Psychomachia in Mondoville and Fort Apache

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to Psychomachia in Mondoville and Fort Apache

  1. steve says:

    “Now therein of all sciences—I speak still of human, and according to the human conceit—is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it. Nay, he doth, as if your journey should lie through a fair vineyard, at the very first give you a cluster of grapes, that full of that taste you may long to pass further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent 23 with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness. But he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music; and with a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner, and, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue; even as the child is often brought to take most wholesome things, by hiding them in such other as to have a pleasant taste,—which, if one should begin to tell them the nature of the aloes or rhubarb they should receive, would sooner take their physic at their ears than at their mouth. So is it in men, most of which are childish in the best things, till they be cradled in their graves,—glad they will be to hear the tales of Hercules, Achilles, Cyrus, Æneas; and, hearing them, must needs hear the right description of wisdom, valor, and justice; which, if they had been barely, that is to say philosophically, set out, they would swear they be brought to school again.”

    If we update Sidney’s metaphor, the first bunch of grapes is the career skills, but the real substance is the Liberal Arts training that we provide students when they get to Mondoville. The problem is that, like you say, there is a group of Mondovians who have confused the teaser with the reward and thereby cheapened and impoverished education. I do believe that we have to appeal to and satisfy these students’ rationally felt needs for marketable skills (these are first-generation kids who don’t have the luxury of focusing on intellectual transformation–they are shooting for economic transformation) by teaching them the “practical” skills they want, but we also need to address the second kind of poverty that they are experiencing without knowing it–intellectual and cultural poverty. The Obliviomondovians should also remember that culturally and intellectually illiterate individuals rarely advance beyond the entry level (even with great technical skills) because they will lack the polish and self-awareness that is the prerequisite to leadership.
    All that is to say that I don’t think we are selling out when we appropriate SOME of the market terminology in an effort to meet our students and parents where they are, but we are selling out hard core if we adapt the curriculum to short-sighted, perceived education fads that don’t begin to address the real needs of future Mondovians.

  2. Jeff says:

    One prong of the argument I’ve been developing is a blatant appeal to emotion that attempts to get administrators and fans of the “let’s turn everything into vocational training” model to examine their blind spots and prejudices and the denial they’re in about their own plummeting standards. Something like this:

    In the past decade, I’ve written recommendations for students who were admitted to schools I myself couldn’t have gotten into, including Georgetown Law and St. John’s in Annapolis. Sure, they’re a minority of our students, but by dumbing down the curriculum and turning humanities courses into vocational classes that emphasize “real-world skills,” you’re telling our students that none of them can be expected to compete with their peers who attend better, more prestigious schools. You’re telling them that this sort of education is all that’s suited to people of their class; this is all they can expect. “Sure, we went to better schools and know all sorts of neat stuff about literature and history and such, but even though we could share that with you, we won’t; it’d just be a waste.” Many of you among the faculty are saving up to send your own kids to far better schools with traditional liberal arts curricula. Can you explain why the program you’ve devoted your professional life to isn’t good enough for your own children?

    And it goes on from there, and then someone takes my keys, and I wake up the next morning on some stranger’s lawn…

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