Last Wednesday, Professor Carl Amrhein came to the Arts Faculty Council to offer a slide presentation in which he responded, generally, as Provost and VP Academic, to the financial questions posed to him by almost 90 members of the Faculty in a letter of 19 March 2012. In the course of conversation afterwards, Professor Amrhein claimed that he wished to see Arts “move to center stage” at the University, along with the other faculty that is part of the traditional core of the University, the Faculty of Science. He is, however, not certain what arguments we would like him to be making on our behalf to Government to help us achieve this. He nevertheless assured us that if we send him “information” and “materials” in the form of “visual media” and “technology” that will “compel” the attention of government, he will put them to good use.
There may be particular things that can be showcased about our Faculty of Arts, and we understand that these are in fact summed up, annually, in a report prepared for the Provost. But as Professor Janice Williamson noted at the Arts Faculty Council there is nothing new about the arguments that need to be made for Arts. As many of us have been asserting from the start of this campaign in relation to the cuts facing the Faculty of Arts for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, our Faculty is the Faculty of critical thinking and creative imagination, and we are all busy in the Faculty either creating art forms or producing and share thought, knowledge, and scholarship in the forms of books, electronic journals, conference presentations, and (last but by no means least) our teaching. The mass of this production will not, however, fit into Professor Amrhein’s briefcase for transport across the High-Level Bridge to the Provincial Legislature or necessarily translate into artifacts — pictures or charts — that can be presented in the form of a slide-show. The fact remains that we need “words, words, words” to explain what we do, and defend the Arts as a public good. In a global culture of commodification in which, as Professor Williamson suggested, the Arts and Humanities are under attack, “we need to argue for intellectual labour that does not have practical applications and is not easily commercialized.”
Whatever our arguments, they need to be repeated, clearly, firmly, and urgently, if we are to communicate broadly to the public and especially to government the vital importance of a liberal arts education. Can we use this space to get further with this project? We began this campaign to fight cuts to the Faculty this year and the next, and many have been contributing to this in email discussions. But once again we would like to urge all members of the Faculty of Arts whether or not they have been part of any conversation to date to use this space to suggest what steps we may take or arguments we may make to ensure the health and vitality of the Faculty.
Here is UC Berkeley political scientist Wendy Brown restating, in fresh terms, an enduring and immensely important argument for an education in the liberal arts. Professor Brown is speaking in the first instance about post-World War II social commitments to a liberal arts education, but her remarks are focused on our current situation:
The notion that all colleges and universities ought to offer a liberal arts degree, and that such a degree is one to which all intellectually qualified citizens should have access, heralds a society and polity in which the masses would be educated for freedom. . . . For the first time in human history, higher educational policy and practice was oriented toward the many, tacitly destining them for a life of freedom rather than only toil, of intellectual engagement with the world rather than mere economic servitude or survival. In this respect, far more than class mobility and equality of opportunity are advanced by a liberal arts education generalized across society. Rather, the ideal of democracy is being realized in a new way insofar as the demos is being prepared through education for a life of freedom understood as both individual sovereignty (choosing and pursing one’s ends) and participation in collective self-rule. . . .
If the remarkable postwar extension of liberal arts education to the many did not generate true education, let alone social, equality, this extension importantly articulated equality as an ideal . . . . This ideal never ceased to be a liberal one, but it was a liberalism of profound egalitarian commitments, rich humanism, and a strong ethos of the public good. . . . .
Crucially, citizens educated in the liberal arts are not merely being trained for jobs but for what Aristotle called the ‘good life,’ one that involves cultivation of the higher human faculties for two distinct ends: thoughtful civic engagement and eudaimonia, that special Greek term for happiness comprising rich fulfillment through elaboration of human possibility. . . . A liberal arts education . . . is the most comprehensive affirmation of this truth contained in Western history. . . . [D]epreciating liberal arts higher education for the masses retreats from the promise of upward socio-economic mobility, emancipation from being born to place in a class-stratified social order. But it retreats as well from the value of a citizenry educated for democracy, that is, for governing together, and from the idea that education offers the prospect of intrinsically richer and more gratifying lives, along with an enhanced capacity to participate in public life and contribute to the public good. . . . The survival of a liberal arts education depends on recognizing its value for democracy and resisting its vanquishing by the market.”
Or as Professor Michael O’Driscoll put it in the course of an extended on-line conversation amongst the signatories of the March 19th letter to the Provost, the fact that the Faculty of Arts “does not always or necessarily contribute to the goal of economic growth . . . may well be its greatest and most important virtue.” It would also be fair to say that some of us in Arts would like to grow a different kind of economy, and for that the critical and imaginative capacities inculcated and taught by the liberal arts are absolutely crucial.
Wendy Brown’s article ends on a note of alarm: “The survival of democracy depends upon a broadly and deeply educated people resisting the neoliberalization of everything, including themselves. There is not much hope and not much time.” Certainly we should be gravely concerned that in the name of “budgetary constraints” imposed by a Government presiding over a resource-rich province the University is proceeding with a “rapid-strike” reorganization. The pressing question is this: what can we do, now and over the next several weeks, to ensure that as The Umbrella Committee proceeds with its reorganization of the University its members will have a deep, abiding, and indeed guiding sense of the importance of a liberal arts education in the foreground of their minds? Is there any interest in offering the TUC a collective statement on this issue?
We would also like to encourage members of the Faculty to share any ideas that they submit to TUC here. And if anyone would like to offer a fuller account of the Provost’s presentation to the Arts Faculty Council, please do! As Professor Lynn Penrod noted at the Arts Faculty Council, as the members of a Faculty of Arts, we do not necessarily have any single unified voice. We have many voices, many views . . . .
Wendy Brown’s remarks are excerpted from her article “The End of Educated Democracy,” which appeared in the Fall issue of Representations (vol. 116.1).