The Liberal Arts for Fun and Profit (but Mainly Fun)

There’s a very nice piece at the Toronto Star, where columnist Heather Mallick offers a number of lighthearted reasons to study the liberal arts, and why in fact that is an enormously practical action. At the same time, she has a serious point:

I will give you the mental and emotional weapons to cope with the 80 years after you graduate. It won’t be easy to build your personal arsenal for a surreal century that will see even more violent change than the last one which positively heaved with trauma.

Of course, this is also reminiscent of another Canadian, the Prof’s hero Northrop Frye, who argues that the study of literature is a way to educate the imagination (Hey! That’s a good idea for a blog!), which is our most essential tool as we go through the weirdnesses of our lives. The humanities are aptly named — they make us more fully human, in that they put us in any situation we could have imagined, offer us the chance to imagine how we might perform in those situations ourselves, and play to one of our greatest strengths — adaptability.

Mallick’s piece is in that tradition, even in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, and it’s worth reading.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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2 Responses to The Liberal Arts for Fun and Profit (but Mainly Fun)

  1. Robert Denham says:

    Another thing Frye said on several occasions was that the effect of a liberal education was to maladjust the student to ordinary society. Here’s one, from 1945:

    “I do not myself believe in any educational programme that adjusts the student either to an ideal or to an actual environment, and I distrust both invulnerable wisdom and backslaphappy sociability as human goals. Offhand, I should say that the purpose of liberal education today is to achieve a neurotic maladjustment in the student, to twist him into a critical and carping intellectual, very dissatisfied with the world, very finicky about accepting what it offers him, and yet unable to leave it alone. The man who can appreciate Bach and Dante will be bored to death by most movies, nauseated by most radio programmes, stupefied by most sermons, and sickened by most politicians. The man who can understand Goethe and Montaigne will not be better equipped to deal with his own society: he will merely be more inclined to retch and spew at the very sight of a large proportion of its members, including anti-Semites, spokesmen of big business, and people who want to fight Russia. The man who reads Tolstoy and Marx will not be able to find refuge in an “ivory tower”: he will only be able to see with horrid clarity that most businessmen are living in one. In short, the man with a liberal education will not have an integrated personality or be educated for living: he will be a chronically irritated man, probably one of that miserable band who read The Canadian Forum, which is always finding fault and viewing with alarm. One real dose of real culture, and never again will he be able to enter, with millions of his compatriots, into the Paradisal peace of the Star Weekly and the Canadian Sunday afternoon, where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest ” [“A Liberal Education,” Canadian Forum 25 (October 1945)]

    • profmondo says:

      First of all, Prof. Denham, thanks for dropping by. I’m genuinely honored. (Folks, this guy is the stud duck of Frye scholarship.)

      Not surprisingly, I think Frye’s dead on in this regard as well. As he noted, imagination begins in dissatisfaction, when “I don’t like this” becomes “I wish it were like this instead.” It’s not surprising that the educated imagination becomes both engaged and strengthened, and in a way that doesn’t play well with the world as it is. I’ll freely cop to being a misfit — but as Mill observes, the misfit, the one who breaks ranks, is necessary if any positive change is to happen. I hope I can be such a dissatisfied individual, and that my students may be as well.

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