leadimageVitalities of the Mind

Comments on the Liberal Arts
Response to the Gustafson Faculty Seminar

Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University


ol. 11 No. 2
October/November 2008

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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. ”

Website special:
“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

Comments on the Liberal Arts
Response to the Gustafson Faculty Seminar

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


I very much admire the ambition and seriousness of the Gustafson Faculty Seminar. It is asking what the liberal arts ought to do and what sort of human character the liberal arts ought to nurture. The seminar has chosen well in using Hannah Arendt as a guide to its construction of the “Vitalities of the Mind.”

I have one general comment on the seminar’s matrix and several particular ones. A matrix is stable. That is its nature. Its function is to place a fixed net over swarming, wriggling, changing phenomena. In important ways, however, the liberal arts are about change. What we teach changes. How we teach changes. We hope that our teaching changes both our students and us. I would hope that the seminar would revisit its matrix consistently and ask if its fixities have hardened into rigidities.

As for my particular comments, I would stress history more in the column “thinking.” Learning history should develop a major skill—that is, thinking historically, connecting the complexities of past and present. Learning history also gives us a crucial knowledge base. For example, students of the liberal arts in the United States today must know about China and its magnitudes. This knowledge base includes the horrendous ways in which all states, groups, and individuals have been violent. Any study of violence must, I suggest, include domestic violence, the brutalization of women and children within the home. I would add “object relations” to the column about “feeling.” Exploring and applying object relations theory takes us into the domain of self and other. Only when we enter fully into this domain can we see ourselves as others see us and as we see ourselves with others; can we begin to empathize with the situation of others; and can we begin to feel the stirrings of compassion for them. Perhaps as important as feeling compassion is feeling compassion’s antithesis: a selective revulsion at cruel and destructive actions.

I would as well be wary about overly sentimentalizing the values and competencies listed in the column labeled “belonging.” I endorse these values, but I fear that in our rush to communicate and collaborate, we may forget the virtues and discoveries of the soul in solitude. Moreover, we may also underestimate the creativity and contributions of the brilliant creep or the cognitively original lout or the disagreeable iconoclast. The best think is not always group think or, to put it more politely, a “community life of the mind.”

To my regret, I have also become increasingly cautious about affirming too boldly that the liberal arts can inculcate goodness in our students. To be sure, we can as teachers model the virtues and competencies that “Vitalities of the Mind” endorses. To be sure, we all know of students, lots of students, who have told us that something transformative—cognitively and/or emotionally—happened to them in a liberal arts classroom. To be sure, we must teach with hope that the liberal arts will matter to, will take hold of, will provide meaning to, the lives of our students. Yet our students are already partially shaped when they come to the liberal arts classroom. Much will shape them after they leave. The traditional undergraduate liberal arts classroom in the United States is a passage between adolescence and maturity, and we must be humble as well as hopeful about what can happen because of the liberal arts in the years between welcoming a freshman and bidding farewell to the senior.

Given this conviction, it may seem counterintuitive that I have become an advocate of required community service courses in our more elite and affluent institutions of higher education. Of course, community service courses must expunge themselves of any do-gooder or missionary attitudes. Students must work in a community in a spirit of mutual respect. And they must work, and be prepared to do it—be the work construction, or tutoring, or nursing, or any other act that will benefit a community as a community defines it. But done appropriately, community service courses can provide a vital track in the passageway of the liberal arts. This track can lead to learning about the self and others, to some empathy, to some compassion, to some selective revulsion. This track is not guaranteed to reach these goods, but surely it is wiser to step on it than to avoid it.