My dissertation was on early English morality plays, so one of the words I learned along the way was psychomachia. The word is sometimes translated as “The war of the soul”, an account of the battle between good and evil in each individual, with personified virtues and vices duking it out (see for example The Castle of Perseverance, or the work by Prudentius that gives the form its name.
In my role on Mondoville’s Academic Strategic Planning Committee, I see part of my job as psychomachic, resisting the constant pressure of Corporate Higher Ed, which would replace the holy chore of educating students with providing an “educational experience” (to borrow “Edwoof”‘s felicitous phrase) to customers. To that end, I find it necessary to argue for the value of the liberal arts (and especially the humanities) on occasion after occasion.
In the process, I find myself confronting the utilitarian argument that our typical students come from environments where the primary (and in some cases, sole) driver is vocational, and that unless we explicitly say that “Upon graduation, child X will enter profession Y, where he or she will make $Z per annum“, no one will come to Mondoville and we’ll all have to find honest work. I ran into this most recently this morning, from someone who may think Mondoville should be a warmer, fuzzier, “pre-professional experience” for the (here it comes…) customers. Think U of Phoenix with keggers and a fitness center.
During such struggles, there’s consolation in knowing that other folks are fighting the battle as well, and so I direct your attention to an article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed. In particular, I like Richard Ekman’s call for people in fields like mine to “go beyond [a] flat-footed, utilitarian approach”, but also to go beyond the cliches of individual uplift. At this point, then, it’s a question of appropriate rhetoric.
This reminds me a bit of some of Richard M. Weaver’s thought on what I’ve come to see as the “Fort Apache problem.” If you’ll allow me the indulgence of quoting from one of my old papers:
Weaver […] could envision himself as a rhetor whose audience (the “Indians” circling the fort) had little or nothing in common with him. At best, Weaver could see his work as having been consigned to a sort of intellectual ash heap, as we see in his account of the decline of the academic rhetorician (Language 201-02). As John Bliese observes, a rhetor from within Fort Apache has little if any chance of achieving any sort of Burkean consubstantiation with the Indians.
In some respect, I think the utilitarian argument against emphasizing the liberal arts is what Weaver would have called an argument from circumstance — which, incidentally, he suggested was the least moral form of argument (Weaver being something of a neo-Platonist). Weaver suggests that we counter this approach poetically — that is, through metaphor and appeals to a shared (even if unacknowledged) sense of ultimate truth. However, the right metaphor remains elusive (though I trust not illusive).
But I’m in the middle of a war of ideas, and in some ways, I fear the soul of Mondoville may be at stake. So I’m asking for help. How would — how do — you get the value of the humanities through to the powers that be in your own Mondovilles, Real Cities, and burgs and burbs in between? I could use the help.