by Hirsch Perlman
Now that classes at U.S. colleges and universities are well under way and we're closing in on election day, this is a good time for college students, faculty, and campus communities as a whole to remind ourselves what's at stake in November.
November could bring a real opportunity to re-instill the values of the humanities and a liberal arts education, thanks to Bernie Sanders bringing free tuition at public universities and student debt refinancing to the Clinton campaign platform. The differences couldn't be starker— the promise of tuition-free public universities vs. humanities-free Trumpenstein universities. Humanities students across the country will need to make themselves heard in the 2016 election if they want to ensure we don't see the dystopia of humanities free universities.
The recently announced bankruptcy of I.T.T. Technical Institutes after losing access to federal student loans seems to reach back to a moment early in the presidential campaign when Senator Marco Rubio took a swipe at the humanities in an unctuous call for more welders, i.e. a useful trade, and fewer philosophers (4th republican debate, Nov. 10 2015).
The false dichotomy of “useful vs. useless” areas of study haunts the backbreaking debt students now typically carry. If unprecedented tuition hikes of the last eight years weren't burden enough, there are now thousands of victims of deceptive recruitment strategies and predatory lending. For-profit trade-schools like University of Phoenix and Devry University are under increased scrutiny (maybe not enough). And others like Corinthian Colleges, I.T.T., and, yes, Trump University, have thankfully shut down.
Let's also remember that Philosophers indeed make more money than welders (as Alan Rappeport was quick to correct, NYTimes, November 12, “Philosophers Say View Of Their Skills Is Dated”). But these battle lines aren't all quantifiable and not everyone would agree that increased earning power is the most important promise of a college degree. Senator Rubio's comment still hit its anti-intellectual mark. Students and voters who already think we undoubtedly need welders (i.e. jobs) but decidedly do not need philosophers (i.e. elites), will be further outraged that public universities are squandering resources by supporting Philosophy departments.
Needless to say there is no science and technology without the principals of the humanities. We wouldn't have melted metal without the help of countless mixed metaphors. We know Senator Rubio is using false economics to wield philistine values, but he is also perpetuating a false division between doing and thinking, action and mentality, utility and information, stuff and metaphors— divisions that wrongly value science, technology, and capitalism above the humanities.
In his 2014 book, The Meaning of Human Existence, biologist and author E.O. Wilson laments that since the Enlightenment, science and the humanities have gone their separate ways. And now, he says,
Studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education.
the early stages of a creative thought, the ones that count, do not arise from jigsaw puzzles of specialization. The most successful scientist thinks like a poet, wide ranging, sometimes fantastical— and works like a bookkeeper. It is the latter role that the world sees.
the exact opposite is the case in poetry and the other creative arts. There metaphor is everything.
What Senator Rubio doesn't see is that the Humanities aren't optional. They're built into the R&D that propels scientific discoveries and new technology. They're us.
And there are consequences to perpetuating divisive values or false boundaries between doing and thinking. In the words of David Gooding, who was Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Bath, and whose primary object of study was thought experiments,
The moral for philosophy of science of the interdependence of thought and action (or of theory and experiment) is that when you ignore one, you end up with a false view of the other and therefore, with false problems of empirical access, representation, meaning, and realism. (Gooding, Cognitive Models of Science, p. 72)
One example of a fundamental, yet false distinction we've held for centuries, is between mind and body. The humanities and the sciences are becoming increasingly inseparable as a revolution in the understanding of the brain unfolds over the 21st century. “Mind” can no longer be considered apart from neuroscience, brain chemistry, evolutionary psychology, animal behavior— any less than “mind” can be considered apart from the specifically human capacity for tool making, picture making, storytelling, welding and philosophizing. Neuroscience will have a lot to say about what the brain is doing when it's philosophizing— adding new recursive dimensions to the theorizing and philosophizing that neuroscience will then have still more to say about— adding new recursive dimensions to the theorizing, etc., etc.
Consciousness is constantly juggling symbols from sensory input. We can't help but ascribe motives and moral values, even to simple geometry. You've likely seen the Heider-Simmel experiment from 1944 where, in a simple animation of two triangles a circle and a box, a drama unfolds. Not only do we have no trouble projecting an inner life on those stupid shapes, we couldn't stop doing it if we tried. In fact, the symbol manipulation we each do internally has a physical reality. That process of making meaning with metaphors has a physical effect on the brain and body and visa versa.
Biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky says when you think of something shameful you are stimulating the same part of your brain that physical disgust inhabits. If you are holding a warm drink right now you are more likely to have warm feelings towards this essay, and the converse for icy drinks. If you have something heavy in your lap now, you're more likely to consider these ideas weighty. Sapolsky says, “This neural confusion about the literal versus the metaphorical gives symbols enormous power, including the power to make peace. (“This is Your Brain On Metaphors,” NYTimes, Nov. 14, 2010).
Our conflation of the literal and the metaphorical has, on occasion carried that symbolic power to major consequences. Consider the terra cotta army from 210 B.C.E. China; it took a few hundred years for Confucius' arguments against the sometimes practiced mass live burials of the emperor's court, servants, and soldiers to convince an emperor to have a terra cotta army buried in its stead. Confucius argued that while people must eventually turn to dust, a terra cotta army would protect the emperor forever. Which isn't to say that Emperor Qin Shi Huang was by any means a humanitarian— he also had hundreds of scholars buried alive, Confucian scholars among them.
An equally powerful instance: the Moai, those giant head sculptures of Easter Island, destroyed rather than saved a population. The one hundred ton heads were quarried from the middle of the island and were likely moved to the shores with the help of timber from trees. Pre Moai, the island was 80% forest. Post Moai, no forest, and almost no people. The Rapa Nui seem to have completely exhausted their resources building and moving Moai.
These are dramatic examples from long ago, but just think of the symbolic meaning embodied now when an athlete chooses to kneel during the national anthem, or when at a Trump rally, at the candidate's request, supporters all raised their right hands pledging their vote.
Or, from my haptic, artist's perspective, when I'm squaring up a block of wood in my workshop, I consider the metaphor that I'm enacting— ordering, controlling, abstracting while projecting what's next. Simply squaring a block of wood turns out to be a set of warm up metaphors, towards a meaning that I likely don't yet have in mind.
Building stuff, valuing and debating metaphors and meaning is what makes us human. If we do away with areas of study where the utility or meaning, let alone the path to the paycheck, isn't always obvious then higher education is doomed to further divide doing from thinking, making things from making metaphors. That dystopia will certainly curtail creativity, innovation, and the kind of far reaching problem solving humans will need to survive.
In fact, it's so easy to invoke consequential, existential mind/body metaphors that it feels alarmingly nonchalant; as long as my head is in the clouds, I'll never see, let alone shrink my carbon footprint. Symbols and metaphors matter, maybe especially mind/body metaphors.
Every humanities student's first predicament; to what (and how) do you want to direct your attention? The infinite freedom artists in particular have in a democratic secular society to choose where and how they direct their attention necessarily renders every single artwork an index of what the artist declared worthy of their attention; a proposal of what the artist thinks art ought to be, deliberate or not, conscious or not.
Likewise, all the humanities are necessarily aspirational. Every humanities student asks themselves; what is it that I want to attend to, that gets my attention, that I already embody?
That first predicament of to what or how to direct one's attention begins the feedback loop and collapse of doing and thinking. This is where students first experience themselves as meaning-makers.
These days, in art, anything goes. The openness of this first predicament has definitively pushed Art in the 21st century to be inter and trans disciplinary to a degree that should be astounding to researchers in all other fields. That might sound like both a brag and a diss. While the intellectual openness of art— and by extension, the rest of the humanities— makes for a lot of room to be misunderstood. It's that same open landscape that insists on asking big questions about purpose and meaning over and over and again. There's a lot of room to critique, resist, play, and aspire.
Art is part of a politics of refusal. What is gratifying about the politics of art and counterculture is that we get to live our resistance now through play, beauty, laughter, and the promise of happiness. Through art we learn what we want. We learn what we mean by “freedom.” And we are inoculated against not only the techno-capitalist present but against the disappointments of the “perfected” socialist state. (Curtis White, We, Robots; Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, 2015, p.6)
Let this be a reminder to students (and their reticent parents) of the extraordinary value of a liberal arts degree. In my department, students may not be leaving with ready-for-industry welding skills— but they are leaving with substantial abilities towards six, eight or twelve marketable skills, including welding. They are graduating as flexible, curious, critical thinkers and makers— with a head start in putting thought and action together meaningfully, resourcefully, and most of all— creatively.
In the spirit of maintaining a place in higher education where the consequences of being misunderstood are low and the mandate to play is high, I propose a new humanities department— where philosophizing welders meet welding philosophers— and their distinction evaporates. I have no idea what to call this department, but I have a few course outlines:
Welders waging Philosophy!
Welders' Wages/Philosophers' Wages; Philosophical Wages, and Philosophical Welding.
Philosophers who weld. Philosophizing “welding?” Welding a philosophy? Welded Philosophies Waged!
Clearly, this needs more work. I'll call on the hundreds of young adults I know who have welding and philosophizing skills. They're called Art majors and they'll have a lot to say on the subject.
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Hirsch Perlman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Art at UCLA.