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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gulag Education: Walter Russell Mead and the Death of Liberal Arts

Every once in a while, somebody important takes a break from keeping the world spinning just long enough to point out just how the rest of us aren't pulling our weight. Walter Russel Mead, internationally recognized expert on foreign affairs and editor of "The American Interest" magazine, has just done so, taking his hands off the wheel just long enough to use his bully pulpit to beat the shit out of a 22 year-old freelance writer.

Thanks, Walt.

Vanessa Formato, the writer in question, is a 22-year-old self-proclaimed "vegan cupcake enthusiast" who "tweets about puppies" and I am sure that she intended her article to neither be an exegesis on policy nor the topic of conversation at "The American Interest."

But Mead, who strongly encouraged regime change in Iraq, is evidently still a subscriber to the policy of overwhelming force and he employs it here against poor Ms. Formato. He accuses her of "producing prose redolent of relentless stupidity" and holds her up as an example of "the vacuous nature of the modern American mind"

What horrible thing did she write?

A puff-piece published in the Boston Globe entitled "10 College Courses You Wished You Registered For" that dared to wistfully yearn for the ability to take classes in surf culture, burlesque and toy design rather than a courseload full of classes that "you're absolutely dreading."

Mead pedantically explains to his blog readers that classes like these are step one in his "7 Steps to Ruin Your Life" and that students will destroy themselves by wasting their college years taking classes that don't result in "marketable skills."

The fact that he takes the time away from world events to declare Formato's writing to be "soggy, tasteless mush" is beyond uncalled for. But the real issue with Mead's screed is that it is yet another lightning bolt from Olympus that is squarely aimed at one of the things that makes education complete:

The context for all those marketable skills.

The Liberal Arts were developed by the ancient Greeks to be the foundation of a good education and they have slowly expanded since the Classical Era from rhetoric, grammar and logic to also include mathematics, geometry, music, literature, languages, philosophy, history, psychology, and science. The argument goes that a student who is versed in these areas will have both the skills necessary to be a productive citizen as well as the context necessary to know how, why, and where to best apply those skills to better themselves and the world.

And for those who do not want such things as art and music cluttering up their money-making, we have always had vocational, technical and professional schools instead. UEI will charge you just as much and they won't make you take anything fun.

But now, just as with K-12 education in this country, there is a direct and powerful assault on the liberal arts by those who would see our education system reducted to a Soviet gulag of marketable skills. Mead and others like him argue that any study that is not directly tethered to a vocation, to a profession or to a technical skill is a waste of time and money -- a dalliance that will distract and destroy the pupil. They envision a world where the educational mission is reduced to a metric of simple employability, saving no room for those who crave more.

Mead specifically sites one specific sort of student who should studiously avoid taking "fluff" classes -- a student who has taken out loans. His argument seems to be that, instead of re-investing in our post-secondary schools as a nation so we can provide a holistic education to all comers, we should solely reserve the fun classes for those whose parents are wealthy enough to let their children enjoy learning.

The enjoyment of learning, it seems, is a perk of privilege.

At Bard College, where Mr. Mead sits high on his endowed chair, there are classes in "The History of Cinema; The Silent Era", and "American Popular Song" that I am sure he is actively attempting to get means tested so that poorer students are disallowed. After all, to let them take such courses would be "financial fraud"

By his own argument, I would think that Mr. Mead himself shouldn't have earned that BA in English Literature -- we all know that lit majors don't get jobs.

But the fact is that they do. And so do anthropology majors and history majors and music majors. Oddly, psychology and geography majors are the most employable and IT majors are the least. Most companies would rather have a literate thinker than a technician. I have two friends who are highly successful in IT. One was a music major. The other majored in journalism. They could think, communicate and learn which means that they have stayed relevant into their forties.

What's really sad about it all is that these days high school sucks. The last thirty years of banshee wails about our "Nation at Risk," coupled with reductions in school funding and the emergence of high-stakes testing have led to the steady scraping of "chaff" from our curriculum. We have lost woodshop, creative writing, auto shop, home economics, visual arts, music classes, and drama all over the country.

I see transcripts every day from students entering our program and it is rare that I see a class that isn't directly tied to a state requirement or the mandates of No Child Left Behind. "Read 180," "Math Intervention," and "CaHSEE Support" have choked out everything else.

And it seems that if the Meads of the world have their way, college will be just like high school.

On some level, I know that Mr. Mead understands that we cannot survive in a world where there are only engineers. He himself once saw the utility of courses in the Romantics and chose seminars on Pindar over Applied Physics. I'm sure at the time he understood that we did not create civilization in order to limit ourselves to marketable skills, that instead the glory of civilization is that we are able to spend our time pursuing our interests, not just meeting our needs.

And I'm sure that if he thought about it, he would see that the ones who most desperately need to indulge their curiousities are the very students he and others would preclude from the opportunity to do so. Being poor is already its own punishment -- there's no need to make it worse.

So shame on you, Mr. Mead. You owe Vanessa an apology and maybe you should audit that class on silent film so you can remember what it's really all about.


  1. Thanks so much for this response, Constantine! I agree with you completely that "fun" courses are a wonderful supplement for any education and that learning should be more than a march toward high standardized test scores. Just because a class doesn't have an immediate practical application doesn't mean it isn't useful. To reference my original article, if a class about pirates gets students engaged with history or a class about burlesque teaches someone something about feminism, then those classes are useful. Interesting course titles and descriptions can draw students in to study something they wouldn't have chosen to otherwise: I'm sure Harvard's class about "The Wire" and urban inequality includes plenty of literature about socioeconomic class that many students would have never been exposed to had the class been called "Study of Urban Inequality." The wacky, interesting classes I pointed out, for the most part, used some kind of fun gimmick to facilitate a deeper understanding of a more serious subject and as a door into a subject. I wish "fun" didn't have to be interpreted as the opposite of "marketable skills."

    Plus, Mead seems to have missed a big point in his article: classes like these wouldn't comprise an entire college career. In order to take a lot of the classes I mentioned, there were extensive prerequisites and the classes were clearly put in context of certain majors (one or two were even half-credit courses). Puppetry, for instance, was a theater-arts course; puppetry very well may be a "marketable skill" for a theater major. Most people take "fun" classes a few times in a career of requirements (my liberal arts college had plenty of requirements, including logical reasoning, science and foreign language), not for every credit.

    I have to add: on a recent job interview, I was told that the fact that I listed "fluent in social media" on my resume was a big reason they had me in. Facebooking, Tweeting and blogging aren't traditional "marketable skills" but I'll be many businesses want you to have want them.

  2. Bravo! I also thought Walter was an uptight jerk who needed to remove a stick from his rear! Not every piece of writing needs to be a somber piece of prose, there is value in entertainment as well! I majored in rhetoric in college, and have gone on to not only be a journalist, but a research analyst working with low-income seniors and people with disabilities, and have been gainfully employed since college while others I know are laid off or work retail. To love liberal arts is to love the world for all it has to offer.