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Liberal Arts in a Time of Crisis

By April 22, 2011January 24th, 2018Presentation: Other, Presentations, Vita


Originally uploaded by cplong11
STATE COLLEGE, PA – These remarks were delivered at the 2011 Symposium of the Center for American Literary Studies: Crisis? Whose Crisis? What Crisis?

Imagine that you are a graduate student in Philosophy writing a dissertation on Plato in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and you met a visiting professor from Egypt; let’s call him “Theuth.” And Theuth came to you and said: “I have discovered a new art of writing; one that will make it possible for you to simultaneously co-author a document with your students about the Platonic dialogues you are teaching.” 

Let us imagine further, that Theuth explained his new technology this way: “This living document is structured in such a way that you and your students can comment on what you are writing together. It allows you to tag the things you write with multiple terms so you can actually watch themes arise organically in the course as you and your students write reflectively about the dialogues.” 
And then imagine that he began to get very excited and said, almost in a whisper: “The best part of this new art of writing, the aspect that makes it most wonderful and compelling, is that it can be made public in such a way that anyone, anytime, from anywhere can read and respond to it.” 
How would you respond? 
Would you say to Theuth: “as the father of this new technology, you have too much affection for it and you fail to see the damage this sort of exposure to the public will do to these young, impressionable minds; you fail to recognize that young people are not prepared to determine for themselves what is important or interesting or compelling about these ancient texts. And besides, it will kill our students’ capacities to concentrate and contemplate.” 
And let’s imagine yet further, that Theuth was so deflated by this that he returned to Egypt and hid his technology away and that you went on teaching as you were taught, lecturing, encouraging students to focus, concentrate and reproduce on exams and papers the wonderful things they heard from you, which they submitted dutifully–and privately–to you as the authority on the topic. 
Suppose, however, that one day, Theuth’s technology was discovered and put into the hands of students, and that some faculty had wind of this and were beginning to find ways to use it to empower students to write reflectively and dynamically on all conceivable subjects. Imagine that you have in the meantime become an established faculty member, a respected authority in your field. 
This would be the crisis you then faced: the intellectual and ethical capacities you have developed over the course of your career, the very abilities that made you the success that you are, no longer provide traction in a new, more dynamic world in which an unfathomable amount of information is always accessible, collaboration is the main way to create meaning and writing is instantly public to the widest extent imaginable
What I hope you can imagine feeling on a personal level–overwhelmed, dismissive, defensive, and ill-equipped–is amplified and rendered acute when we move from imagination to the concrete realities of our educational institutions. For you see, whatever else this time of crisis involves, whatever the limits of our old funding models, whatever the challenges the liberal arts face from increasing professionalism, whatever budget cuts are announced, these all pale in comparison to the crisis brought on by the revolution in literacy new media technologies have introduced
How will we as faculty, as administrators, as institutions and, indeed, as human beings respond? 
The good news is that the core values of a liberal arts education have never been more important as we attempt to navigate this crisis in ways that might in fact enrich rather than impoverish our lives. The bad news, however, is that although we have long held the values of excellent communication, ethical imagination, global understanding, an openness to difference and responsiveness to change–we have in our teaching and in the structures of our institutions done less to cultivate the intellectual and ethical practices that underwrite these values.
Our teaching remains largely a matter of conveying information delivered by the authoritative expert who controls the discussion and assesses the value of the responses. Our scholarship–particularly in the Humanities–is pursued largely in isolation, made public–to the extent that it is–at small, intimate conferences and only after long periods of incubation. Our disciplines remain dependent on a model of authorship that measures success by the reputation of old media journals read rarely and when read, almost exclusively by isolated experts. Our institutions remain determined by a business model that rewards the adoption of practices that increase efficiency rather than the quality of the educational experiences of our students. 
And yet, our institutions have the capacity to adapt; they remain committed in principle at least to the core values of the liberal arts. Our disciplines have become porous and are beginning to reach out across boundaries to draw rich resources to and from one another. And our scholarship–especially in the Humanities–is able to reflect upon the limits of its practices, to criticize the calcified conceptions of authorship and authority on which we have come to rely and which have begun to dissolve. And in our teaching, we are learning to empower our students to take an active role in their own education, to become writers, podcasters, bloggers, videographers–makers of meaning in a new and multifaceted world. 
Imagine, then, if you were a graduate student studying Philosophy today and you found your students and a few colleagues, perhaps even a faculty member or two, using Theuth’s technologies–how would you respond? And more importantly, how will we as faculty, administrators, institutions and, indeed, as human beings respond to this revolution in literacy in ways that enrich the educated life? 
Cultivating the intellectual and ethical practices that enable us to do this should be the main focus of the liberal arts in this time of crisis.


  • dirkusa says:

    yes anxiety, anger (most don’t see the change as being principled and so feel sold-out/betrayed), and mourning, in my clinical practice and EAP work I hear these themes daily from academics, and other professionals, but have yet to see a systematic response from administrators that helps people to adapt the deep seated aspects of their work-identity to this new environs.
    Part of the problem seems to be that in any new effort no one is yet an expert/authority but we don’t yet have ways of organizing/acting as professionals without such standing.

  • SAM RICHARDS says:

    As I read this I’m struck by how clearly our future can be bright and sunny if we go WITH the changes and not fight AGAINST them. Thanks for the clarity of thought here.


    As a liberal arts person, I agree that we really have to look at the core of what a liberal arts education was focused on, rather than a cannon of “things to know”. That sort of essentialism is just not going to get us where we need to go. I also know that teaching in an institutional context (either higher ed or K-12) is deeply ingrained cultural practice it takes time to change things. It has always been true that the “next” generation interacts in new cultural ways, the speed of of change has reached the point where we are aware of it and can no longer ignore it. We need folks like you to push and make it clear that the culture is shifting and if we don’t want to make ourselves irrelevant we need to rethink some of our core practices. Thanks for leading.

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    Thanks, Scott, Sam and Dirk, for your comments here and your support. In delivering those remarks, there was some puzzlement on the part of at least one in the audience as to why I would advocate ceding faculty authority to students.
    Of course, I was advocating no such thing. I was, however, suggesting that we as faculty need to think about how to exercise our authority in ways that cultivate in our students (and ourselves) the habits of thinking, learning and interacting that will enrich our lives in a world in which information is ubiquitous, communication is constant and the world is increasingly interconnected.
    What are those habits?

  • Thanks for this, Chris. I found it very helpful. I am working on a conference presentation on the nature of authority in the classroom vs. in a blog. Since I am talking about my own blog–i.e., not a participatory blog attached to a specific course–the issues are different, but I still found it interesting to read your thoughts on the relationship between new technology and different pedogogical models. I am struggling a bit to decide whether my blog can create a new space, one that combines and draws on both teaching and writing. Hopefully writing this presentation will help me sort some of these issues out!

  • dikusa says:

    sorry about the 2x comment some technical difficulty that hopefully won’t happen again. Your question about what are the “habits” seems to me to be the central issue, we often tend to talk about thinking (or ‘critical’ thinking whatever that is) as separate/generalizable from practices (say ways of reading, writing, etc) but the academy rewards specific kinds of practices/performances and not thinking per say, so a couple of questions I guess; is there thinking apart from practices, and if so can it be taught?
    This is likely a major overhaul of higher-ed we are talking about and not a few workshops on technology use in addition to the traditional grad school approaches, and so there will be much resistance to be managed.

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    @Dirk, I removed the double comment, so no problem.
    Let me try to respond to at least one of your points. There is no thinking apart of practicing, thinking is a kind of practice, practices always involve ways of thinking.
    The widespread presumption that there is a strict dichotomy between the theoretical and the practical inhibits attempts to transform our educational institutions and practices. Theorizing our practices and practicing our theories are both required if we are going to respond effectively as individuals and as institutions to the crisis in literacy we face.
    The resistance and skepticism I often face as I try to put my scholarship into digital practice and reflect upon it has been revealing. For the most part, faculty at the institutions I visit look at what I am doing as odd, perhaps slightly naive and misguided, but ultimately as tangential to what is of central concern to them.
    I also try to have fun with it, taking pictures, recording conversations, checking people in on Foursquare and Facebook, tweeting things I find valuable, interesting, whimsical … when you adopt a playful attitude to these things, it opens up possibilities for conversations that might not otherwise happen.
    In some of those conversations, I encounter people who recognize that something very important is happening. Those are the people with whom I want to connect; for those are the people who will theorize and practice the new media literacy.


    I like how you talk about the relationship between theory and practice. It resonates with my experience and how I organize my research and practice life. Here is a quote I use regularly to describe my research that I am sure will resonate with you:
    “[D]esign research has the potential to bridge the gap between theory and practice, as domain-specific instruction theory can be categorized as episteme and microdidactic theories as phronesis. In design research, scientific knowledge is grounded in practical wisdom while simultaneously providing heuristics that can strengthen practical wisdom.” – Gravemeijer & Cobb (2006), Design research from a learning design perspective
    I think we would advance education tremendously to take such an integrated and dialectic view of what we do as faculty members. Nice to see someone outside of my college saying the same thing.

  • dirkusa says:

    “In some of those conversations, I encounter people who recognize that something very important is happening. Those are the people with whom I want to connect; for those are the people who will theorize and practice the new media literacy.”
    this is key I think, one of the important things that I learned from Rorty’s reading of Kuhn is that these paradigm shifts are largely generational in nature and not some conversion of the powers that be, so making connections and building the new is more useful/effective than trying to convince people that their faith convictions are wrong. This goes against much of the post 60’s consciousness-raising rhetoric/hubris of many academics on the Left but should be incorporated not just at the administrative level (in terms of hiring, promotion, and curriculum review) but also in terms of classroom pedagogical practices/planning. These are among the skills/values that students should be immersed in.

  • Anne Schultz says:

    Hi Chris, great post. I wonder if Theuth was the demon visiting Nietzsche in the night. I think you are right in that we need to get over seeing technology as a heavy weight and start viewing its liberatory potential for the future of the liberal arts.
    I’ve been working on a paper that sees the Protagoras as a call for philosophers (and academics more broadly) to enter the public sphere of discourse more than they do.
    Here’s the current conclusion.. Philosophers and other academics should engage more directly in the public sphere. We should not cede the discourse of the public sphere to our contemporary sophists, to sound bites from the media and streams from Twitter. We must compete in the open marketplace of ideas as in order to improve the level of public discourse. What might this engagement look like? The coffee shop conversations sponsored by the Socrates Café: Blogs that bring issues of academic discourse into every day life concerns, (I mention your blog here) Academics should write opinion pieces in local papers and offer study groups at local churches and other community groups. Gretchen Rubin’s book and blog, The Happiness Project, is a clear example of how much average americans are seeking for answers that philosophers have addressed for centuries. So, too the Philosophy Works organization based in New York City, which offers for profit philosophy classes, online study groups, along with free philosophical quotes of the day. Why not bring the conversation out of the gates of academe and into the gardens of public discourse.

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    @Scott: I love the idea of design research and have been thinking much more deeply about the role of design in my own thinking and scholarship. We have many instructional designers at Penn State, and I think we need to have more faculty thinking and practicing educational design, which would include pedagogy and research both.
    Thank you for your conscientious work on this in the College of Ed, because we need this work to be rooted in strong scholarship in education that recognizes the extent to which theory and practice are intertwined.
    Perhaps we should try to write something together on it…

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    @Anne: As we discussed at the Ancient Philosophy Society, the degree to which faculty seem unaffected by and unconcerned with the revolution in literacy we are experiencing is striking and more than a little distressing. For the most part, when faculty engage the question of new media technology, it is to criticize the technologies for perverting the cognitive and social capacities of our youth.
    I think your call for a new form of public philosophy is important and that digital media can play an important role in this. I am working on a proposal for a panel at the Public Philosophy Network conference in October on how we might perform philosophy in public using digital media. Check out the PPN here:
    The panel will include a graduate student here at Penn State, Cori Wong, who is doing some very interesting things on YouTube:

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