The illiberal arts

Reactionary politics and conservative education policies

By Saikat Majumdar
  • Published 29.09.16

As universities in the United Kingdom and Europe stare at prospects of a post-Brexit world of impoverished funding and collaboration, a larger pattern of consistency between reactionary politics and a conservative education policies bares itself across the Western world. To progressive educationists in the United States, the gloomiest omen has been the statement made by Sam Clovis, the national co-chair and policy director of Donald Trump's campaign, that Trump's proposals would "upend the current system of student loans, force all colleges to share the risk of such loans, and make it harder for those wanting to major in the liberal arts at non-elite institutions to obtain loans".

The narrow instrumentalism of the education policy carved out by the Republican presidential nominee is hardly a surprise. In 2013, the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, made the proposal that students who major in the humanities should pay higher tuition than students choosing business and the STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields. Around the same time, Pat McCrory, of North Carolina, made a statement, now equally infamous: "If you want to take gender studies, that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

In this sustained series of attacks on central principles of the liberal arts, ideology and utilitarianism have played a revealing game of hide-and-seek. While this old offensive now assumes the added fangs of a political campaign, it becomes worth recalling the 2013 caveat of the Berkeley historian, David Hollinger, that the 21st-century aggravation of the humanities and the imaginative social sciences in the US traces its most crucial lineage in the polemic around Allan Bloom's 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom's tirade against what he considered the usurpation of the humanities and social sciences by the radical Left was not utilitarian but ideological. Today's right-wing onslaught at these disciplines may appear primarily driven by a narrow pragmatism. But an irrational ideological allergy to the supposedly "liberal" make-up of the liberal arts is usually never far behind.

Epistemological and nomenclatural confusions, however, cannot be outdone easily by political ones. It is often forgotten by all warring parties that the war between the liberal arts and STEM is a misnomer, as the foundational S of STEM, science, occupies a pride of place in the liberal arts. The "liberal arts" are not synonymous with the arts and humanities; the anachronistic term simply evokes a time when the sciences were arts too.

We live in times when the sciences are taxonomically divorced from the arts, even though adventurous strands of post-millennial innovations are now beginning to fuse their respective archives, as strikingly chronicled in David Edwards's book, Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation. No small measure of confusion behind the absurd omission of the fundamental sciences from the "liberal arts" is traceable to powerful ideological wars that have deepened the separation between the humanities and the sciences that, in Hollinger's words, has become "the wedge driving Academe's two families apart."

The psychologist, Steven Pinker, has mounted a sustained critique of the deepening suspicion of science that has come to characterize the humanities in recent decades. Humanists resent science taking on the big questions of existence, which, they insist, should be left to philosophical, ethical, religious, and artistic thought. Scientific attempts at answering such questions, Pinker argues, are routinely accused of "determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called "scientism.""

The humanist mistrust of science, sadly, comes from both the Left and Right. Left-leaning humanists accuse positivist thinking and more generally, the faith in reason and progress deriving from the European Enlightenment for "scientifically" engineered means of entrenching power and perpetuating domination: social Darwinism, clinical racism, leading to the pervasive disasters of imperialism and eugenics - the selective breeding of the "fit" and the elimination of the "unfit". Not only the proliferation of advanced technology but also the very sensibility of scientific reason is accordingly blamed for every man-made disaster in the modern age - from the massive death and destruction of the two World Wars to the soulless cruelty of drone attacks.

The Right has focused its fire on what it sees as science's usurpation of traditional religious beliefs and moral principles. The polemic goes all the way back to the very origin of life, manifested not only in ugly curricular conflicts between Creationism and Darwinism, but - as Pinker puts it - in "our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God".

Religion's quarrel with science is understandable. That between science and religious studies, or of its close neighbour, philosophy, is unfortunate; it is merely driven by ideological and disciplinary obduracies. Science shapes a definite philosophy - the philosophy shapes the world view of educated persons today, and their moral and spiritual values. Neither the fundamental metaphysical questions of life, nor the archives of philosophy - which remain deeply entwined with the principles of mathematics - can be possibly off-limits for science, as some provincial humanists would like to believe.

The mistrust between the sciences and the humanities is also the wedge driving the liberal arts apart, for the liberal arts have the same claim on the fundamental sciences as STEM does. But the former has done a poor job of realizing this claim. The disciplinary shortsightedness, and more crucially, the ideological provincialism of much humanist practice in recent decades must take their share of the blame. The anachronism embodied in the term "liberal arts" - recalling a time when mathematics, literature and economics were all "arts" - has made the erroneous equation between the humanities and the liberal arts a final and lasting one in the public mind. The unnatural omission of the basic sciences from the liberal-arts family has turned the latter impoverished, the humanities parochial, and science bereft of the big questions it is meant to ask, yoking it to the instrumentalism of STEM education fetishized by the utilitarian education policies of an increasingly conservative world order.

The author is professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University, and has written the novel, The Firebird

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