11 No. 2
Vitalities of the Mind
The Gustafson Seminar on the future of Liberal Education
Educating the Vitalities of the Mind
2007-2008 Gustafson Seminar
Vitalities of the Mind Matrix
A Vitalities of the Mind Glossary
“People who understand liberal arts education argue that it’s the ultimate practical education.”
“Civility and contemplation and ethics and compassion and courage—all these things are great. But we need Apollo and Dionysus. ”
“Bathing in Reeking Wounds: The Liberal Arts and War”
Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University
Some Thoughts on Overcoming Paralysis
Education and curricula in the context of war
Can the Liberal Arts Reduce the Likelihood of War?
An important but limited resource
Having accepted an invitation to respond to the work of the 2007-08 Gustafson Faculty Seminar, I received a summary statement of its goals and aspirations. The document introduced the question of the liberal arts at Emory by noting the historic correlation, in American universities, of curriculum reform and the circumstances of war. Addressing themselves to the present, the authors suggest that even if educators cannot offer solutions to human conflict and aggression “discussion about the nature of education” in the context of war “is or should be a core component of our mission.”
It was hard to know where to begin a response, and not only because of the scope of the challenge. I have no direct personal experience of the violence of war, yet an answer called me to consider the extent and nature of my own involvement—institutional, social, and personal—with war. As I confronted those issues it seemed that any words I could offer would be inadequate.
My position could not be more different from that of the German Jewish scholar Erwin Panofsky when, having fled to the United States from Nazi Germany, he penned one of the most compelling essays in my field of study, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline.” Panofsky recognized that for better and worse, scholars and educators inevitably participate “in the process of shaping reality.” As he noted to illustrate, “The man who is run over by a car is run over by mathematics, physics, and chemistry.” Following this logic of culpability without volition, I have to admit that the institutions that shelter me and make my contemplative and educational endeavors possible are intertwined with a complex economic and political order that also makes war.
The last point was driven home a few years ago, when I had the privilege of attending the annual Jefferson Lecture sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities. The speaker was Helen Vendler. Her lecture, in which she adopted the poetic voice of Wallace Stephens, presented a plea for the study of the creative arts as a central part of a university curriculum. Even as I sympathized with her argument, I found the event itself profoundly disturbing. My discomfort was partly a result of the lecture’s framing with an elaborate and distinctly militaristic display of flag waving. The display included a trouping of the President’s (fully armed) color guard. In my mind, the atmosphere in the room was inseparable from the mood of fierce pride, fear, and aggression that gripped this country after the violent destruction of the World Trade Center.
The pairing of Professor Vendler’s soft lyrical voice and
its aggressive military context was striking. An argument that might have seemed important in university lecture halls seemed beside the point here. Its aesthetic attractions were all too easily attached to the matter of nationalism and military display. The use of a scholar’s voice as bait in the game of promoting war was disturbing not only in itself, but also because it reflected the conditions of my own livelihood. The effect, similar to the one I felt in considering the charge of the Gustafson Seminar, was momentarily paralyzing.
Perhaps overcoming paralysis is a necessary first step in a discussion of the sort proposed by the Gustafson Seminar. It was surely no accident that the respondents chose not to address the overt invitation to consider the shape of the curriculum. Instead, many of us appealed to autobiography and accounts of intimate family relations as a means to invest war with meaning. My example was one of several. Lacking any first-hand knowledge of the devastating effects of war, I could only search through childhood memories for evidence of its repercussions in
The example I found was knitting, and the story began with my career as a Brownie (a very young Girl Scout). In hope of earning one of the badges that decorated the uniforms of diligent Brownies, I asked my mother to teach me how to knit. She surprised me by pointing to my father as the more skilled knitter and the better source of instruction. When I went to my father with the same request I also asked him why he knew how to knit. He explained that when his two older brothers were oversees fighting in the Second World War, he and his mother spent their moments away from the work of the family farm in the Canadian prairies knitting socks and bandages to care for the troops. He also taught me how to knit.
Even then it was clear that knitting, for my father, was no mere skill. My educated self might say it had an elegiac function with which I could identify. While I could not share my father’s memories, let alone the war experiences of my uncles, the mimetic and emotionally charged process of learning how to knit brought me a little closer to understanding. Putting fragments of information together with this understanding, I came to see the evidence of war in a new light. That evidence included my uncle’s immobile left hand, which I had been told was the result of shrapnel. His hand, which I had once viewed with detachment, as a natural wonder, particularly when he used it to lift the milk pail and pour its contents into the cream separator, became meaningful. It was both a wound of a war the effects of which I could not otherwise comprehend, and undeniable evidence of survival. The details of the story I have put together for myself over the years matter less than the recognition of the elegiac and re-creative activities that are bound up in my imagination with knitting. Knitting, like scholarship, is a place I go to sort out and cope with the disturbances that come from unfathomable things.
I am not suggesting that knitting is the answer to the serious questions posed by the Gustafson Seminar. I am rather proposing that something like it is needed to gain perspective and overcome the urge to identify scholarly endeavor too closely with prescribed educational outcomes. The recent actions of the Emory College faculty are encouraging in this regard. In backing a curriculum that puts more responsibility for education in the hands of individual professors and students, the faculty resisted the urge to guard borders jealously and legislate the life out of university education. Instead of insisting on an airtight curriculum, one that responded at every turn to the possibility of its circumvention, the college faculty opted to entrust themselves and their students with the substance of education. This is no light charge.
Whether or not the optimism about human behavior implied in such a choice proves justified in the long run, it is arguably much needed in the present climate. This last point brings me to the end of my response and the one aspect of the document presented by the Gustafson seminar that really troubled me, namely, its apparent acquiescence to the position that the world we live in is “characterized by violence, hate, and war.” In confronting the reality, for example, of the present military action in Iraq, we surely cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand. I can’t help but think, however, that we are doomed to failure if we embrace, as our motivating cause, the abstract characterization of the world we live in in terms of violence, hate, and war.