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Liberal Arts for the Current Times

A lifetime of events has occurred in the span of less than a year: COVID-19 declared a global pandemic in March, George Floyd killed in May, and crises of economy, education, and mental health ensuing by August. By the time that the 2020-21 academic year began, it was evident that it would be important to hold time and space on the calendar for reflection, perhaps even for creative and constructive ideas. In conversation with faculty members, the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Richmond launched a Webinar series, “Responding to Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and Racism.”

After kicking things off with a discussion of protest and racial unrest featuring former Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer, which over 170 virtual guests attended, we recently hosted a discussion on the role of academic disciplines in the education of informed, 21st century citizens and leaders. Of the 180 guests, alumni in attendance rallied behind the premise that a liberal arts education matters, especially in these times. But is that education, by necessity, any different now from in the past?

Yes, and no. First, front-and-center during our webinar was an ancient quarrel, one between liberal and practical education. We might think of this as an American debate, but by the 5th century BCE, the political establishment of classical Athens opposed longstanding, disciplined, and conservative training to rhetoric and creative arts. The meaning of these categories has evolved, but there are some illuminating points of continuity. The Athenian schooling by trade, memorization, and tradition, is something like our practical training. By the classical period, some felt that newer training, including the art of persuasion, was ruining society (see, for example, Aristophanes’ Clouds), similar to those today who criticize the left-leaning of academic faculty.

For the potential impracticality of the liberal arts in America, look no further than the disagreement between Booker T. Washington, who painted a picture of the poor Black child combing over French grammar in the middle of a field in need of ploughing (Up From Slavery), and W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois, who “[sat] with Shakespeare and he winces not” (Souls of Black Folk) while segregated American lacked the desire, courage, or morality to embrace so-called Negroes, was cited often throughout the webinar, which was provocatively titled, “The Academic Disciplines: What Stays? What Goes?”

Regarding those questions, the analogy to classical Greece is instructive but not conclusive. The disciplines specifically meant when we say “liberal arts” has varied tremendously from when the Roman orator Cicero first used the phrase (artes liberales), by which he tellingly meant the practices pertaining to free as opposed to enslaved people. The disciplines Cicero had in mind were different from those named during the European Medieval or Renaissance periods, but he reframes the conversation by dismissing, to a great extent, the distinction between practical and contemplative practices.

Dr. Patrice RankineDr. Patrice Rankine

Like the Romans, Americans make the artistic practical, and the practical artistic. Whether we want to understand COVID-19, racism in America, or the economic, educational, and mental health realities that surround us, the academic disciplines offer us much. Similar to how Cicero in conversation modeled artificial governments in order to understand how management might function in real time (in de re publica), UR Professor Lester Caudill, for example, offers that “math can be particularly helpful to scientific research in the sense that mathematical models can simulate experiments you can’t do in real life.” Over these several months, faculty at UR have written compellingly in ways that highlight the interplay between creativity and disciplinarity.

The synthesis of a practical training and the pursuit of wisdom and truth follows the idea that the liberal arts have both intrinsic and extrinsic value, as means of cultivating “intellectual virtues” as well as for job placement and across careers, “the development of a sense of vocation” (Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, Mark William Roche 2010). Dr. Cornel West’s aptly titled The American Evasion of Philosophy, where political pragmatism stands in as a kind of way of life, or the assemblages of Thornton Dial, are additional cases in point.

West and Dial begin to answer the question of what is called for in the current times, which includes, for one thing, a deeper understanding of humanity and its doubles. What are the liberal arts, as the common pursuit of wisdom and truth, in the 21st century, without a philosophy born of struggle, one interested in the responses to reality from, as it were, the least of these, in terms of the historical and persistent degradation of a people, such as Blacks across the Americas? Alongside Plato and Nietzsche, we should read Angela Davis, and I believe my colleague, Armond Towns, a professor in the University of Richmond Rhetoric and Communication Studies department was getting at something like this in “Black Studies for Everyone.” In the darkest hour, because we cannot breathe, Afro-pessimism, to name one Black perspective of many, has a place alongside Elie Wiesel’s Night. Regarding women and LGBTQ authors, Hannah Arendt and Toni Morrison should be in the conversation as well, not because its politically correct, but because we miss important perspectives and truths if we do not include their voices.

The historical and ongoing evolution of the liberal arts is not easy because there is only so much room at the proverbial table — only so many classes students can take — and only so many resources to support academic programs. Still, the dispositional ideal is important: that is, through the liberal arts students learn ways of being in the world, and this helps them/us in the current times and beyond. Room at the table has to be made, however, because place is power. To use an example from popular culture, R. Kelly has to be muted before the women he allegedly abused are able to speak. The process toward truth is necessary, and inevitably reparative.

Back to praxis: for the skills employers report they most desire, which include communication, analytical skills, problem solving, teamwork and leadership, the liberal arts deliver. More profoundly, they make us better people and a stronger society.

Dr. Patrice Rankine is the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Richmond. 

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