Cultural Institutions, Theatre, and Humanistic Liberal Arts Education: Where Do We Go from Here?

Perennially, with justification, those who support limited choice in general, liberal education argue that menu systems (and their slightly more structured curricular cousins) lead to incoherence in the first years of the undergraduate curriculum.  On the other hand, most institutions are organized into disciplinary departments, and a menu system has been almost universally recognized as the best “market” mechanism to induce or introduce students to majors in various fields. But what happens when, particularly in the humanities, the very fields that are represented by departments are thought to be ineffective in employing their students, technologically backward in their approaches to the world, and, maybe most importantly, demographically cut off from new recruits.  What strategies then?  That’s what a recent Harvard report, and the Academic Council and Deans of America and Phi Beta Kappa in a recent conference, and Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift all seem to be asking. As it turns out, happily these questions are asked in terms of the fate of liberal arts education.

Let’s step back for a moment. The humanities case is more general than we may think. The cultural institutions of orchestras, museums, and establishment churches seem to be suffering similar audience disaffection. The one exception is the theatre. Why is that and what lessons are there for the humanities and liberal arts?

Granted that the theatre has experimented broadly with “happenings” and “audience experiences” for the last forty to fifty years, still its mainstay—one that draws audiences—remains “classic works” or works that, at least, seem aware of the potentials of the dramatic and theatrical inheritance. The theatre is simply filled with people who are immersed in these two complementary traditions. Also, theatre people know that they are “live.” In Hume’s terms, they are vivacious. The audience, because it is assembled, is live; the actors have voices and gestures whose timbre and sweep are, by and large, authentic and inescapable. The theatre can assemble its considerable range of artists, its stage, with its focus of audience attention, and its vivid here and now-ness to achieve—what? It is, of course, true to think that theatre is entertainment. But to “entertain” is to consider and, potentially, when you go to a theatre, you could be asked to use your heart and mind for a wide range stretching from the spectacle of props and choreography to conceptual or actional frameworks where we have a mini-system, mini-world or mini-verse before us.

Theatre people seem, by and large, not to conceive of accessibility to this range as a dumbing down or as too plebian to warrant attention. The problem is not Shakespeare’s because he was great in his Elizabethan vocabulary and iambs or complex in his plots, nor the audience’s because it simply isn’t expert enough or intellectually rigorous enough to appreciate technical nuance, but the production company’s—how will they make the language convey what Shakespeare was using it for? Presentation isn’t a matter of democracy—it is a matter of availability. Presentation is a matter of welcoming in a controlled, focused manner so that those who are drawn to theatre (or any other art form) are helped to partake of what it has to offer. Availability is the use of the theatrical arts to make intelligible the dramas presented.

There’s an important orientation, here, that perhaps churches, museums, orchestras and the humanities could all take a lesson from, and the orientation’s attractiveness rests in art. Art and artistic structure is the phenomenon that is shared by museums, orchestras, to some degree churches, and certainly the humanities and liberal arts.

For the humanities, whatever completion the historical draw of politics and culture (as a substitute for politics) may offer, the fact is that art is quintessential, since the humanities would cease to exist and would have no history whatsoever if art did not exist. And the same is true of liberal education; liberal education without art is simply not liberal education, for, then, its “freedom” has little room for invention, its examinations of disciplines will be confined to stock rehearsals of accepted postulates, and, as it has, it will lose a position, largely aesthetic, from which to criticize current political debate of any stripe.

This is why the humanities’ current state is a canary in the cage of liberal arts education and college. Put differently, for the humanities what is at stake is what constitutes the fields of the humanities; for liberal education the claim that colleges offer a liberal arts education is at stake.

The vivacity of the theatre can be captured in the humanistic classroom, but not through technological gee-whiz nor some sort of “theatrical” staging effects. Notwithstanding the times all academics have marveled in remembering the lecture a professor gave, lectures are not “made to be performed” in the way dramas are. Put differently, if a professor cannot figure out how to “perform” an idea, then she or he will have to resort to other means. The seeming absence of performance instruction has important implications for focusing the thought of humanities students through pedagogy. The arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic, dialectic, interrogation and conversation, arts of interpretation, of meaning, and of a specific artistic appreciation (e.g., knowing scales in music, perspective in the visual arts, prosody in literature, specific differentiated forms of imitative and inquiry literatures) take on enormous importance. Such arts suggest a partnership of artists in the classroom, not unlike that of playwright and performers in the theatre. Not only must the professors generally employ these in the (relative) absence of stage props, choreography, performed musical scores, oral interpretation, and, especially, acting, but the students themselves will have to learn to employ them because there is little or no staging that they can rely on.

And here is where the shoe begins to pinch. Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift found in national samplings that “three semesters of college education . . . have a barely noticeable impact on students’ skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.” Controlling for socio-economic background doesn’t improve the picture. Worse, Blaich and Pascarella found in a study of liberal arts colleges where the kind of practices that tend to be recommended to improve scores are employed—e.g., discussion groups, peer groups, working across disciplines, imagining an argument from someone else’s point of view—the capacities for moral reasoning, critical thinking, and a “need for cognition” on average “increased only a small amount” while positive attitudes towards both the arts and sciences experienced actual decline.

As Executive Director of the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC), I am a strong proponent of using classical works, but I have come to believe, especially with regard to questions of students working across disciplines or inventing arguments, that a more capacious view of what counts in classical works would reward our students and our own inquiries. After reviewing more than 50 general education programs, including many core text, great books programs, and after having approved over 2,000 paper proposals for our ACTC conferences over 20 years, I find it disturbing that philosophical or theoretical, in the Greek sense of the term, discussions of art and some appreciation of the technical development entailed have virtually disappeared from, at least, both fragmented or coherent general education curricula and discussions at ACTC. There is the Platonic exception, but works of Aristotle, Isocrates, Cicero, Augustine, or, moving forward, Bruni, Petrarch, or Erasmus on grammar, rhetoric and logic are largely absent from core text, general liberal education programs. Nor is it better when we get to the moderns: no Saussure, Burke, Austin, Smullyan, and so forth. Sure, there are courses with these texts and authors, but we don’t teach across the curriculum these liberal arts texts that contain the questions and techniques that would make the liberal arts truly available to all.

In other words, teaching distinguishable liberal arts is to the vivacity of human achievements as the arts of the stage are to the liveliness and intelligibility of drama. That is, what arts are used and the proportions of their use, the recognition that art in its largest sense is the object of study, is central to focusing the mind of students in the humanities. Conversely, the proper production by students from the humanistic point of view is conversation with fellow students and teachers, the essay, formal speeches and debates, video, audio, and web productions, musical performance, stage performance, oral interpretations, original translations, poems, stories, and conversational defenses or explanations of one’s work.  And these artful productions suggest that the term “undergraduate research” does not necessarily point to, inculcate, require or comprehend the pedagogy or use of any of these other arts.

The humanities have one primary job: to make available—by focusing the mind of students in and out of the university—works of art and intellect that a crafted, intellectual heritage of the West and other traditions of the world have transmitted. The liberal arts are the most substantive way by which to make these inheritances available for inquiry and examination.

Philosophy, Religion, Politics, Economics, Culture, Science and everything else follows, sometimes simultaneously, after that. A core text, core curriculum does all this. If the humanities really pay attention to art, then they will look to the artistic reasons why theatre is not failing in a world where cultural institutions seem on the verge of crumbling. If they do, not only the humanities, but liberal arts education will be better off.

J. Scott Lee is Executive Director of the Association for Core Texts and Courses

Copies of the longer Transylvania Seminar paper on which this essay was based are available upon request from [email protected]. Another version of this paper will be delivered at the St. John’s College Liberal Arts Conference in Santa Fe, NM in October, 2014.