    Now, is this sufficient preparation for a vast majority of vocations / professions? Definitely not. Four years is simply too little time, I’m afraid to say. But what if we approached the humanities as the foundation of all our higher ed programs, and then built upon it whatever specialized training each student needed for their vocation of choice?

    As the world grows increasingly complex (socially, politically, economically, religiously), we will have to spend more and more time together as intentional communities of learning if we are to keep pace with the change. Many, of course, have given up on this goal. But it shows in our inability as a citizenry to engage in rational, honest, constructive dialogue. The culture wars have only just begun unless we win the battle of establishing a common body of basic knowledge and conviction.

  2. Peter Kerry Powers

    Thanks for your comments, Matt. I think the lack of a common narrative presents some specific difficulties for not only the humanities but higher education generally. Because higher education in a variety of ways has always linked itself to a vision of the Good–however that term is defined–the way a culture comes to those kinds of definitions of the common good makes a huge difference to the kinds of things that are possible in the educational enterprise. At the moment, the only collective enterprise we seem capable of is the effort to achieve higher levels of the GDP, and even there this is hardly construed as a collective enterprise–just the good fortune of a lot of different individuals adding up to the plus side of the column. This means, absent a larger narrative of collective purpose, education is fundamentally about the economy and it is difficult to plausibly defend a larger vision, except in discrete circumstances such as faith based institutions and perhaps some others with distinctive and particular missions. Even these institutions, however, face the problem of the overwhelming flood of the general discourse and practice.


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