Aren’t We All Bleak Liberals?

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the Humanities Center

If one reads academic news media like The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed—or, for that matter, The New York Times—one quickly ascertains that these aren’t the best of times for the humanities. Lending voice to that sentiment a few years ago, in 2014, the Modern Language Association made “Vulnerable Times” its theme for its large annual conference. In her presidential address at the convention, Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University acknowledged these sources of uncomfortable vulnerability in the humanities:

reduced funding and the alarming cost of a college degree to students; the drastic cutbacks in jobs, especially tenure- track jobs, and the exploitation of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members; the growing disparity between public and private institutions; fundamental changes in scholarly publishing and communications; the ways in which the humanities are instrumentalized for their utility and monetary value in the public sphere at every turn; the precarious situation of language departments, of languages, and of language itself in the era of globalization and “security”; the challenges to faculty governance at many institutions and the increasing threats from outside the academy to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

BYU is an antidote to some of these concerns and fully symptomatic of others. The Church’s extraordinary financial support of BYU protects its students from many of the spiraling (and crushing) costs of higher education, and the university’s continuing commitments to the teaching of language exempt it from the threatened closure of language departments. However, and on the flip side, BYU stands at least partly guilty as charged for instrumentalizing the humanities for their monetary value, as our (very successful) Humanities Plus program attests. And faculty governance at BYU leaves something to be desired, as the “Faculty Advisory Committee,” or FAC, is far less powerful than the “faculty senate” model that prevails at most universities. BYU has its reasons, to be sure, for “selling” the humanities and for limiting the legislative power of its faculty. Those reasons would be the subjects of another essay, and to anticipate the line of argument I would take there, let’s just say that I support Humanities Plus and that I hardly feel exploited as a member of BYU’s faculty. (Perhaps this only underscores another of Hirsch’s points, namely that there is a “growing disparity between public and private institutions.”)

But for now, and just as a thought experiment, let’s take Hirsch’s observations at face value. Times are bleak in higher education. And BYU reflects that bleakness.

For Amanda Anderson, however, bleakness is a term that holds real promise. Anderson is presently Director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English at Brown University. She is also the author of Bleak Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2016), a book with a big argument to make about the legacy of an important strand of modern thought. These days, liberalism is a word that inspires almost instant cringe, derided as it is by people on the political Left as well as the Right. That said, liberalism is, broadly speaking, a progressive philosophy to which virtually all modern people subscribe, irrespective of political affiliation. If you’re a conservative and you watch Fox News, for example, you clearly embrace the technological progress that has brought us television; likewise if you take prescription medication, have electricity in your home, etc. Or, if you contribute to a 401K, you clearly believe at least partly in the progress of markets. In our modern world, we’re all—necessarily—open to progress. The only questions, really, are how much and whose version of it.

Back to Anderson, then. Liberalism, she writes, particularly in its more conventional political guise, is “best understood as a philosophical and political project conceived in an acute awareness of the challenges and often bleak prospects confronting it.” And why do these prospects seem bleak? Because progress is foreboding as well as necessary, and it often forces us to confront contradictions between difficult moral choices and intractable social forces. Say you’re the owner of a factory and you can increase efficiency by designing robots to run your plant, but to implement that plan you’re forced to lay off a thousand workers. Or say you’re a loyal member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and you subscribe to the twelfth Article of Faith about “being subject” to rulers but are deeply offended by a mayor, a senator, a governor, or a president.

The history of liberalism, as Anderson discusses by way of nineteenth-century novels and twentieth-century theory, confronts these kinds of challenges—this bleakness—without taking easy solace either in utopian revolution or reactionary refusal. Each of those approaches essentially dismisses present challenges on their own terms, taking refuge in echo chambers. Most social and aesthetic theories in the humanities, she argues, are simplistically utopian; many public challenges to “elitist” university cultures, meanwhile, are dismissively conservative. For liberal philosophy, however, caught between these extremes, progress tends to be slow, tethered to rational argument, gradualist institutional reform, dedicated proceduralism—not exactly the stuff to satisfy short attention spans.

Anderson is the Annual Symposium guest of our BYU Humanities Center this year. Her book obviously has import for our current political sphere, given as it is, increasingly, to demagoguery, apathy toward civic institutions, impatience with the slow grind of history, and creeping contempt for those who think differently. But the book also has a lot to say for humanities educational principles (for that matter, LDS moral values) that preach virtues of informed argument, careful listening, deliberative judgment, appreciation of diversity (including diversity of opinion), and more. As Anderson summarizes, “the liberal tradition values the examined life in its many dimensions, including the rigorous scrutiny of principles, assumptions and belief systems; the questioning of authority and tradition; the dedication to argument, debate, and deliberative processes of legitimation and justification; and the commitment to openness and transparency.”

If that’s bleakness, we could all probably use a little more of it. This much I know: its opposite isn’t anything like happiness.

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