The Purpose of the Liberal Arts is Purpose

One more attempt to explain the inexplicable value of the liberal arts, and especially of the humanities, through metaphor. This one came to me last Tuesday and Wednesday, as I taught my World War II students about the end of the war in Europe. Like all such metaphors, it’s meant for musing. I almost hope I’m wrong — it would make it easier to explain and justify what I do if I were.

Ken Burns, The WarIn its final episode, “A World Without War,” Ken Burns’ The War arrives at the Allied liberation of concentration camps in the Third Reich. This chapter is introduced by an emotional interview with Paul Fussell, a young infantry officer who survived the war to become a leading literary scholar. (His The Great War and Modern Memory remains one of the defining cultural histories of World War I.) Fussell recalled Dwight Eisenhower’s general order on D-Day, which described the invasion of Europe as a “great crusade”:

Now at first none of us could believe it was anything like a crusade because we were playing dice and we were thinking about girls all the time and getting as drunk as possible and so forth. It wasn’t like a crusade; there was no religious dimension to it whatever.

When they finally got across France and into Germany and saw the German death camps…

At this point Fussell loses composure and pauses several seconds before continuing:

They realized… that they had… been engaged in something like a crusade, although none of them called it that. And it all began to make a kind of sense to us. I’m not sure that made it any better; it may have made it worse, to see that it was actually conducted in defense of some noble idea.

In my World War II class, I tried to communicate that same sort of realization via a clip from the ninth episode of the HBO series, Band of Brothers. Near the end of the war, the paratroopers of Easy Company stumble across a subcamp of the Dachau complex, in Landsberg:

The episode borrows its title from a famous series of propaganda films made by Frank Capra, Why We Fight. It’s an apt choice: the moment these soldiers — some, like the world-weary intelligence officer Nixon, increasingly cynical about the “good war” — enter the concentration camp, they realize that they were on something like a crusade. They had risked their lives in defense of something like a noble idea.

In short, they learned their purpose. And I think that that story of war has implications for something else that young Americans tend to do at the age of the “Band of Brothers”: higher education.

*     *     *     *     *

Dan EdelsteinPurpose, according to Stanford professor Dan Edelstein, is at the heart of the humanities. Writing last week in Inside Higher Ed, he acknowledged the pressure on such programs to justify themselves and the resulting temptation to resort “to more straightforward, utilitarian defenses — “but employers say they like English majors!” — which, while true, don’t capture the authentic spirit that moves the humanities student.”

In the end, he argues, such defenses are worse than futile:

And by constantly putting our most productive foot forward, we may unintentionally end up selling ourselves short (disclosure: I, too, have sinned). The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking. It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose. (emphasis added)

…Yes, students and parents are worried about employment prospects. But what parents don’t also want their child to lead a meaningful life? We are betraying our students if, as a society, we do not tell them that purpose is what ultimately makes a life well-lived.

Now, in the paragraphs replaced by that ellipsis, Edelstein develops the argument that “meaning isn’t something we receive from the outside, from others, but that it always must come from within us, from our conscious, deliberative choices….” Without entirely rejecting the language of calling, or the possibility of a God existing to place such calls on our lives, he follows Jean-Paul Sartre in arguing that “even believers must recognize that they ultimately are the ones responsible for the production of meaning (in fact, many early existentialists were Christians). Abraham had to decide for himself whether the angel who commanded him to halt his sacrifice was genuinely a divine messenger…. While it may feel as though a humanities vocation is a calling, you still have to decide to answer the call.”

Fair enough, but I think one reason I found myself so drawn to the Allied troops’ discovery of the concentration camps as a metaphor for the liberal arts is that those troops played almost no role in the discovery of their purpose. (I suppose they had to decide to believe their eyes rather than protecting themselves by crawling into a dream world…) What the story of Fussell and Easy Company suggests is that there’s an enormous gap between motivations and intentions — even as they’re refined by experience — and purpose.

1942 recruiting poster for the U.S. Army
U.S. Army recruiting poster, 1942 – Northwestern University Library

Wartime studies by social scientists employed by the military found that only a minority of American troops explained their participation by allusion to grand ideals like Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” To the extent that they freely chose to participate (most were drafted), they most often did so because the military promised a job (coming out of the Great Depression), because they sought to protect their families and country, or to take vengeance, or simply because they were caught up in something like a riptide of collective exuberance that was almost impossible to resist. (This is the argument of literature scholar Samuel Hynes, a Marine pilot from Minneapolis quoted early and often by Burns.) Even as they saw combat, the evidence suggests that most G.I.’s grew less idealistic about their participation; above all else, they desired to survive, and — failing that — to enjoy whatever time they had left. (Fussell: “…we were playing dice and we were thinking about girls all the time and getting as drunk as possible….”)

Almost no American soldier entered World War II with the goal of saving the Jews and other groups from German persecution. And yet, in some profound way, that was their purpose.

While we should hesitate to draw close comparisons between something like studying French literature and the liberation of a concentration camp, the metaphor does seem to suggest that young college students should reconsider how they approach their education.

Above all, it helps us realize that the terrible temptation of an instrumental approach — the one that leads almost one in three college students to select a major that doesn’t interest them — is that it deceives young people into thinking that higher education is something to be planned, rather than something to be experienced. They imagine that the outcomes will somehow align with the intention, which is unlikely if only because people change so greatly between the ages of 18 to 24, part of the life stage that psychologist Jeffrey Arnett calls “emerging adulthood.” Among other things, Arnett calls this time of life the “Age of Instability,” when the “Plan with a capital p” that they thought they were supposed to have as adults is “subject to numerous revisions” as emerging adults explore identity (and grapple with a changing economy).

Opting for a liberal arts education — and particularly for the concentrated study of something as seemingly useless as a field in the humanities — requires a kind of yieldedness that is rare in our culture: a willingness to explore without knowing the destination, to wrestle with ambiguity and complexity along the way, and, ultimately, to discern a purpose that is beyond one’s control.

None of that is easy, nor should it be. And here again, I think the WWII metaphor is a helpful one. Reiterating that there is nothing about the average liberal arts education that produces anything remotely like the peril or pain experienced by a frontline combat soldier (or a victim of the Holocaust)… The liberal arts does lead to a kind of (existential) suffering. Biases are exposed, assumptions are questioned, values are challenged… Things fall apart.

Moreover, whether it’s in the history of the Holocaust or something far less obviously horrific, I do suspect that most of us in the humanities will find our purpose as our studies take us into the midst of others’ suffering — and in reflecting on how we contribute to it. For if Frederick Buechner is right that our calling is to be found at the intersection of our deepest joy and the world’s deepest need, we should expect that following our passion into a field like history will confront us with the reality that the world is not as it should be, but can be made better — if only people like us would participate in that remedy.

3 thoughts on “The Purpose of the Liberal Arts is Purpose

  1. Excellent post. Had no idea how you would draw the connection between the “Band of Brothers” clip and Liberal Arts without offending me (I am a Veteran). You successfully did it (and I sigh relief).

    As I watched that clip I had a different thought. Every now and then we stumble upon a truly useful purpose for war. How many would have died if no one was willing to fight? As I tend to lean more pacifistic these days, this brought me back to a healthier balance.

    Thank you!

  2. “[W]e should expect that following our passion into a field like history will confront us with the reality that the world is not as it should be, but can be made better — if only people like us would participate in that remedy.” Love it.

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