At an academic panel in Atlanta on the morning of the Virginia-Auburn bowl game, an alumnus posed a question that has been posed many times, and with increasing frequency: Given all the national emphasis on the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), what did I think was the prospect for the liberal arts at the University of Virginia?
The short answer to the question is simple: ours is the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and we produce more STEM majors than any school in the University. One third of all students in the College graduate with majors (either single or double) in the sciences. This includes Psychology, which at U.Va. tends to be heavily experimental and neuroscience-oriented.
This liberal arts tradition has a long and venerable pedigree, going back hundreds of years. The medieval concept of the artes liberalis counted seven areas of requisite learning for a “free man” (the Latin liber meaning “free”) with three arts focusing largely on facility with language—grammar, oratory, and logic—and four that are broadly mathematical—geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy.
One of the best modern examples of this venerable tradition is the liberal arts curriculum built around the Great Books, those considered the sine qua non for every educated person, as famously advocated at the University of Chicago from the 1930s onward. They were to be taught in small class settings, using primary or original materials, with give-and-take discussions rather than lectures, almost always on interdisciplinary subjects. While elsewhere the structure of the undergraduate curriculum nationally has oscillated back and forth like a metronome between the importance of requirements versus electives, Chicago still mandates two years of required courses for freshmen and sophomores. At Virginia the liberal arts remain a comprehensive curriculum that privileges the study of the arts and sciences, while continuing to differentiate itself from artes illiberalis or artes mechanicae, training in technical or vocational skills.
Yet, that still does not answer the question that our alumnus posed in Atlanta. When all is said and done, I don’t think proponents of the liberal arts have done a good job articulating the mission of artes liberalis. Part of the problem is that the value of the intelligence that the liberal arts seek to foster is largely immeasurable and unquantifiable. If one agreed that the liberal arts are aimed at creating a “free man” (whoever this person is), what kind of intelligence characterizes him? What is he or she qualified to do with this intelligence?
These questions are particularly vexing in our country. The American public has never been comfortable with the notion of the life of the mind as a virtue in and of itself. The sociologist Richard Hofstadter in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, placed resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind (as well as the disposition to minimize its value) at the core of the American character. The distrust of the intellectual is the obverse of the American tendency to celebrate practical success. Looked at this way, anxiety about the liberal arts is nothing new; it is a recurring problem in American life.
At the core of this tension, Hofstadter argued, is the different place reserved in the American imagination for what he calls intellect on the one hand, and intelligence on the other. He defines intellect as the “critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind,” that constantly “examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, [and] imagines.” Intelligence, on the other hand, “seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, and adjust,” and will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Americans have long admired the traits of intelligence, but showed ambivalence toward intellect. An innovator like Henry Ford would be a good example of applied intelligence, even if his intellect left something to be desired. Steve Jobs is a more recent example: a brilliant innovator, knowing what consumers would want before the product even existed, and then designing those products with great style and panache. But in all the deserved encomiums to him after he passed away, few put their finger on lasting ideas that might define his intellect, or the contemplative side of his mind, a mélange of Eastern and Western ideas typical of so many of his generation.
This distinction between intellect and intelligence is interesting, and it goes a long way to explain the complexity of American attitudes and the fluctuations in the public’s relationship with the academy—and, in particular, the liberal arts. The American public might silently, sometimes grudgingly, admire intellect for its learned dignity, but may be all too quick to poke fun at “the eggheads,” as they were called in Hofstadter’s time.
The College of Arts and Sciences, more than any other unit in the University, is a place where intellect and intelligence commingle in a complex ebb and flow. Even Thomas Jefferson, duly renowned for both his intellect and his intelligence, would fluctuate in his estimation of the scholar versus the common man. In a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, he wrote in 1787: “State a moral case to a plough man and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” The “artificial rules” might suggest not ideas but abstruse dogma, whereas the plough man’s ideas are, perhaps, rules of thumb that an intellectual would not recognize. Jefferson’s felicitous expression “the useful science” suggests that he did not see the two approaches as mutually exclusive.
A similar call for combining the intellect and the intelligence was made in 1837 by Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar,” an essay often thought to be America’s intellectual Declaration of Independence. The education of the scholar was not through books alone, he said, but through the resources we have inherited from our childhood—and through the influence upon the mind of nature: “Everyday, the sun: and after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Everyday, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men who this spectacle most engages. . . . The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other.” In the right state, he is, “Man Thinking,” and in the degenerate state, he becomes a “mere thinker.” “Man Thinking” is the human in his environment; the “mere thinker” contemplates the world from his study, rarely leaving it.
How do we create this “right state,” such that the American scholar is “Man Thinking,” reflecting the best mix of intellect and intelligence? One important factor is something that seems far removed from both intellect and intelligence: money. Lionel Trilling observed that in many civilizations there comes a point when wealth prefers the rule and company of mind and imagination. And he went on to compare intellect with money—both circulate and change, the value placed on both fluctuates (sometimes radically), both are conceptually hard to define, both are fluent and fluid. For Trilling, intellect and money are not simply similar, they are symbiotic: “money finds that it needs intellect, just as intellect finds that it needs money.” But, he suggested, the relationship between money and intellect may be hard to fathom; they may be unaware of each other and their similarities, making it easy for an opposition to develop between them.
Please note: this equation of money and intellect is not a pitch for liberal arts fundraising. My point instead is that now is one of those times when the money and the intellect may be finding themselves in opposition. Good business practices and the argot of economics are as influential in academe as they have ever been, with a huge increase in the number of administrators and much self-examination about efficiency and productivity in both teaching and scholarship. These are important concerns, but it is also well worth remembering that the best teaching and scholarship produce, first and foremost, both intellect and intelligence.
My money is still on the liberal arts. Somehow in a country privileging knowledge—and increasingly, information—that is practical, utilitarian, and instrumental, the American intellect that Emerson exalted continues to survive and even flourish.