Liberal Arts

When I first got here, the volunteers of the group before mine called me ‘Georgetown.’ I hadn’t meant to mention my university so much. I’ve gotten less snobby about school with every passing year, and in my experience GU doesn’t impress much outside of the foreign policy crowd anyway. But I came to Mexico straight out of college, and it was my major touchstone for the last four years.


Having, as it did, a lot of stones

A friend brought it to my attention and I’ve tried to stop using the name so much, even here on the blog. But with all the debates that have been cycling through the navel-gazing loop of Slate and Atlantic and New Yorker comment pieces about the nature of college, I’ve been thinking about it more. I disliked old money at Georgetown and the extent to which everyone in DC fetishized the northeast; how fashion went off the deep end my sophomore year and everyone in the city started dressing like they were about to go sailing with the Kennedys in Nantucket, all boat shoes and pastel pants and little anchors and sailboats peppering everything. But it’s an idiosyncrasy of mine that I look back to the hoary old campuses of the East Coast and the glory days of an American aristocracy growing up in prep schools, heading to the Ivy League, and then entering civil service or elected government.

Once you've climbed on John Carroll, you're practically there

Once you’ve climbed on John Carroll, you’re practically there

We play down how much our undergraduate institutions mean to us. We don’t call ourselves Harvard men or Georgetown men anymore, don’t get together and sing the alma mater for old times’ sake. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t leave as much a mark on us as they used to or if we’re determined not to be tied to something so solid and old in our eagerness to be young and restless and free. But I am a Georgetown man or an East Coast man and I want to be, because there’s something that lives in those ancient, ivy-obsessed ruins that’s fading away everywhere else.

We’ve lost our appreciation for the arts. Not art, as such. There seems to be more room for the ultra-quirky and the ultra-expensive in the art world than ever before—I mean the liberal arts.

Any president or politician looking to be tough on education rants about our science funding, rails against our math proficiency, bemoans how we stack up to the Germans and the Japanese in our standardized testing. When we decry college debt, the first students to receive public opprobrium are always the ones who studied History or English or God forbid, Philosophy. When we talk about what we ought to be studying to make our country greater or our parents happier, it’s business and economics and hard sciences. Science itself is more popular than ever, and researchers the web over can score hits by the tens of thousands by penning neat little takedowns of philosophy.

Because these guys were simpletons

Because these guys were simpletons

I love my university and all the old guard of the coast because they still value the liberal arts, still maintain an atmosphere where those disciplines are important not just as a means to a job or neat padding on an application to law or medical school, but in themselves. Until the last half of the twentieth century, the Western world was built on the liberal arts. Greek and Latin and the classics were the foundation of any full education, and with good reason—since the eudemonia of Pericles’ Athens and the establishment of the Trivium and Quadrivium in Rome, History, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Literature were the building blocks with which centuries of statesmen built our civilization. Somewhere along the way, they lost their prestige and we lost the faith.

All through the beginning and middle of the last century, the arts gave ground to the soft and social sciences, to sociology and economics and political science. We felt that we could abandon the unanswered questions of philosophy and the endless revision and analysis of history for something more tangible and empirical. As our science flourished faster than it ever had before, we felt we could bring rationality and systematization to the hearts and minds and money of men, quantify and define our world until we could understand and manipulate it as well as experiments in a laboratory. Hannah Arendt marks our disaster in Vietnam and the mendacity of government that came with it as the end-results of that systematization of the arts. McNamara’s whiz kids were for her the apogee of the trend, brilliant men who’d been trained to understand the world and told they could control it, men who went on to destroy whole nations in the service of theories that failed to play out.

Under these circumstances, there are, indeed, few things that are more frightening than the steadily increasing prestige of scientifically minded brain trusters in the councils of government during the last decades. The trouble is not that they are cold-blooded enough to “think the unthinkable,” but that they do not think. Instead of indulging in such an old-fashioned, uncomputerizable activity, they reckon with the consequences of certain hypothetically assumed constellations without, however, being able to test their hypotheses against actual circumstances.

The logical flaw in these hypothetical constructions of future events is always the same: what first appears as a hypothesis—with or without implied alternatives, according to the level of sophistication—turns immediately, usually after a few paragraphs, into a “fact,” which then gives birth to a whole string of similar non-facts, with the result that the purely speculative character of the whole enterprise is forgotten. Needless to say, this is not science but pseudo-science, “the desperate attempt of the social and behavioral sciences, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “to imitate the surface features that really have significant intellectual content.”[1]

Maybe what was lacking was the intimate acquaintance with hubris that would have come with the Greek, an understanding of the tragedy that always follows when man believes himself to be master of all he sees. I know that my own divorce from the world of scientific arts came from my brushes with those men’s spiritual successors.

There are several requirements for a theory of political science. Two of them are relevant. A given theory must be parsimonious—like a good proof in mathematics, it should say no more than it needs to, and its concision should have a beauty to it. Not many theories in modern political science are, as far as I can see, parsimonious. I read brilliant papers by brilliant people, all of whom drilled down miles deep into the analysis of state change and democratic transition, who created galaxies of independent variables and came up with systems so exacting and particular that they could only ever apply to the given case which gave them rise. Not parsimony. Second, a given theory must be predictive, as a scientific theory is predictive: given a set of initial conditions, the theory predicts a result, and, if it’s a good theory, the result happens. We do not have good, predictive theories of political science or international relations. If we did, one assumes, the world wouldn’t be such a goddamned mess. And that lack extends to economics and sociology and every other of the “social and behavioral sciences” in which we play at being Hari Seldon, pretend that if we define enough variables and finesse enough language that we’ll unveil the mechanics of humanity. And it’s rubbish.

Much of the wreckage of the last century and our violent and ignoble entry into this one are the result of pretending that we’re in the know. The massive failures of White Houses from Kennedy through Nixon, the third world adventurism of Reagan and Bush, the disastrous outcomes of the neoliberal consensus and Greenspanism in the economy, the renewed frothing of the Middle East and our childish ‘state-building’ and ‘democracy promotion’ in the region, all are the result of a failure to understand that we don’t understand and that beyond a certain point, the world refuses to be understood.

That’s not to say that prediction is impossible. I changed from studying PoliSci to History because it seemed to me that a strong historical grounding and straightforward thought were the only way to peer into the darkness in front of us “—history does not teach much, but still teaches considerably more than social-science theories.”[2] Economists the nation over praised Clinton’s final destruction of Glass-Steagall in the 1990s, but anyone who cared to study the history of our economy could have seen that massive loosening of the shackles on our financial industry has led invariably to instability, profiteering, and penury.

Looking at the wreck that is our last two decades of foreign policy, a historian has little to do but despair at the lack of common sense and reasonable foresight.  The British and the French taught a master class on intervention in the Middle East at the close of the First World War, the lesson of which was that Western involvement, Western imposition of Western government and Western political forms always, always begets resistance and reprisals. The British spent centuries trying to prop up hand-picked rulers in Afghanistan, but we couldn’t be bothered in our rush to unseat the Taliban to crack a book and explore the most ignominious defeats in their history, let alone look at the obvious reasons we’d been attacked in the first place.

This is William Brydon, sole survivor of the British Army of Afghanistan

This is William Brydon, sole survivor of the British Army of Afghanistan

The West has known or had the ability to know since the First Crusade that the only thing sure to foment Islamic extremism and direct it our way is Western occupation of Muslim lands and holy places, be they Jerusalem, Acre, the entire Levant, or Mecca or Medina or the whole of the Hejaz and Arabia.

It pains me that the disciplines that encourage us to doubt the status quo as delivered, that teach us to look backwards before marching forwards, that the stories and lessons and above all the searching of literature and history and philosophy are losing ground. I know the hard sciences have a place and an important one, and that researchers and devotees of the scientific method have a deep appreciation for the not-knowing that is the necessary precursor to knowledge. But our devotion to the soft sciences, to the pseudo-sages, the problem-solvers and consultants that peddle snake oil systems and nation-building schemes, above all the Chicago School economists that play off graphs and guesswork as total understanding, it’s all eroding our ability to be unsure, to question our way forward and in that questioning to act more wisely.

I’ll stop saying Georgetown so much, but I won’t stop being a Georgetown guy, and I’ll keep faith with the disciplines that stood Pericles and Cato and Cicero in their stead, because they’re what once made our wise men wise and I hope they might end up doing so again.



[1] Crises of the Republic, “On Violence,” 85

[2] Crises of the Republic, “Civil Disobedience,” 57

2 thoughts on “Liberal Arts

  1. congrats on giving one of the only convincing arguments for bemoaning the decline of liberal arts: usually its just people belittling STEM fields and the transformation of a college degree into an investment, without actually stating the point of a liberal arts degree.

  2. Half the tragedy is that the folks who bemoan their decline have forgotten what they meant to us in the first place. Don´t apologize for the liberal arts. The liberal arts were everything

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