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Bwog has hopped, poked, and swiftly skimmed but now we’re inviting other writers into the Bwog Bubble. We think there’s lots of fantastic campus journalism out there that sometimes slips under the radar. In the spirit of Enlightenment salons from centuries past, we present our newest feature, BwogSalon. Bwog asked the editors of each publication on campus  to send us a teaser article from their most recent issue—something distinctly representative of their point of view, but still accessible. Below, check out Sam Kerbel’s editorial from The Current, Columbia’s Journal of Contemporary Politics, Culture and Jewish Affairs. You’ll make your fave French intellectual and your bubbe proud.

From the Editors: Can the Liberal Arts Make Us Better American Citizens?

The notion that learning is a natural human impulse can be traced to our earliest thinkers. Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, proclaims, “All men by nature desire to know.” Nevertheless, there lurks a competing human impulse—guilt—that counteracts our pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Douglas Adams astutely observes, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” This disinclination derives from our reluctance to learn simply to learn; for most, there must be a higher objective to legitimize our personal reasons for attaining wisdom.

Over the last two decades, myriad critics and writers, notably among them Louis Menand (The Marketplace of Ideas), have lamented a situation where humanities students have to defend their right to study Rousseau, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky. According to some, this phenomenon has more ominous consequences. In her recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that profit-driven and professional-tracked education not only undermines the life of the mind but also the tenets of democracy. The declining availability of quality humanities and arts education, which Nussbaum calls “a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance,” will inevitably hinder the development of individuals “who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.” To Nussbaum, the values transmitted in an ideal liberal arts education, among them “the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person,” are crucial for “sustaining decent institutions across the many divisions” that can otherwise divide and enervate modern democracies.

To be sure, the fundamental importance of a liberal arts education does not simply lie in its utility for a healthy democracy, a distinction which Nussbaum and others appear to embrace. In a recent address, Harvard University President Drew Faust best articulates the sentiment that liberal arts education should be encouraged in any circumstance:

When we define higher education’s role principally as driving economic development and solving society’s most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of broader questions, of the kinds of inquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless skepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge… History teaches contingency; it demonstrates that the world has been different and could and will be different again. Anthropology can show that societies are and have been different elsewhere—across space as well as time. Literature can teach us many things, but not the least of these is empathy—how to picture ourselves inside another person’s head, life, experience—how to see the world through a different lens, which is what the study of the arts offers us as well.

One should not simply pursue a liberal arts education for the sake of acquiring, as Nussbaum puts it, “skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.” Troy Jollimer, in a favorable review of Nussbaum’s book, asserts that even healthy economic growth—the leading imperative used against aspiring humanities majors—“depends on creativity, innovation, critical thinking and even the possession of background knowledge” in addition to rote technological proficiency. Similarly, Anthony Grafton exhorts that “we cannot make digital humanists at the cost of losing humanists who know languages, and the methods of interpretation.” While Grafton warns that humanities departments across the world must learn “to combine the rigor of tradition with experiment and innovation”—and also to treat their graduate students like people, not banks—the study of humanities is necessary for maintaining what Faust coins the “human perspective.”

The relationship Nussbaum establishes between the humanities and basic human values, like empathy and critical thinking, deserves special consideration given certain recent developments in the American political landscape. For many politicians and pundits, American progressivism and the values of contemporary liberal arts education are inherently elitist and oppose the egalitarian American spirit. Ex-Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, for example, vehemently disparages the typical condescension of liberal elites, particularly the Obama administration, as such:

They talk down to us. Especially here in the heartland. Oh, man. They think that, if we were just smart enough, we’d be able to understand their policies. And I so want to tell ’em, and I do tell ’em, Oh, we’re plenty smart, oh yeah—we know what’s goin’ on. And we don’t like what’s goin’ on. And we’re not gonna let them tell us to sit down and shut up.

Palin makes a fair point that deserves attention. Assuming Obama will not succeed in this task, can there be, in the footsteps of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, a liberal arts-educated individual in America’s current political climate who will speak to the masses on a level they can understand? Do these so-called “elites” purposefully use erudite knowledge and vocabulary to belie their hidden prejudiced sentiments towards the common American populace?

Paradoxically, this growing Populist movement—most pervasively seen in the guise of the Tea Party—has evinced the very discriminatory beliefs and practices they disapprovingly associate with liberal elitism. Over the past summer in particular, Palin and others have legitimized an utter lack of tolerance towards various social, ethnic, and religious groups. The most widespread instrument for this purpose has been the reverse discrimination card, which conservative commentator Glenn Beck most famously threw down in his condemnation of President Barack Obama’s alleged hatred of “white culture.” But this strategy has taken other, more threatening forms. According to a New York Times article published after the repealing of Proposition 8 in California, attorney Andrew Pugno insisted that the ban “had nothing to do with discrimination, but rather with the will of California voters who ‘simply wished to preserve the historic definition of marriage.’ ” The implications of this argument are that it is not discriminatory to deny the right of two people, whether heterosexual or homosexual, to get married, but it is unjust to overrule those who wish to impart their personal morals and values on others. It is “lamentable and preposterous,” says Pugno, to defy the “good will and motives” of voters, but only if it upholds their traditional prejudices.

Another similar and well-known example of recent intolerance revolves around the proposed construction of an Islamic community center several blocks from Ground Zero, now referred to as “Park51.” The details of this controversy need not be restated here, but the shocking arguments of one opponent of the center, Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, merit attention:

The 70 percent of Americans who oppose what amounts to an Islamic Niketown two blocks from Ground Zero are the real victims of a climate of hate, and the much-ballyhooed anti-Muslim backlash is mostly a myth…No doubt some American Muslims—particularly young Muslim men with ties to the Middle East and South Asia—have been scrutinized at airports more widely than elderly women of Norwegian extraction, but does that really amount to Islamophobia, given the dangers and complexities of the War on Terror?

At the very least, one can argue that Mr. Goldberg’s sarcastic and unsupported thesis is extremely insensitive. But yes, picking individuals for extra screening due to their religious background—because of fears now engrained in America’s ineluctable post-9/11 psyche and our portrayal of all Muslims as a collective “other”—is, by pure linguistic analysis, Islamophobia. So is, for that matter, stabbing a Muslim cab driver after inquiring about his religion, vandalizing machinery on the proposed site of a mosque, sideswiping a Muslim worshiper, and firing a shotgun outside of a mosque during a Ramadan prayer service.
And if the debacle surrounding Arizona state law SB1070 has taught us anything, it is that “attrition through enforcement”—the driving out of illegal immigrants through legislation that gradually weeds them out—not only marginalizes certain citizens due to their appearance but also limits free speech, a right that constitutional populists claim has been taken away by the Obama administration. Shortly following U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton’s decision overturning parts of the bill, the Wall Street Journal reported that opponents of the bill standing outside the federal courthouse were told to “go home” by some passersby. Around the same time, Phoenix law enforcement officials, under the aegis of Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who himself “vows to keep raiding Hispanic neighborhoods, law or no law,” says New York Times writer Lawrence Downes—arrested immigrant-rights supporter and protest leader Salvador Reza during a rally, although video recordings show he was “standing quietly in a parking lot, a good distance from the protest across the street.” I will concede to Sheriff Arpaio that he was much closer to the protest than Park51 is to Ground Zero—at least he could see it.

I would like to believe the central message of Beck’s address at his Christian-themed rally to “Restore Honor” this past August. He states that we have spent “far too long worried about scars and concentrating on the scars” of America’s past and present—a confusing point to be sure, since the whole ethos of Beck’s philosophy is that we should be reclaiming America’s bright past. But the events of the last year, of which I have only highlighted several, point to the dangers that Nussbaum describes in her book. These instances have all shown politicians and the American public alike viewing those unlike them, to use Nussbaum’s words, “as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans.” Expediency and distrust have inhibited the American people from acting empathetically, from engaging in dialogue. It has pushed us to insensitivity and bigoted, self-righteous conflict.

The prejudices of contemporary American populism present a looming risk not only to America’s basic freedoms but also to the core tenets of decent and humane public debate. While scholars like Menand and Columbia professor Mark Taylor argue that the university system is in a state of disrepair, this does not mean that the liberal arts ideal should be abandoned. Now more than ever, it seems, we must focus our attention on making liberal arts education accessible to people from all socioeconomic levels, whether this means donating more money to music and arts programs in public schools or refurbishing core curriculums at elite universities. Glenn Beck wanted to restore honor, and now Jon Stewart wants to restore sanity. The fight for liberal arts, if nothing else, is a cry to restore empathy.

Sam Kerbel
Editor in Chief

Check out the rest of The Current’s Summer 2010 issue on their website.