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The Kids Are Alright, or, Nobody Killed the Liberal Arts: Michael Broder and Daniel Tompkins Discuss Joseph Epstein

In September 2012, Joseph Epstein published an essay in the Weekly Standard called Who Killed the Liberal Arts? The piece provoked lively response on the Classics List and at least one rapid, articulate response, by Katie Billotte in Salon.

Epstein’s argument is of more than passing concern to academics, scholars, students, and members of the general public interested in current debates about the value and vitality of the humanities and humanistic education, not only because he claims that the so-called liberal arts are dead, but also because he accuses humanists themselves of the murder. Moreover, it is important not to let his ideas go unchallenged, both because they are so often flawed, and also because they are part of a broader pattern of similar laments that collectively seek to push back against what is really not a death of humanism, but an inevitable, and not at all undesirable, historic evolution.

Amphora invited Michael Broder and Daniel Tompkins to collaborate on a response to Epstein. In consultation with the editors, Broder and Tompkins decided on a dialogic approach. The following is the result.

Michael Broder: On one level, Dan, I think we can respond to Epstein by saying that nobody killed the liberal arts; they just updated the syllabus. But that kind of response does not really address the bigger and darker issues lurking, not always so clearly stated, behind Epstein's lament.

Daniel Tompkins: I agree, Michael, that to some degree, the syllabus has merely been updated. I also agree that there are darker issues afoot. But one thing that complicates any response to Epstein is that his essay is loosely organized to say the least. On the other hand, while he attacks the usual suspects and makes some uninquisitive claims, not all his ideas are bad. I was glad to see Paul Goodman appear, halfway through, like Alcibiades.

MB: I think you had more patience with Epstein that I did, and I’m eager to hear your assessment of his ideas, especially the ones you think are not bad. To me, Epstein’s lament for the liberal arts is less about college curricula than it is about a generational, even epochal change in cultural subjectivity. He’s really talking about a major transformation of the entire humanist project over the past century, although he doesn’t put it in those terms, and in my estimation he puts himself on the wrong side of history as far as these issues are concerned. But let’s start with what you refer to as Epstein’s attack on the usual suspects. What do you mean by that?

DT: Yes, that’s one way to describe Epstein’s predictable and ritualized remarks about “subjects that have no place” in his view of things: journalism and business school, which he pronounces on without much analysis; African-American studies; “the multicultural”; “popular culture” as opposed to Joseph Conrad, and race, gender, and class. These are the standard gripes of the New Criterion/Weekly Standard crowd, anxious about their own loss of standing, and they’re expressed without any effort at argument.

MB: Oh, so you mean “paying his dues” in the sense of taking a bunch of obligatory swipes at favorite targets of the conservative punditocracy?

DT: Indeed. Harry Levin voiced the same complaint about African-American studies to me à propos of the Harvard Core Curriculum a third of a century ago. We’re beyond that now. And the dues-paying continues with the obligatory, evidence-free swipes at English department colleagues (“tendentious clowns,” “guys in the next room”). The self-assured vagueness of these remarks signals that Epstein assumes any intelligent reader gets the point.

MB: Yes, I think the real crux of Epstein's complaint is his contempt for those he calls "the guys in the next room," by which he means his English Department colleagues who did not persist alongside him in practicing a nineteenth-century pedagogy into the late twentieth century and beyond. These colleagues, Epstein complains, undermine the liberal arts curriculum by teaching literature written since World War II, some of it by women, people of color, and perhaps even homosexuals, as well as by teaching theoretical texts and perspectives from this same stigmatized postwar era. He doesn’t give a satisfactory account of why the liberal arts curriculum may not extend beyond the Second World War; nor does he explicitly reference the war as any kind of line in the cultural sand. But that's clearly what he's getting at, since all his examples of "second-rate authors" and texts are from the postwar period.

DT: Well, that’s a good transition to my second topic, uninquisitive claims, by which I mean Epstein’s own anxiety-free judgment of others. Too often these reveal his refusal to inquire beyond the headlines. He claims that “we still don’t know how to assess teaching” despite the fine work on teaching portfolios by his fellow Chicagoan Lee Shulman or by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He seems unaware of the demonstrations by Kenneth Feldman and others that student teaching evaluations correlate with actual student learning. And he seems persuaded that we’ve only recently taken to “listing” (“six reasons for Athens’ decline”): this was a hallmark of Gilbert Highet’s teaching fifty years ago—“There are five things you must know about Vergil.”

MB: I just think the whole emphasis on higher education is a red herring. Epstein's essay, the very idea of the "death of the liberal arts" or, as Victor Davis Hanson put it, the death of Homer, points to something larger in society and in history, the urgent need for a redefinition of humanism in the postmodern era. Dan, you say Epstein’s judgments are anxiety-free, but I think his judgments are very anxious expressions of loss, expressions of a kind of nostalgic belief that a need once satisfied—a social, cultural, historical need—is satisfied no longer.

DT: That’s a good point. I meant only that he seems confident about judging others. Too, his O Tempora, O Mores pose conflicts with his examples:  Epstein concedes that his own generation was as careerist as today’s, and his chosen authority on the meaninglessness of college today, Paul Goodman, died in 1972, close to half a century ago. Students cheated then too, but lacked today’s technological tools and were detected less often. Atemporal tempora! Oblivious to the published research, Epstein ignores reports that today’s Americans cheat and plagiarize less often than many others. I don’t suggest we should ignore plagiarism—I’ve worked hard to show teachers how to detect it—but the data definitely undermine Epstein’s anathematization of America.

MB: So his protestations are not only anxious but also unfounded. I want to move past the nostalgia, past the calls to revive traditional approaches to Great Books, which nearly always come hand in hand with attacks on critical theory and postmodern concerns with race, class, sex, gender, postcolonial self-determination, and so on. You and I have talked about this before, back in 2009, when some of our colleagues were vexed about the Higher Education Research Council’s findings that college professors were more concerned with encouraging students to become agents of social change than they were with teaching classic texts.

To some extent, this relates to my argument about replacing tradition with reception as a pedagogical approach, at least vis-à-vis the Greco-Roman "inheritance." In fact, in my letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education about that survey, I mentioned a wise colleague’s use of the term “counter-classicism,” and now I can reveal that the wise colleague was you!

DT: Thanks. Serious social scientists have addressed many of Epstein’s complaints and have sometimes pointed toward solutions. Epstein’s disinclination to test his claims against the research signals a disregard for social science, which in fact he never mentions. Similarly, Epstein waves away computerized research on literature without analysis. Does he really believe a single office at Stanford University threatens the practice of reading?

MB: Well, what do you want from a guy who is so proud of the fact that he read Marx as an undergraduate at Chicago, but doesn’t think there should be any actual Marxists in the academy, let alone any earnest application of Marxism, or of related approaches like the cultural materialism of Raymond Williams or Alan Sinfield. I’m sure he’d say the same thing about Freud, lauding the fact that his own undergraduate curriculum included Totem and Taboo, but indignant that anybody in the academy should actually apply psychoanalytic approaches to literature or culture, and God forbid there should be any mention of Lacan!

DT: To be fair, I applaud Epstein’s insistence on reading modern classics—Freud—rather than books about them. He does seem hostile to recent work. Educationally, we all gain from encountering, deciphering, and responding to unfamiliar reasoning:  not just as students but as citizens. The work of mastering unfamiliar discourses—Plato and Locke—is continuous with the need of adult Americans to comprehend and respond, not only to political arguments but to the contracts and proposals of all sorts that are part of modern life.

On the topic of student careerism, Epstein ignores the fact that Dartmouth, for instance, sends as many graduates to life-shaping work in the Peace Corps and Teach for America as to investment banking. He complains, “students with college degrees are finding it tough to get decent jobs,” but fails to ask, what about students without college degrees? The Bureau of Labor Statistics gives the following information for level of participation in the 2012 workforce here and here:

Without high school diploma:               45.3%

With high school diploma:                    59.8%

With some postsecondary education:     69.3%

With bachelor’s degree:                        75.7%

So, while college graduates are hurting, they’re better off than others. The problem here is not education, but the massive income inequality in the current economy.

MB: Ah, now you’re talking, Dan. As I said, the issue here is not just higher education or some kind of liberal arts-versus-STEM smackdown. The issue is a fundamental transformation in society and culture over the course of the twentieth century, encompassing class issues like income inequality, but also issues of race, sex, gender, the end of colonialism, the emergence of postcolonial cultures, and of course the emergence of new technologies, all of which demand of us a new humanism.

DT: Well, on that note, let us turn now to consider other worthwhile points in Epstein’s essay.  

First of all, like his source Andrew Delbanco, Epstein cares about good teaching. He raises but does not explore the underlying question of how to recognize teaching with appropriate “roles and rewards.” There are ways to judge teaching effectiveness, and they got considerable attention in the 1990s. Ironically, the research produced in that decade and earlier (some of it, like Mina Shaughnessy’s classic Errors and Expectations, a direct outgrowth of open admissions at City University) is now widely known. What is lacking is full institutional commitment to the good teaching that helps produce student learning. Epstein’s heart is in the right place here, but he hasn’t done the heavy lifting required to turn his case from lament into productive argument.

MB: I’m concerned about teacher effectiveness, but I’m more focused on recognizing and responding to fundamental changes in the culture that have already led to corresponding changes in the humanities. Part of this new humanism is an understanding of the historical specificity of the White Male Christian Subject of Western Culture. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the Great Books that Epstein wants us to keep at the core of the liberal arts, but there may be something wrong with the uncritical model of western civilization that he insists on retaining as the context for teaching these texts.     

In a sense, a Multicultural Subject of Postmodern Culture has replaced the White Male Christian Subject of Western Culture. As a society, we have an emergent cultural subjectivity that is still struggling to define its place in history. I’m not claiming this is an easy thing to deal with in the undergraduate classroom. My own students are dismayed by the idea of the "End of Western Civilization" (I use the word "end," not "death"). They want me to give them permission to understand it as an "evolution" rather than a sharp break, because they are so uncomfortable with the idea of the Western tradition having closed and left them on the other side. So there is an urgent need for a humanism that can explain multicultural subjectivity to itself, to those who live inside it, the citizens of postmodern culture.

DT: That is a really serious topic, and teachers as well as students may have problems dealing with the implications. You’re saying—I think—that the recognition of non-white, non-male, non-“straight” subjects entails changes in consciousness: we cannot just slot them in without revising the way we think. How sharp the break is, will require serious study.

Coming back briefly to teaching:  Epstein invokes the provocative recent book, Academically Adrift, in which Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue that today’s colleges aren’t inculcating critical thinking or complex reasoning. He ignores the successful efforts of the Carnegie Foundation, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), and the now (sadly) defunct American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) to focus on these very topics over the past two decades, especially at nonelite institutions.

Ironically, when we actually read Arum and Roksa, we find that they refer to Carnegie’s Lee Shulman and emphasize, like Shulman, the ways in which student writing and revision, conferencing, and time on task lead to student success. Epstein also misses that these practices, under great pressure elsewhere owing to lack of funds, remain in place in precisely those elite institutions he criticizes. Believe it or not, the elites seem to be doing something right, and their students are the beneficiaries.  

Now, are the liberal arts “losing prestige”? If that were true, would students be clamoring for admission to Brown and Wellesley? The question has to be analyzed, and analysis, tragically, reveals the bimodal distribution of educational resources in America. Yale students are blessed with an endowment of $19 billion, i.e., well over $1 million for each undergraduate. That can pay for a lot of conferencing and “re-visioning.”

Although he disparages student evaluations, Epstein later acknowledges that one learns from one’s fellow students. Here he agrees, likely without knowing it, with the great left-wing students of the 1930s: Moses Finley, Daniel Thorner, Charles Trinkaus, and others, at least two of whom were later deprived forever of academic work in America. Thirty years on, Finley recalled the 30s:

I have the firm impression that the lectures and seminars were pretty severely locked in an ivory tower…. I…refer…to the irrelevance of [our professors’] work as historians. The same lectures and seminars could have been given—and no doubt were—in an earlier generation, before the First World War…. We, who were growing up in a difficult world…sought explanation and understanding…. And so we went off on our own to seek in books what we thought we were not getting in lectures and seminars.

We read and argued about Marc Bloch and Henri Pirenne, Max Weber, Veblen and the Freudians…Marx and the Marxists…not just Das Kapital, not even primarily Das Kapital, but also Marxist historical and theoretical works. [M.I Finley, “Class Struggles.” The Listener 78.1 (1967): 201-2]

MB: It seems like these left-wing intellectuals of the 1930s were already moving past nostalgia for the old humanism of "Western Civilization" and towards an understanding of what it means to live in a postmodernity of which one cannot even quite grasp the existence, especially since it is so often posited as a kind of failure of civilization rather than as an emergent form of culture within which meaning may exist, albeit in new and unfamiliar forms. This new understanding is not a matter simply of one sentence or one paragraph or one essay, but rather an entire discourse, only now unfolding, a humanism of postmodernity. What we need is a new kind of humanism that views postmodernity from a more psychically integrated perspective—a postmodern humanism that has undergone a necessary psychotherapy, and come out the other side of cultural neurosis. We need a postmodern humanism that accepts itself for who and what it is, rather than grieving for what it is not, for what it wishes it were, for what its parents wanted it to be. We need a postmodern humanism that repairs the trauma of its own birth and values its own existence.

DT: We can end this very stimulating dialogue by noting a mild paradox that seems to reveal at least some progress on Epstein’s part. He invokes as an authority “Paul Goodman, one of the now-forgotten gurus of the 1960s, [who] used to argue that what finishing college really meant is that one was willing to do anything to succeed in a capitalist society.” Whether Epstein’s friends are as critical of capitalism as Goodman was seems quite dubious, but credit is all the more due for that reason. And there’s this: Goodman was proudly bisexual. Praising him is a major step forward from a writer once notorious for saying, in 1970:

There is much that my four sons can do in their lives that might cause me anguish, that might outrage me, that might make [me] ashamed of them and of myself as their father. But nothing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. [“Homo /Hetero: The Struggle For Sexual Identity,” Harper’s Magazine (September, 1970), 51]

Is Goodman invoked here simply by chance, or might it be that reading him has achieved, for Joseph Epstein, what he described as the goal of the Great Books, to “take students out of their parochial backgrounds”? We can hope.

MB: That’s a nice note to conclude on, Dan. As a same-sex married gay man, I appreciate your calling that 1970 quote to my attention. I didn’t know about it, and while it may seem uncharitable to take Epstein to task for something he said forty-three years ago, such comments do add to our understanding of his character. Even in 1970, when there was so much less understanding of sexual diversity, it’s alarming to think that Epstein would be more devastated to learn that his son was gay than to learn that he had committed an act of unjust violence or discrimination against a fellow human being. But as you say, we can hope.

Michael Broder (mbroder@mbroder.com) is a man of learning and letters whose poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including his first collection of poems, This Life Now (2014). You can learn more about Michael's publications, readings, and other events at www.mbroder.com

Daniel Tompkins (pericles@temple.edu; B.A. Dartmouth College, Ph.D. Yale University) taught in the Department of Greek and Roman Classics at Temple University, retiring in 2010. He also taught at Wesleyan University, and Swarthmore and Dartmouth Colleges. He has written on M. I. Finley, Thucydides, Homer, the ancient city, Wallace Stevens, just war theory, and various topics in higher education; his current projects include the intellectual development of M. I. Finley and language and politics in the speeches in Thucydides.

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