The United States is traditionally a practical place, being an overgrown British colony and dumping ground for European cast-offs of varying quality level. However, before the full onset of public education, the country was known for being unusually literate. The America of 1776 read at a higher level than the America of the early 21st century.
The post-colonial era up until public education annihilated our intellectual standards was one of surprising vigor in the liberal arts.
Even through the 20th century, the question of who would write the next ‘Great American Novel’ was a source of constant speculation. Although true reactionaries could quibble with the real quality of American letters on an absolute scale, for our purposes, the decline is what’s more important.
Most contemporary debate about the liberal arts is both insipid and toxic. This is true both on what passes for the right and the left.
The right tends to be of one of two schools:
- The liberal arts are for stupid women and fags. We should not teach them anymore. Instead, we should train students in science and technology, so that they can get good jobs and pay taxes.
- The liberal arts are these important great books which we must study as if they were museum artifacts, so that we can look cool in our tweed jackets and pretend like Communists don’t already run America.
On the left, it’s actually pretty similar:
- The liberal arts are taking valuable government dollars away from how they really should be spent: training more engineers so that we can pay lower wages to our employees and keep more of the profits for ourselves. Work is dreary and it’s better to pay someone else to do it for you with freshly printed money.
- The liberal arts are critical to fighting cishetero patriarchal homophobic oppression. Without teaching the liberal arts in our public universities, no one would read the great works written by trans-species authors of color.
My formulation of why the liberal arts are important is going to more crass and utilitarian than I’d otherwise prefer to frame it. I’m going to frame it like this because if I’m too delicate about it, I’m concerned that the message won’t be understood by various thickheaded conservatives.
The arts matter because they unify the culture
Culture tends to be what animates people, what keeps them from wanting to put a bullet in their own heads. It’s what they use to form important relationships with one another. Shared aesthetic sensibility is most of what draws one person to another, and what draws small clusters of people to larger groups.
Without people cooperating with one another, there’s conflict, anomie, unhappiness, and a lack of vigorous, happy cooperation.
Why do so many people want to kill themselves nowadays? Why are they having trouble remaining motivated? Why can’t they maintain happy relationships with one another? Why are they beset with vices and deficient in virtue?
It’s probably because the left has obliterated what was once a rich, animating cultural tradition which the American people took close to their hearts.
There is the sort of propaganda-poster unity common to socialist countries, and then there’s the unifying cultures indigenous to various European countries from pre-modern times. One is a unity that only exists on paper: in reality, everyone under Communism is out to fuck everyone else over. In a real culture, it’s a unity of attitudes, of life sensibilities, of morals, of stories, of vocal tone, and other intangible factors that prevent people within the country from behaving like vicious Communists eager to betray their neighbors.
People who share a common cultural framework are more apt to cooperate within their own groups. Preventing that common framework from forming, or forcing a dysfunctional framework upon the whole society, damages the ability of people within that country to cooperate with their fellows.
The study of the liberal arts should be an elite pursuit
When the highest standards of liberal education are not held by the political and social elite, their inferiors deteriorate rapidly, with no guiding stars to look up towards. Even a Napoleon is more respectable than a Snooki.
The left has denigrated the European cultural tradition, and has ceded it to idiots and junk-merchants. To care about culture is either to be a Social Justice Stormtrooper, or a hopelessly reprobate reactionary, out of touch with what’s important today.
Real elite people of Tomorrow’s Glorious Technocratic Future focus on their spreadsheets —
What crap is this? These idiotic proclamations are why the country has so often tended to veer towards inane, backwards-looking non-strategies which could have never succeeded. Americans are routinely bamboozled by people bearing spreadsheets with no sense of human life beyond that which can be modeled in Excel.
Part of this problem is baked into the American political design: if we’re all democratically equal, what sort of antisocial maniac says that the liberal arts shouldn’t be made democratically accessible? Isn’t this part of the whole centuries-long conflict between the animating philosophies behind Protestantism and Catholicism, bound up with politics, technology, and various local differences? Should the Word be equally accessible to everyone, or only through the interpretation of a hierarchical elite?
This is one of the reasons why there has been no meaningful resolution to the debate on this issue. The main premises are not being debated in an open way, because what passes for left and right share the most important premise in that education ought to have egalitarian aims, rather than aims that strengthen social hierarchy.
Because the aim of the liberal arts is to feed into the care and growth of a culture that strengthens a glorious civilization, the de-civilizing impulses glorified in just about every liberal arts department that matters in the US runs against their own proper aims. When conservatives think of the liberal arts, they tend to think of all the Communist petit-professeurs who tyrannize their students with their postmodern gibberish.
There can be no reconstruction of that hierarchy until conservatives realize that promoting any form of egalitarianism runs counter to their more important goals of living within a civilization that shares their values. The ‘everyone is equal’ value annihilates all other values in time.