Letter: Liberal arts not meant to be useful

What a unpleasantly utilitarian odor the April 1 technology column (“Tech. requirement would enhance Yale education”) has — suggesting for the second time in a month in the News that the liberal arts are “utilitarian,” i.e. “useful.”

The liberal arts are designed to help people think — not to train them for “useful careers.”

John Ciardi, the late great Dante scholar, defines an intellectual as “someone capable of being excited by ideas.” Yeats said, “Education is about catching fire.”

Put the two together and you have the kindling for a liberal arts education.

Remember, it was a 1940s Yale president, A. Whitney Griswold, who in a single, dramatic stroke of thinking abolished Yale’s graduate department of education, saying, “It is not necessary to teach teachers how to teach.”

Had the country followed suit 50 years ago, America would not have developed the treadmill of information delivery systems called public education which suffocates thinking today. Instead, our classrooms would have been conducted by exponents of the liberal arts.

Down with utilitarianism. Set fires.

Paul Keane

White River Junction, Vt.

April 1

The writer is a 1980 graduate of the Yale Divinity School.


  • Anonymous

    "The liberal arts are designed to help people think — not to train them for 'useful careers.'"

    It ought to go with out saying that helping people think (well) *is* part of training them for 'useful careers'.

  • J. Stuart Mill

    The liberal arts should help them find fulfilling careers--not useful careers. There's enough drudgery in the world already.

  • George Patsourakos

    George Patsourakos
    I believe a liberal arts education provides the best well-rounded education a college undergraduate can receive. A liberal arts education provides knowledge to students in a wide variety of subjects -- foreign languages, psychology, political science, journalism, sociology, and many other areas. Some of these areas help students to obtain a job in a specific profession. For example, upon graduating, a journalism major would more likely receive a job writing for a newspaper or magazine than a graduate without journalism courses. As a college of liberal arts graduate, I have noticed that students who graduated from other colleges -- such as business or engineering -- know their subject major well and can apply it to their jobs, but they usually lack depth in their knowledge and skills of interpersonal relationships and life in general!

  • Anonymous


    Another thing that ought to go without saying: "fulfilling careers" and "useful careers" are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  • Plato

    Not mutually exclusive but also not contingent. The trend at Yale seems to be to build and renovate grand architecture and then fill it with job seekers masquerading as Yale students. What happened to the world of ideas?

    Has Plato been replaced by a Personnel Director?

  • GRD '11

    "Plato," I'm sure many of these very bright and deserving Yale students--yes, even those interested in so-called "useful" careers--would be deeply offended by your characterization of them as mere "job seekers masquerading as Yale students." Just because this or that Yale student may be interested in professional success, that does not mean he or she cannot also cherish the "world of ideas." Indeed, many of them do. I know, because I teach them.

    I have had the luxury of a life in the arts and humanities, all to the purpose of living a life of the mind--a life in the "world of ideas," as it were. I assure you, that life is just as riddled with your "job seeking" and J. S. Mill's "drudgery" as any other.

  • Plato

    I apologize. I live hundreds of miles from campus. I can only go by what I see in the Daily News and in the publicaitons put out by the university. Seems pretty mercantile to me--with the exception of an occasional art student who gets into trouble for elevating for debate and public scrutiny society's dehumanization of reproductive functions (a debate instantly silenced by fear of the residual puritanism of alumni donors).

    Stanley Fish wrote an Op-Ed for the NYT last year lamenting the death of the liberal arts and with a "whew" of gratitude that he'd managed to make a career out of this little blip of history in which the liberal arts were valorized----just in time to watch them die.

    Doesn't it trouble you that you are at a funeral and nobody is weeping?

    Except possibly me?

  • Willy Loman

    What's really happened at Yale in the last 50 years is that legacy admisssions have beeen superceded by merit admissions---and since brains are egalitarian--the census has moved from the noblesse oblige moneyed Yalistocracy to the middle clas of BOTH genders. Since the middle class is obliged to worry about their pocketbooks, the concern for careers has increased. (Daddy ain'ta gonna give me a job when I graduate) The result is the trivialization ---or at least the diminishing --of the liberal arts.

    And so Willy Loman reigns: "You wind up worth more dead than alive."

    BTW--Arthur Miller was one of those "liberal arts" grads, I believe.

  • egalite

    Sounds like the liberal arts depended on the carefree rich to thrive. Egalitarianism valorizes utilitarianism?

  • sleeping in

    Playing the bells during Sunday brunch is an exercise in cruelty. Don't they know people have hangovers to sleep off?

  • GRD '11

    So far, we've had Plato, John Stuart Mill, and Willy Loman represented in these comments, all of which makes for a pretty interesting cross-cultural conversation.

    Willy, you seem to be lamenting the rise of merit-based admissions decisions over the past 50 or so years. Is it your view that the liberal arts should just be a game for the rich or the elite? (egalite seems to be asking a similar question.) If so, Arthur Miller's example strikes me as not a very apt one, since his family lost a great deal during the Depression and couldn't initially afford to go college. He certainly was no legacy admission; his parents were immigrants. Quite the opposite: Arthur Miller made it to college on merit.

    Plato, it seems to me that people have been sounding the death-knell of the liberal arts for some time now, though I wonder to what extent the rumors of its death have been exaggerated. But even if we take that view at face value, what we're really talking about is the way the academy has been responding to larger cultural changes. If you don't like the changes that are taking place, perhaps the discussion ought to be about the culture at large, and not the institution that is embedded within it. Perhaps the YDN and university publications (I assume this means something like alumni magazines?) present a vision of Yale that differs from the one you'd like to see, but on the other hand, they are also interested in particular kinds of audiences.

    All this discussion is fascinating--maybe Aristophanes, or Ben Franklin, or Machiavelli, or Thomas Aquinas will enter into the fray next?--I'd love to hear more.

  • Salvator Dali

    Maybe what I am lamenting is not the death of the liberal arts at all but the death of the interplay between the "Great Ideas" of the liberal arts with the "Great Equallity Struggles" of the last 40 years against the evil "isms" (racism, sexism, sexuality-ism, anti-semitism---all of which used to be institutionalized at Yale even in its eye-winking nose-in-the-sky Admissions Office).

    Now that the meritocracy has won those battles and the courts are instiutionalizing "all people are protected equally" as our creed, the conversation on campus seems so banal.

    What kind of job should I want? Will Yale train me for it? Can I use my Ipod at work? Waaa. Waaaa. Waaaa.

    The most refreshing and horrifying debate to happen at Yale in the last ten years was "aborted' (pardon the pun) when the community refused to visit the serious questions raised by the female art student's human-reproduction-as-art-medium scandal.

    Intellectual cowardice.


  • Anonymous


    Interesting. But maybe there's another problem at work here: could it be that the conversations you're interested in do in fact take place, but they take place in coffee shops, dorm rooms, and perhaps even in the classroom, rather than in more public vehicles like the YDN/Alum publications, etc.?

    The Aliza Shvarts affair seems like a good example--I agree that there were a lot of interesting questions that could have been raised about the issues she claimed she was interested in. (It’s not clear to me that the issues she was purporting to raise were raised effectively by her project, but that’s another issue altogether.) But I don’t think they weren’t raised. I think they were raised in venues other than the ones that are attached to Yale’s “public persona,” which is why you aren’t in the conversation. Put another way, I do think that some of those questions did get asked, but they may not have gotten as far as they could have, because there is no great distribution mechanism for them. (One of the places that these kinds of conversations do play out in a somewhat more public way is on comment threads and in blogs, but those come with other problems, like trolls and so on.)

    So maybe somebody should create a better forum for these kinds of discussions. Maybe you should, if these issues are important to you. (Seriously, why not?)

    One caveat though: if what you want is serious discussion, you probably won’t get very far if you simply mock Yale students as whiners and accuse them of intellectual cowardice.

  • Mary Shelley

    # 12

    I wondered whether I spelled Salvador incorrrectly. Hmmm.

    I wouldn't know how to create such a forum.You have brought me to my level of incompetence (remember The Peter )Principle?)

    The problem of being a gadfly is that you do offer more vinegar than sugar and attract fewer flies---if any.

    You are correct about the venue problem. One cannot expect the Yale Daily to subsist solely on a diet of Ms. Schvartz.

    But look at the Yale eminence grise in West Haven----an entire campus devoted to science---the nightmare world of which Ms. Schvartz was warning us all to avoid.

    The world of the arts will soon be a scrim covering the REAL Yale from public view------and the real Yale will be Dr. Frankenstein's lab out on I-91.

    And this time the Dr. will have an Ivy League pedigree.

  • Anonymous


    I'm not sure how to create such a forum either. I keep coming back to blogging as a possibly the simplest way. I understand they are not too difficult to put together these days (though I say this having never blogged myself). Those have problems, of course: they probably take a while to get momentum/attention, and you risk only getting people who share the same viewpoint on whatever issue--which probably makes for far less interesting conversation. (Or alternatively, you get sharply polarized opinions which can easily degenerate into mudslinging/personal attacks, etc., which makes for equally uninteresting conversation.) But you never know.

    So one way to characterize your concern about the West Haven campus seems to relate not just to Yale, but to the way our society engages with particular disciplines. One presumes, to offer a partial example, that if the government funded the arts and humanities as much as they fund scientific research, universities would build their campuses in quite a different way, because they would be responding to different incentives than they are now. That can lead many different layers of questions, about our culture, our economic system, our governments, the role of the arts, the role of the university, etc.

    Another way in could be to start with Aliza Shvarts: if what she wanted to do was to get us to ask certain questions, and if the controversy that her project created got in the way of that discussion, could she have done anything differently to get those questions asked in a more productive, public way? Who behaved badly/counterproductively during that scandal? The university administration? Faculty? Aliza Shvarts herself? Fox News? All of the above?

    (How's that for your first blog post?)

  • Eminence Grise

    A noble post.
    I just don't wish to be the Stokowski of a blog. Maybe the cymbalist.

    West campus is already a Richelieu of sorts

    Just imagine the first genetic Tiffany necklce to come out of there: "For only four million dollars you can have a baby with blue eyes, blond hair,Kennedy teeth and a Schwartzenegger (or Dolly Parton) physique. Brains will be thrown in free. This rerigerated, encapsulized
    super-formula will arrive in your mailbox in a beautiful Teal envelope" ---the Yale Blue of the new West Campus.

    Mein Kampf.

  • Corinthians 13

    Hopefully not a clanging cymbal.

  • 09yalie

    isn't the author's argument a little elitist? maybe we can celebrate the uselessness of the liberal arts because we have the luxury of indulging in it. we know that we'll never lack food or shelter, unlike most people on the planet.

  • Shanty Irish

    It would be elitist if the author had been a member of the elite. Author is plain lower middle class townie--never belonged to a country club or the Yale Club. Does not make over $62,000 a year and has no pending legacies. The only elite the author belongs to is the elite of the educated. To have ideas to think about is indeed an egalitarian obtainability.
    Food and shelter may disappear with the economy. Certainty may be smugness.

  • Anonymous

    Oh dear--let's be careful to avoid conflating certain things: you don't need to be a member of the educated elite, or of the economic elite, to proffer elitist *arguments* about the liberal arts. The defense that "it would be elitist if the author had been a member of the elite" seems to miss that distinction (i.e., being in the elite versus holding elitist views).

  • Job

    Is it an elitist view to argue that ideas ought to be enjoyed for their own value--not their utilitarian value? Is that too hokey a buddhist notion for an Ivy League wannabe job factory?

  • Anonymous

    "Is it an elitist view to argue that ideas ought to be enjoyed for their own value--not their utilitarian value?"

    It's not really clear whether you're genuinely interested in this question, or if you've made up your mind and are really just asking a rhetorical question (your first question leaves it open, but your second sounds like you're not really treating it like a legitimate question.)

    Let's treat it like a genuine question for now, and let's turn your question around: do you think it's inappropriate for a student, who comes from a non-elite economic background, and who perhaps has taken on substantial debt to get the finest education available, to be concerned about how this education will help him or her make his or her way in the world?

    Do you see how such a student might find your argument elitist?

    (The larger problem with the original letter's claim, "The liberal arts are designed to help people think — not to train them for 'useful careers,'" is that it creates a false dichotomy between learning how to refine the quality of their thinking and learning how to prepare for some kind of professional life. One benefit of a liberal arts education is that it helps you critique such dichotomies, even when they are involved in an ostensible defense of the liberal arts.)

  • Jay Gatz

    I agree it is a false dichotomy. I think somewhere in this back and forth I perhaps what I really miss is not the Great Ideas at all but the INTERPLAY of the Great Ideas with theGreat Battles of the last 60 years against the Evil Isms: racism, sexism; ant-semitism sexuality-ism. However this may be gatsby-esque nostalgia. "Of course you can repeat the past, Old Sport."

    Having come to that insight--I probably should have let it rest there.


    PS: There is still a danger in the metastatic mercantilization of Academia.

  • Anonymous

    OK--rest easy.