Home >> Volume 1, Issue 02

Hugh Blair, Betsey Fox-Genovese, and the Death of the Liberal Arts

Deborah A. Symonds

I have had a battered copy of Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in my office for years. Blair was a vain, eloquent, and fashionable Moderate in the Church of Scotland, rising to the ultimate pulpit in the High Kirk of St. Giles in Edinburgh by 1758, and giving lectures in composition, soon to be rhetoric and belles lettres, at Edinburgh University in 1759. He knew most of the men who mattered in the Scots Enlightenment, of which group he was one. He encouraged Robert Burns, published many volumes of sermons, was encouraged by Lord Kames, and argued vehemently for the authenticity of James Macpherson’s great Ossianic hoax. But little of Blair’s life matters to me now. It has been a long time since I wrote about the ballad tradition in Scotland, ancient or modern, forged or genuine. Blair retired and published his university lectures in 1783, hoping to end the unauthorized circulation of students’ notes. The book, like the notes, was a success. [1]

Blair established a model for speaking and writing that has been taught in and beyond Britain for more than a century. Without defending the particulars of Blair’s taste and skill, I think this is as good a moment as any to mourn the death of what Adrienne Rich, a now aged and I suspect a much less fashionable feminist poet, once called “the dream of a common language.” My copy of Blair, printed in Philadelphia in 1833 and sold with “University Edition” on its spine, is dear to me because its owner wrote her name, Clara I. Kelsey, just inside the cover, and noted the year in which she read it: 1878. If Betsey were here, she would tell me something I don’t know about Blair, who was a friend to Adam Smith, and who probably knew something about physiocracy; she might even know who Kelsey was, and whether the women’s colleges offered rhetoric in the 1870s.

We have come far from 1783, and even from Kelsey’s 1878. Blair’s tradition is dead, his taste in literature a relic. Rhetoric is now rhetoric and communication in my university, and the courses might or might not make any sense to Blair: war, the self and other, signage, race, and perhaps anything sometimes made out of words. But I did not commence this essay to write about Hugh Blair or rhetoric. I have clung to Blair in the face of something I find far more interesting and puzzling, the urgent and frequent revision of our general education requirements. Let me preface what I have to say by admitting that I was, in point of origin, no friend to the general education program in existence here when I began teaching about twenty years ago. It was byzantine, unwieldy, and the obvious product of interdepartmental quarrels over the absolute indispensability of each form of knowledge. I am a product of that dark angel of east coast education, Bennington College. The only requirement I remember was that each of us would take one course in each of the four divisions: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and arts.

Bennington could do this because the teachers were exceptional, the students curious and rarely concerned with grades, and the courses compelling. No division starved. No one told us what to do, and we liked it that way. But in the university where I have done most of my teaching I have accepted general education curricula as a necessary evil, and in working through our first revision, I became fond of the idea of a core of knowledge. In my undergraduate days, five or six hundred students roaming around a small campus, coming under the spell of passionate and brilliant academics and artists – in my case Richard Tristman, Camille Paglia, Walter Scott, Sophia Healy and the old man who taught violin making – did not lack guidance. The one night I walked a bit too far north I bumped into a catamount and headed home; Bennington was like that. On the campus where I work these days, one could walk back and forth for hours without knowing whom one is seeing. The life of the university is online, and students grab seats in rapidly filling courses using computers, picking from lists that offer only greatly abbreviated titles of courses. In that great digital void some structure is, and I will repeat myself, a necessity.

I have been through two revisions of our general education requirements since I arrived in Des Moines in 1989, with a third emerging in draft this year. The first was a sensible and practical revision completed in 2002, relieving students of an onerous burden of hours that had been designed long before, and was apparently intended to keep students from ever having to make a decision about what course to take. The overall plan of the revision was still driven by disciplinary definitions of knowledge, and assumed the value of the disciplines. The only innovation I recall was the addition of first year seminars, classes I had encountered grimly at a previous job, and which I believe are – and this I should whisper – intended to increase student retention. The second, completed in 2006, was the product of a new worldview, in which disciplines began to drop out of the picture, to be replaced by “areas of inquiry” which are carefully calculated to evade disciplinary definition.

Areas of inquiry, or AOIs as we know them, are not simply the minor jargon of academic bureaucracy; they are harbingers of a new conception of the university, the university as factory. In 1854 Charles Dickens began Hard Times with a description of a model charity school:

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim. [2]

I am not arguing that my colleagues advocate filling our students with undigested facts, but the areas of inquiry are not really open inquiry. They are about skills, not content. Each area is served by a list of courses, approved to deliver one of a list of outcomes advertised by the university. Once upon a time we produced, at best, myriad forms of knowledge and students could study with us to learn to become producers of knowledge themselves, acting rather like apprentices. Now our finished product is the student, replete with outcomes. The outcomes are not, with the exception of science and mathematics, disciplinary, but they are all assumed to be measurable. We are responsible for the university’s guarantee that graduating seniors will be equipped with certain skills – and with certain values. I will admit that an emphasis on independent ability, as opposed to the nineteenth-century utilitarian schoolroom full of facts to be memorized is desirable, but – and this is a big qualification – what I am calling ability is in practice a prescribed outcome removed from any subject or discipline. At worst, the outcomes are remedial, meant to substitute the abilities that were once provided by high school, not liberal in the old sense of the term.

When did the material and methods of any of the disciplines, when well taught, not result in new abilities and skills for students? The word discipline is itself active, redolent with connotations of vigor, method, and labor. What urgency compels so many administrators and faculty to discuss the means of escaping from it, while confusing universities with middle schools by calling a discipline a subject? This interest in erasing disciplinary boundaries and specializations, although it often comes cloaked as academically fashionable interdisciplinary work, is rooted in pragmatic management. Areas of inquiry – historical consciousness, engaged citizenship, and so forth – that can be delivered by faculty in various departments allow universities with tenured faculty to redeploy their precious resources to compete in whatever they perceive the current market to be. The administrator’s dream of a flexible labor force and a frequently repackaged product – now the outcomes-laden student, not the courses, the majors, or the faculty – may be the long-delayed answer to the sixties student radicals who demanded courses that were relevant. And if the courses are now irrelevant, the outcomes are very relevant, and are dictated by employers, as College Learning for the New Global Century, the 2008 report of something called The National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise, makes explicit. [3] I should add that I spent most of my undergraduate years in the late sixties and early seventies working with a medievalist, and it never occurred to either of us to question the relevance of medieval literature to the human mind. So I feel free to relish the irony of the kind of relevance which capitalist culture, rooted in competition and financial necessity, has finally provided to those students’ children and grandchildren.

To quote from some of the inventors of the new university, the authors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities publication Toward Intentionality and Transparency: Analysis and Reflection on the Process of General Education Reform, “Intentionality goes beyond simply asking providers of education to teach to outcomes rather than the old subject-driven method.” [4] If this raises the question of just how far beyond “the old subject-driven method” one might be asked to go, one answer has been provided by our latest reiteration of requirements, drafted in 2008, but not yet final: One will be asked to acquiesce to a general education program that requires many courses developed by committees and administrators, rather than departments. These include something called integrative seminars, beginning with a first year seminar on anything, for the sake of a seminar experience, followed by an electronic portfolio, whatever that might be, that requires students to reflect on our mission outcomes. Then students may face a seminar on engaged citizenship, followed by an interdisciplinary seminar on global problems and ethics, and a junior year portfolio in which they must consider whether they have mastered the mission outcomes that the university claims they will. In other words, almost one semester’s worth of their undergraduate work will be in a new subject that a skeptic might call: now I understand this curriculum and how it is making me a better citizen.

For the sake of all this integrative engaged reflection, the old liberal arts core may be whittled away to six courses, with one each coming from areas to be called Scientific Literacy, Quantitative Literacy, Historical Knowledge, Multicultural Knowledge, Artistic Literacy, and Writing and Critical Thinking. As an unregenerate Bennington girl, I have almost no trouble with a core curriculum of six courses, especially if they are the right six courses. But I have a great deal of trouble with fourteen hours of course work in which students will be led to water and made to drink, in defiance of everything I believe about the liberal arts tradition and free will. The students are no fools, and I have twice now seen in print that one motive for revision of the general education curriculum is students’ failure to see the point of the one in use. To wit, from the authors of Toward Intentionality:

…the chancellor in 2005 recommended reform of our general education program, partly because the curriculum was viewed as complicated and unattractive to students transferring to our university and to current students transferring from one college to another within the institution. [5]

Simplification would be good, but I doubt that that is what students got. Our own third revision, now somewhere in process, is far more byzantine than any previous curriculum, and it was introduced in much the same way, referring to the difficulty students have in grasping the purpose of the current general education program. But fourteen hours of integrative and electronic work devoted to reconciling oneself with our mission statement, and becoming the right sort of ethical engaged citizen seems like a harsh punishment for failing to see the king’s new clothes.

The liberal arts have been both rigorous and porous throughout each one’s development. Each has been dull, passively learned, and taught as simple content only when each was taught badly. Active learning and interdisciplinary work are neither new nor a cure for the evils of academia, which are simple: thoughtlessness, dogmatism, and endless repetition. The straw man of the “old subject-driven method” cited above doesn’t exist, and if the real advantages of disciplinary rigor are abandoned, the liberal arts will die with them, and I will have to move my family back to Bennington, [6] sit under a tree, and read the first sentence of Blair’s Rhetoric once more: “One of the most distinguished privileges which Providence has conferred upon mankind, is the power of communicating their thoughts to one another.” [7]

If my colleagues are hoping to create the curriculum that will manufacture more young Sixties radicals, I would beg them to consider both the sources of the demand for outcomes that void academic freedom in the classroom, and the courses I remember taking, courses that led me to defy my parents and oppose the war in Vietnam, to reconcile the very careerist East Coast feminism of 1968 with the needs of the poor, especially poor women in other cultures, and all the other adventures of youth. The courses meant reading many books, talking, and writing hundreds of pages every semester. There were no new methods. The courses had names like Tragic Themes in Drama and Fiction, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Encyclopedic Fiction from Swift to Flaubert, and Introduction to Drawing. From these and others we derived enough information about what it means to be male, female, and human to make our ways into life, and to live usefully, courageously, and to keep learning.

To paraphrase Betsey Fox-Genovese, every society gets the kind of education it deserves. But I cannot fathom how my colleagues, some of whom are my age and must have taken similar courses, have failed to remember that liberal education gave us common ground, freedom, and “the power of communicating [our] thoughts to one another.” And a devil’s advocate might add that corporations are eager if not desperate to influence undergraduate education because secondary education, which once produced the outcomes they desire, now fails to do so. I regret that Betsey is not here to listen to my stories, and respond with that terrible gentleness. But, not one to be put off by death, and what historian has ever balked at that? I would just like to say “Betsey, it’s just like Lang’s Metropolis: the wrong Maria is preaching to the workers!” But unlike the end of Metropolis there will be no riot, no upheaval, just the very quiet absence of the liberal arts, replaced by the earnest, public-spirited teaching of essentially remedial outcomes. [8] Only Betsey would know what wine to order should that occur.

[1] It is still in print in paperback in India, which suggests that it is still assigned in classes.

[2] Charles Dickens, Hard Times (New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1854) p. 13.

[3] See https://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/GlobalCentury_ExecSum_3.pdf; this report exists under the imprimatur of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and includes a section called “Employers’ Views on Learning Outcomes and Assessment Approaches.”

[4] See Rita C. Kean, Nancy D. Mitchell, and David E. Wilson, Toward Intentionality and Transparency: Analysis and reflection on the Process of General Education Reform, Fall 2008, vol. 10, No. 4, The Association of American Colleges and Universities, at http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-fa08/pr-fa08_Intentionality.cfm Subjects are not disciplines, and their use of the word subject gives away the origin of these ideas, in the fads and philosophies that have eroded the kind of secondary education my parents were able to build lives on, and forced so many universities to provide remedial education.

[5] Kean, Mitchell, and Wilson, Intentionality and Transparency, see above.

[6] Bennington College has just, they think, jumped on the bandwagon of engaged citizenship, or so I was told in an alumni email received the day before I wrote this.

[7] Hugh Blair, D.D. F.R.S., Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Philadelphia: T. Ellwood Zell, Publisher, 1833) p.2.

[8] See William Deresiewicz, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” in The American Scholar, at http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/ for this sentence among others: “The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.”