I Read a Good Book and Wondered Why

Arguments on behalf of the liberal arts are borne, more often than not, out of fear. “The liberal arts are under attack!” academicians decry, faced with budget cuts and the vagaries of student enrollment trends. People do not understand their importance, it is claimed, with a tone whose undercurrent is condescending.

The most popular major in this country has been business for many years. The vast majority of students want and expect particular outcomes from their college education: jobs or the opportunity to start a career. We will accommodate them, most usually through specialized majors or pre-professional programs, such as nursing or business, but not without emphasizing the liberal arts first. We place the liberal arts and the center of our institutions with the more “applied” studies on the periphery. Stated baldly, many of us in mainstream academia are quite uncomfortable about arranging our institutions around the goal of providing students an education or training that leads directly to a job.

The rise of for-profit institutions and the hard questions of board members and legislators has heightened the challenge. There are no shortage of articles and books today decrying the devaluation of the liberal arts. The liberal arts advances outcomes of great imagination and power, yet can crumble into intellectual narcissism when confronted with a question in a particular register.

For those of us concerned with the liberal arts, we might be on stronger ground if we could better define them beyond the academic disciplines that house them. At the heart of the liberal arts is a defiant and willful lack of utility, both very playful and serious. Lisa Colletta notes this in “The Ultimate Utility of Nonutility.” Colletta is concerned that the focus on assessment and outcomes overlooks the greatest value of the liberal arts, its ability to help students “understand the complexity, confusion, and contradiction at the heart of human experience.” This is a tall order, a worthy aim, and something that may be but a distant aim on the horizon of an introduction to philosophy course.

I recently finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, an award-winning novel consisting of separate stories linked together. It was inspired by Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which in turn reminds the reader of other works that contained multiple perspectives and a second-order awareness of the very act of reading. Cloud Atlas is a fine novel, a strong work that gave me pleasure and made synapses fire. But as I thought of reading the book, I was also cognizant of the utility and lack of utility in the exercise. I did not read it for particular outcomes and I did not burden the text with the task of helping me understand the human experience. Nevertheless, I did feel richer and better off for reading it, and that sense of growth has remained.

If I did grow or learn – providing that I am not fooling myself into creating new and more sophisticated reasons to read more novels – it came through the work of reading. Mitchell’s book demands attention. Its shifting tone of voice, its jumps through time and space, and the discordant but connected themes require intellectual engagement. Had I been wired up, I am confident that parts of my brain would have glowed from the effort. And were I a neuroscientist, I would investigate those neural regions, for I believe that they are connected with our ability as humans to take different perspectives and to be empathetic.

Empathy, or in current higher-education lingo, “perspective-taking” is increasingly connected with the broader impact of a college education and, in particular, its impact on diversity. Professor Robert Reason of Penn State recently summarized some his research with the impact of higher education through a Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory that was developed as part of an AAC&U initiative.  He notes the value of perspective taking to a college education. While Reason’s focus is on diversity, I think that there may be other parallels.

Active reading of a good novel is work, and that work forces the reader to imagine a world and the perception of that world from a different perspective. It differs from a moving image in that it cannot be viewed passively. And as work, that kind of reading must have some impact, no matter how small. Active reading robs of the primacy and certainty of the privilege of our own perspective, but rewards us with breadth, complexity and the possibility of wider understanding.

Utility may appear in unusual guises.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. You might find chapter 6, ‘The Uses of Fiction, in “The Art Instinct” (Denis Dutton, Bloomsbury Press, 2009) of interest. I found his take on art and ‘aesthetics’ useless, but his analysis of the adaptive evolutionary value of storytelling offered more traction.

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