Monday, August 10, 2015

Agresto — "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts"

– minor editing, Apr. 7, 2016


This is a response – what became an long response – to comments in a Facebook discussion on John Agresto's Wall Street Journal essay "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts" (located here). In its simplest, and greatly simplifying, this response is to the two ideas that (1) Agresto seems off base, and (2) that the problem lies in the business style administration that has taken over higher education.

I won't quote here the comments as I believe the only resulting negative might be a sense of absence as to what was leading in to this response (as though turning on a interview on a news show a few seconds late and missing the first exchanges of the conversation). The ideas below will not suffer for being taken out of that flow.


It is an undeniable that the turn to a profit-oriented system has done great damage to the university system. Though, I do question whether it is the the idea of 'profit' or if it is more the particular methods of profit-making (methods criticized not only in education but across the business world) that are to blame: an institution that is not in some way income-oriented is a not-long-to-live institution. But to blame all the ills of US education upon that alone is facile, perhaps equivalent to blaming a driver for the performance of their car's engine. There is one quite obvious question dodged right from the start by the over-tight focusing upon profit orientation: is the turn to a poor business model itself the effect of a deeper systemic issue? After all, it is difficult to use university business models to explain the miserable quality of K-12 education in the US.

I, from conversations with others, was apparently fairly lucky in my many years of collegiate education in that I escaped, pretty much entirely, ideologically dogmatic professors like that described by Agresto:

Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, [those who would] rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen.

Now, normally here, I would briefly digress onto – if not sidestep entirely – how the word "deconstruct" here is being used wholly against the post-structuralist ideas from out of which the word comes. Agresto uses it in the commonly seen, derogative manner, of theory over-riding the practical aspects of reading a text (or being used to justify political readings of texts). In truth, though, the very core of post-structuralist thought is turned to opposite aims: the core point of learning to deconstruct a text lies in that it is learning, at a fundamental level, how to read. Normally, I would go there only as corrective digression. But this time I go there and stay, as the use of the word here is demonstration to the point(s) I want to make.

For the use of the word by Agresto – and as it is normally thrown around in its derogative sense – is itself political in its origins. It was, ironically, the ideologically dogmatic, those scholars who defend their political approaches to texts through appeals to post-structural thought, who turned post-structuralism back upon itself and created that idea of "deconstruction" to which Agresto refers: the overlaying of a text with political readings (as opposed to the true, post-structuralist project, which involved in part learning to see how political readings are – and are always – overlaid upon a text).

A question that follows (follows the lead of one the culprits pointed to by Agresto, but ultimately speaks to all): what is the underlying energies that creates, permits, and fosters an educational atmosphere that is dominated by ideological dogmatism? The answer is already given. It is a turning toward forcing readings upon a text by way of a turning away from the more fundamental pedagogical task of learning to read a text (be that text a literary work, an historical period, or what). Indeed, nothing threatens the ideological dogmatists more quickly than a person who dares to actually read the text in the manner taught by post-structuralism: which is to say, read it actively, questioningly, in exploration not only of the text in itself but the text in its various contexts, recognizing the effect those contexts have upon the reading. And it is both a humorous and revealing – if unfortunately also often tense if not occasionally violent – event when an ideologically dogmatic professor is confronted by someone who, simply, knows how to read: humorous in that the emperor's new clothes have been revealed for what they are; violent in that the ideological professor generally can not bear the revelation. The political costs are simply too high.

But try to step in and see the fundamental situation there revealed, that situation which is what is at the core of Agresto's presentation (at the same time correcting the false accusation against "deconstruction" in particular, and theory in general): the rejection of the practical education that is learning how to read a text for an approach to pedagogy that is justified through a false legitimization via theory. (Again, the very ailment that post-structuralist thought diagnoses: the rejection of reading a text in favor of the reiteration – reapplication – of an ideology.)

Look to Agresto's three points and you can see how he is speaking about the abandonment by the liberal arts of that most basic, most practical aspect of liberal arts education:

(1) A pedagogical system based upon "a coherent program of core studies to introduce students to the finest books, to alternative answers to the most compelling questions, to great literature and art and pivotal historical events." That is, a system that is centered upon offering fundamental texts (literary, historical, etc.) within the fundamental context of learning how to read those texts, as opposed to offering texts that serve primarily to further reiterate the desired political context.

(2) "Find[ing] ways to increase interaction with departments of business, engineering, pre-med and the like." That is, recognizing that the core of liberal arts education should (and must) be based – just as with business, engineering, etc. – upon practical knowledge; which in turn creates the situation where that practical knowledge naturally lends itself to application within business, engineering, etc. Agresto here, probably as a consequence of the need for brevity, says it backwards: seeing associations with technical fields will create a return to practical education. It is better thought, however, the other way around: a return to practical education will show its natural association with – and, in turn, usefulness as regards – more technically oriented fields.

(3) Secondary teachers: "may be the last hope many of your students will have to think broadly and seriously about literature, science, math and history." Of course, secondary education in the US is a laugh: most teachers do not themselves have the ability to "think broadly and seriously" about anything, never mind their chosen subjects. Nor are they required to do such to get their positions as teachers: in fact, for the most part, "teacher certification" in the liberal arts has nothing to do with the practical matters of the teaching the ability to read, to question, to see. Though, reading between the semantics, Agresto's phrasing could be concealing knowledge of this situation, and be appealing instead to the most simplest or most available of solutions: Knowing most secondary teachers are incapable of teaching how to read, in the least they can still be daring enough to teach texts that do not fall easily into the ideological, but in themselves create the questions that teach, or at least prompt, true reading.

Agresto sums the aim of his three points this way:

When properly conceived and taught, the liberal arts do not by themselves make us 'better people' or (God knows) more 'human.' They don’t exist to make us more 'liberal,' at least in the contemporary political sense. But the liberal arts can do something no less wonderful: They can open our eyes.

They show us how to look at the world and the works of civilization in serious and important and even delightful ways. They hold out the possibility that we will know better the truth about many of the most important things. They are the vehicle that carries the amazing things that mankind has made—and the memory of the horrors that mankind has perpetrated—from one age to the next. They teach us how to marvel.

I agree wholly, but I think he is being too gentle – or, again, too brief – with his words. The liberal arts, in themselves, in the broad sense of the word, do not "make us better people." "Poetry," to use a coded word in my field of literature, as it used popularly, which is to say broadly, is not inherently of the higher faculties, is not inherently of that core of what makes humans human. In fact, for the most part, poetry is wholly ideological, wholly reiterative of nomic, political, ideological status quos: the very opposite of the higher faculties of humankind. The ideological dogmatists that have come to define liberal arts – if merely by their being the loudest members of the field – offer little if anything toward liberatory thought, however emphatic their claims as regards "liberal" thought. The distinction is critical: liberal thought is measured but by a positioning on the line of the what is considered politically liberal or political conservative at whatever cultural/political/historical moment. Liberatory thought, that which is upheld as the ideals of liberal arts education, is, simply, that ability to read, to think, for oneself, the ability to see those cultural/historical contexts and how they influence if not dictate the reading of texts; indeed it is, in the end game, generally opposed to by the claimed "liberal" pedagogies (lest their own political clay feet be revealed). It is only when the liberal arts are thought liberatively (liberationally?) that they present the higher faculties, the ability to make people better people.

Which is to say, liberal arts pedagogy is at its most liberatory only when it is also at its most practical: when it is teaching the practical issues of how to read, how to think; not when it is teaching "liberal" – or conservative or cultural or ideological – thought.

Literary, philosophical and historical studies may not teach us the final and absolute truth about these matters, but they can help us see the great alternatives, and the reasons the best minds have given. None of this is trivial.

Liberatory thought, indeed, rejects any pedagogy based on "truth," and is focused entirely on the ability to see alternatives, on the ability to read. Which is the (perhaps mostly unspoken) axle of Agresto's argument: liberal arts fails education in that it no longer concerns itself with teaching students how to read.

The same can be said for secondary education. The primary accusations of the decline in US public schools since the 70s lies in a shift away from subject matter and to other concerns. For example, there is old joke (first heard by me in the 80s) of instructing future teachers primarily in "how to teach" rather than and to the detriment of "what to teach." (The demands in teacher qualification as regards knowledge in the field present a very low bar as regards knowledge-in-field within the US educational system.) The fallacy in the "how to teach" methodology lies in that, to general observation, what was (and is) considered pedagogical instruction is about everything except pedagogy. And when it is pedagogical it tends to either be grossly out of date or wholly fallacious. For example, does any public school system teach their teachers that the grading/marking/commenting on student work approaches zero pedagogical value? Other problems include the turn to that psychology of pedagogy that led to "Johnny Can't Read but we'll pass him anyway so as not to damage his self esteem." Then also there is the gutting of the textbooks and curricula by the union of soccer moms and the religious right. Even when content centered, however, the trends still speak the same fundamental issue: the purpose of gutting the textbooks was – and continues to be – to reinforce a pedagogical philosophy that had wholly turned away from – indeed wholly feared – liberatory pedagogy, pedagogy founded upon the core idea of teaching how to read.

That is, admittedly, a clumsy and quick gathering of K-12 under the general observation. But it is an avenue I do not wish to pursue in depth. (Nor, do I believe, need it be.) Instead, let me sum this all up.

While the article seems to me unwilling to speak overtly what it most wants to say (or Agresto was not fully cognizant of the vein running through the whole of his essay), I find it's core idea to be spot on. The failure of liberal arts education in the US very much lies in the failure of liberal arts education to understand the necessity of maintaining at its core a liberatory pedagogy, a pragmatically and practically oriented pedagogy. Contemporary liberal arts nonetheless will claim the historically praised values of a liberal arts education, a claim justified either through claims to a underlying (though, in truth, substitutive) liberal ideology, or through a very basic, if circular, appeal to authority: if an educational subject-matter is one of the liberal arts, then by definition its education is a liberal arts education, carrying with it all the hallowed benefits thereof.

Except it is not the subject in itself that makes for a liberal arts education, it is the approach to the subject; not what is read but how it is read. And in that I have to agree with Agresto: contemporary liberal arts education – if not the entire discourse on liberal arts in the U.S. (and again I speak here as witness of the contemporary culture of poetry/literature) has mostly lost its way. That is, it has lost the practical foundation necessary to a true, a truly liberatory, liberal arts pedagogy. Once that ground has been abandoned, the system will generate on its own an administrative philosophy that is blind to that absence, and will generate a student body that rejects the reinsertion of that element and insists upon its absence, and you will generate a population of teachers that justify their pedagogy in politics, or barely (yet still justifiably) have a pedagogy at all.


An Endnote: I feel the want to point out that there is a small degree in which the above is yet exploratory. While I hold to to the ideas in general, and have for a good while, there are aspects within the presentation that I am yet rolling about my mouth, testing their flavor. This doesn't effect the above presentation, but might have influence on anything I might add – directly or in comment – later.


  1. I like your posts, but your grammar is really pitiful. It makes your essays difficult to read, however passionate or interesting your ideas are. I agree with you about the current state of literature. Poetry has been hijacked by a bunch of accredited diarists. The great poets of the 21st century will not emerge from the MFA programs.

    1. Thanks for the comment. But, I think you're outside general opinion: my grammar is strong enough; though, I admit my syntax can at times be, shall we say, less than muzakal.

      The problem that you see lies not in grammar but in that these blogs are but personal projects with little or no outside help, and I can only spend so much time on any one piece. Typos and errors in editing (and in writing) will invariably slip through. I try to get back to everything at some point to do an after-the-fact editorial clean up; though, sometimes it's no small amount of time later, and sometimes it never happens. (With your prompting, I found three or four errors in this bit, including one sentence cut short.) The probability is raised here in the Adversaria, where pieces can sometimes be quickly thrown up to be part of a conversation on Facebook or elsewhere.

      As well, I believe on this site, the layout makes reading a little difficult. I have weak eyes that can't really take much reading of black text on white screens. I've recently changed the layout of the Adversaria, and am not yet happy with it. I think the color behind the text and width of the column creates some difficulties with reading the text, even for me. Particularly for me.

      That said, I agree with you. The MFA world does far more damage than good (what good it does) to the culture of literature in the U.S. And I love that phrase: "accredited diarists." Great phrase.

  2. I wasn't meaning to harp on your grammar. As I said, the ideas are strong and provocative (and more than merely provocative--they are well thought out). I do enjoy that I can feel you constructing an opinion as you write. The rawness of it allows readers to better understand your thought process than a well-polished piece might. I am really glad to have found this sight, particularly your response to Mark Edmundson's 2013 essay on the state of contemporary American poetry. You articulated all of my thoughts exactly, and in some cases, elaborated them further than I had even thought to go. The current state of "pop-poetry" is so goddamn sickening. There are no more giants, no more heroes or heroines of the imagination. I am a 24 year old poet out of Kansas City, MO. I am currently writing an epic that is a hybrid of many poetic forms; it is innovative in its way, but also deeply rooted in the American Romantic tradition, while simultaneously questioning that tradition. My point is, I don't believe there is space for someone like me in mainstream contemporary American poetry. Not yet, at least. But I refuse to write chopped up memoir-esque prose--I believe verse should be verse, even if my verse is as free as it is lyrically rigorous--and I believe that it should comprise a universe. I look to the poets of my generation published in the big important reviews (like Poetry) and come away utterly dismayed. What a crapwagon of literary pygmies; what a bunch of consciously minor, willfully superficial sniveling millennial pissants. I am about to attend art school, but I will never get a degree in creative writing. I will continue to study great works of literature on my own, will continue to flesh my unique vision, and will certainly continue to keep an eye on your wonderful blog. I am relieved to discover someone else who finds the whole mainstream of contemporary poetry so damn contemptible (from that puling ideologue Seth Abramson, to all of the bland dollops of horseshit the once prestigious Poetry chooses to grace its pages each month). It really is quite hilarious (and rather sad) that so many mainstream run-of-the-mill contemporary poets who traffic in broken prose proclaim some form of "avante gardeness" for their pretentiously conventional work (or for sprinkling the word 'fuck' throughout their otherwise flavorless work). When slashing opaque, somewhat conversational musings to death is regarded as 'innovative', I know the mainstream has lost touch with what is worthwhile in art and letters. Thank you for your posts. Keep up the fight and the critical thinking.

    1. No worries about the harping. I took the opportunity to say what I need to say every once in a while: this is not a professionally run site; errors will occur. And thanks for the compliments and stylistic observations. We are undeniably -- well, undeniably to anyone who dares honestly step back -- in a nadir in the cycles of the arts, the last peak being that of the Modernists. It took a century to go from the peak of the Romantics to the peak of the Modernists; considering the depth of this cultural nadir, perhaps a new peak is soon coming. (Actually, it's false there to call it a peak since that implies a rising action; better to say rebirth or revolution.)

      To note re your art studies, one of the great blossomings of my thinking in literary theory/criticism came when I started reading seriously in art criticism/theory. Many of the most influential books I've read as regards my studies in literary aesthetics were written to the world of art: e.g., Gombrich's _Art and Illusion_, Rank's _Art and Artist_ (though that's as much psychology, and was very influential within the Expatriot writers between the wars), and Worringer's _Abstraction and Empathy_ (also very influential at early in the century) are universal in application, and profoundly thought-invoking. Three, there, that I've constantly recommended to anyone and everyone who dares to tilt an ear. The theory behind the literary and the plastic (and musical) arts are the same explorations changing only (though importantly) with their application to the different mediums. Hopefully your work in all areas will like mine feed and expand each other. Good luck to you on your studies and efforts. Perhaps we shall see each other in the lists of a new rebirthing.