The Martyrs Call the World

They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in,
Sing “Amazing Grace” all the way to the Swiss Banks.
-Bob Dylan, “Foot of Pride”

I have long decried the false dichotomy between education in the liberal arts and vocationally-based educational practices. Both, when done correctly, should draw enthusiastically from one another and–on balance–deliver similar results even within the framework of specialized content. Instead, so-called pragmatic education evokes images of gainful work while liberal arts education evokes scenes of self-indulgent contemplation. Furthermore, in a culture that rests on capitalist ideals and Christian assumptions, work–in its crudest sense–has come to represent or merely be virtue, no matter the necessity or even value of that work. Simply put, presumably, work has intrinsic value. Inevitably, wealth, which is already facilely associated with work, is seen in a causal relationship with effort. A standard script emerges. It has variations but goes much like this: hard work, a virtue, leads to wealth; therefore, all wealth is the result of and sign of virtuous behavior. The syllogism of this script is, of course, a fallacy.

This script, in its sectarian extreme, manifests in Puritan thought (a foundational American/Western doctrine) and, more recently, in “Prosperity Theology,” which posits that material goods and luxury are intimations of God’s blessings. We can also find it woven throughout our more secular institutions–financial, athletic, artistic, and even academic. When we see financial or material success, however measured, we assume it is earned, an assumption that serves as a hallmark of meritocracy.

The implications of this script have their detractors, of course, in various walks of life, including those listed above. Perhaps, though, dissent emanates most frequently and deliberately from artists and the arts, and poets are particularly vocal in their disagreement with these assumptions.

For instance, Walt Whitman, in the opening stanza of “Song of Myself,” famously boasts,

I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

His is the rallying cry of the pure poet, particular since the Romantic Era.

William Butler Yeats toys with this notion of the value of work in his narrative lyric “Adam’s Curse.” The poem describes an evening conversation between the poet and two sisters and can stand as an example of Yeats’ narcissism and his sexist sense of entitlement. On the other hand, readers in a more generous mood could render it as Yeats’ send-up of his inadequacies as a conversationalist among women he seeks to impress. In short, he may just be an awkward young man with blowhard tendencies ineptly trying to impress some pretty women.

The opening sets the scene of a late summer gathering and picks up, in media res, the discourse, which is almost a monologue with the pedantically bumptious poet holding forth about his second-favorite subject, poetry.

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

As he does throughout the narrative, the speaker blithely blathers on. He then, in a fit of remarkable superciliousness, contrasts the rigors of poetic labor with the relative ease of physical toil.

“Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these”

The forcefulness of this near-breathless diatribe suggests the poet’s conviction and his self righteousness. Poets toil and suffer more than physical laborers. Imagine.

But the next lines are most revealing.

                                             “… and yet,
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

I have long enjoyed the sarcasm of “the martyrs” and the ironic lack of self-consciousness in the phrase. Also, that odd list that represents “the world”–the respectable professions–“bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen.” Why, the poet seems to lament, why do these self-serious posers get to be “the world?” Poets work just as hard, maybe harder. And poets certainly contribute more–or so he suggests.

And here arises the dichotomy. The poets vs the world. The humanities vs the sciences. The liberal arts vs professional education. Is it really thus? Are there no accounting majors who act on stage, no history majors running large technical companies? Of course there are, and there is compelling evidence that they are not anomalies. Ask Wallace Stevens, for one–a lawyer, insurance executive,  and poet. Far from the pragmatic laborer, he wrote,

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

It would be tedious to cite the many studies and articles that maintain that a college student’s major does not matter much to future success or even career choice, but here are a few:

Some argue otherwise, but generally starting with the premise that some professional fields pay more than others. Of course that is the case, but the assumption in these studies is that a student’s career field is always the same as the major field, which is flat-out wrong.

And for years, evidence has mounted to demonstrate that employers of all sorts are looking for precisely the kinds of skills and the capacity that a liberal arts background, whatever the major, fosters. The best-rounded students have the sort of liberal education that allows them both to broaden their learning and deepen their understanding of a particular area or areas. This type of learning is often described as a ‘T’–wide at the top and focused vertically. Believe me, I am not going out on a limb or covering new ground when I describe the value of T-shaped learning.

Yet, we are subjected to politicians and thought leaders who loudly, if not compellingly, contrast philosophers and welders, sociologists and engineers, anthropologists and everyone else. The false dichotomy that the academy itself established–pure learning vs pragmatic learning–has become the rallying cry of external “reformers” bent on nothing less than the utter upheaval of all that higher education values and represents. For instance, the silly and hyper-academic argument about whether math and the sciences are part of the the liberal arts still simmers. Just recently, the topic came up in an audience question during the closing plenary at the venerable Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting.

Enough. We do ourselves no favors and threaten injury to our students and progeny by continuing these petty squabbles. Too often, these spats reek of interdisciplinary snobbery and gloating–ignorance in the extreme. Good learning is liberal learning that crosses boundaries and integrates knowledge and its application. Colleges and universities and the educators who lead them pretend otherwise at their own peril.