Old MacDonald’s Farm and the Liberal Arts
November 22–23, 2013
University of Miami
Thank you for inviting me to be your keynote speaker. I am an enormous supporter of the Faculty Resource Network. I am honored to be with you, and to learn from you, as we re-imagine and re-invent liberal education. Before I begin, I wish to acknowledge this day, the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Many of us will remember what we were doing when we first heard that he had been shot. I had been teaching one of my first classes in Freshman English at Barnard College. President Kennedy’s death was the first of the political murders in the United States in the 1960s, followed by those of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, occurring but a few weeks after that of the Reverend Dr. King in 1968. We still mourn them all, and let us pause for a moment to honor them together before we go forward.
As some of you may know, I like to think of us as “liberal artisans.” This is a term I have coined for people who practice and advocate for the liberal arts and education. The liberal arts are, of course, the curriculum of a liberal education. An artisan is a craftsperson who makes and shapes thing. We make and re-make, shape and re-shape liberal arts and education.
But this summer, because of the little children in my life, I found myself neglecting the more academic and footnoted inquiries of a liberal artisan. Instead, I was singing to the children. As we all know, when a child likes something—throwing a spoon from a chair—the child likes to repeat it. So I was singing same songs over and over again. Then, in an act of the connectivity and interconnectivity that liberal education teaches us, I saw that my rough music was a multi-disciplinary liberal arts classroom. “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” is that not astronomy? “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,” is that not hydrology? Or sports studies? “Frère Jacques, frère Jacques, dormez-vous, dormez-vous?,” is that not study of foreign language? And the ABC song? Foundational.
But the favorite was “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” This was before the ubiquitous commercials in which an actor playing Old MacDonald, looking both ancient and rural, comes to a spelling bee and misspells “cow,” enunciating c-o-w-e-i-e-i-o.” Despite his geniality, he is ejected. This is an insult to “Old Macdonald”, a folksong, with many variants, in many languages, now including United States advertising. As I sang, my mind did wander, and I began to dream of an allegory. For some of Macdonald’s animals reminded me of creatures on another great farm, that of liberal education. I invite you, in a spirit of serious play, to flesh out my fantasy
You will remember some of the song’s verses:
Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO, and on that farm he had a chick, EIEIO, with a cheep-cheep here, and a cheep -cheep there, Here a cheep, there a cheep, Everywhere a cheep, cheep, Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO.
Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO, and on that farm, he had a pig, EIEIO, with an oink oink here, and an oink oink there, Here an oink, there an oink, Everywhere an oink, oink, Old Mac Donald had a farm, EIEIO.
Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO, and on that farm he had a sheep, EIEIO, with a baa baa here, and a baa baa there, Here a baa, there a baa, Everywhere a bah bah, Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO.
Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO. And on that farm he had a horse, EIEIO. With a neigh neigh here, and a neigh neigh there, here a neigh, there a neigh, everywhere a neigh neigh, Old Macdonald had a farm EIEIO.
Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO, and on that farm, he had a dog. EIEIO, with a woof woof here, and a woof woof there, Here a woof, there a woof, Everywhere a woof woof, Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO.
And finally, Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO, and on that farm, he had a cat, EIEIO. With a meow here, and a meow there, here a meow, there a meow, everywhere a meow, Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO.
And who are these animals on a farm of liberal education? Who are the chick, the pig, the sheep, the horse, the dog, and the cat. To begin with the chick, it says cheep, cheep. The chick orders us to do liberal education on the cheap, to cut back on funding to public institutions, students, faculty, and research. In thrall to the idolatry of disruptive technologies, the chick orders us to substitute wholly on-line learning for a well-constructed, pedagogically valuable blended learning. The chick wants to sell us the snake oil of $10,000 tuitions for a four-year baccalaureate degree. The chick is a cheapskate.
The pig says oink, oink. The pig says education is a private good, not a public good, and oink, oink, he will not share any of the goodies in his corn-heaped pigsty with anyone. He wants his pigsty, and he will not gambol in common fields. The pig encourages the chick to say cheap, cheap—unless the pig has a school he likes, and then he wants the best squash courts, food courts, and climbing walls there are.
The sheep say baa, baa. They say baa baa, and bah humbug, to liberal education, to critical thinking, to poetry and music and the contemplation of a mathematical formula. The sheep, huddling, together, want students to learn something practical, to get a place in the marketplace. As for the community colleges, they should be job training centers. A sheepskin should be a certificate in employability. Liberal education is a foolish waste, the foolish sheep do bah.
The horses say neigh neigh. They are even grumpier than the sheep, but they stomp their hooves in two different paddocks. For some of the horses, the Horses of the Left, liberal education was a leafy grove, if in need of some replanting, before the rise of the hegemony of big science, money-grubbing professions, and the corporate university that privileges them both. In the other paddock, the Horses of the Right flare their nostrils and say neigh neigh because they hate the Horses of the Left. Those horses of the left, they vow, have spilled bile over the traditions of liberal education, and traduced them. For great books, they have substituted multiculturalism, “theory,” gender studies, and queer theory, which to them makes gender studies look like a Betty Crocker Program.
The dog says woof, woof, hear a bark, there a bark. Some dogs are good animals. The better sheep dogs try to herd their narrow-minded flocks into the broad, sunlight pastures of liberal education. The better guard dogs defend liberal education. But some of the guard dogs protect only their own disciplinary kennels and snap at other outbuildings. The guard dogs of the humanities fear that the guard dogs of the sciences are getting all the food. Such guard dogs have trouble patrolling together against the chintzier chicks and the greedier pigs.
Finally, the cat that says meow, here a meow, there a meow. The cat, that ancient animal, is my symbol of liberal education—-as the owl was for the classical goddesses of wisdom. For the cat is graceful, intelligent, wily, and subtle. The cat can be ferocious if necessary. Cats are also diverse—as the poet T.S. Eliot taught us in “The Book of Practical Cats,” the poems that were the source of that musical Cats, first I first saw on Broadway. We have tough shelter cats, and we have tony Burmese cats. We have black cats, and white cats, and marmalade cats, and gray cats, and multi-hued cats. Happily, all cats have nine lives, or more, and so will liberal education.
In order to understand the current life of the iconic cat of liberal education, it is useful to remember its first life in classical Greece and Rome. This cat left a beautiful legacy for a contemporary liberal artisan..Our heritage praises active thought, deep contemplation, and rigorous reason. Moreover, it endorses the value of communities of thought, including those of teachers and students. Finally, it encourages liberal artisans to see how the strands of thought can be woven together to picture the web of life. Crucially, the liberal arts curriculum consisted of the more linguistically oriented trivium—grammar (including literature); rhetoric; and dialectic or logic—and the more scientifically oriented quadrivium— arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Together, these could prepare men for a public life who could exhibit both an educated consciousness and a civic conscience. So endowed, a contemporary liberal artisan could delight in both Virginia Woolf’s novel THE WAVES and gravity waves, and then argue for them both in the media.
However, this first life deposited an ugly legacy as well. For liberal education was for the free man, one who was neither slave nor laborer. Liberal artisans were to be a small group, enjoying poems about bucolic estates rather than mucking manure in the stables. Not surprisingly, most liberal education excluded teaching the mechanical arts. They were too rough, the province of slaves and others who toiled with their hands. The core curriculum of the medieval university was the liberal arts, increasingly respectful of philosophy. The university’s higher faculties were in law, medicine, and theology. A Paris, a Bologna, an Oxford, a Salamanca had no engineering, no architecture, no nasty surgery. Constrained by such educational theories and practices, liberal artisans often resisted the growth of professional schools outside of the medieval triumvirate of law, medicine, and theology. University men saw new professional schools as annoyingly, even dangerously, lesser places. This disdain can exist even today, depriving the liberal arts of potential allies, as the professional schools have expanded to include engineering, education, nursing, social work, the arts, business, and public policy. I teach the humanities in both a law school and an education school. I am witness to the abysses that separate the liberal arts from the professional schools and the beauty of the bridges that can be built over them.
Some of our most heroic liberal artisans fought to recreate the liberal arts by eroding its ugly legacy. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” W.E.B.DuBois wrote grandly in 1903 in THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, “….I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension.” During and after the 1960s, much of the work of liberal artisans was to give the cat of the liberal arts still another life by systematically extending a DuBoisian struggle. Liberal artisans became far more diverse. So did the curriculum that they taught and the work that they published. At first, this was a national task. Liberal education in the United States—and elsewhere—became more multicultural, more democratic. Then, we enlarged our diversity by placing ourselves in a global context, especially after the 1980s. We no longer had a king of cats or a queen of cats, but veritable kingdoms and queendoms and queerdoms of cats. Symptomically, In the 1960s, I taught the first course in African-American literature and the first course in Women and Literature at Barnard College. Now, I teach for 7 weeks a year in the New York University portal campus in Abu Dhabi. I unite, in a liberal classroom with a global reading list, students from the United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For most, English is a second or third or fourth language. Some are secularist; some are people of deep faith in one of several religions. Despite their geographical and religious differences, they admire cosmopolitanism.
None of this—giving the cat of liberal education still another life—-happened as quickly as the whisk of a haughty feline tail. It took persistence and as much resilience as a “real” cat itself can have. Liberal education—-popular opinion to the contrary—is not for the faint of heart. We must remember this as time goes by. None of us gloss over the current difficulties of liberal education. We are only too aware of the growth of student enrollments outside of the liberal arts, especially outside of the humanities. We are aware of the perfect storm of financial pressures on students: the rise of tuitions and fees; the growth of student debt to help pay for tuition and fees; and the uncertainties of employment after graduate to help pay off debt. We are aware of the growth of faculty positions outside of tenure lines and how badly paid these contingent faculty positions can be. We are aware of how politically powerful the chickens with their cheeps, and the pigs with their oinks, and the sheep with their baas, can be. We also know that we do not know how the new national core curriculum in primary and secondary education will affect liberal education in colleges and universities. A fledgling fowl, perhaps a duck, perhaps a goose, perhaps a swan, the core curriculum has yet to walk or fly.
Yet, liberal artisans err badly if we permit our awareness of difficulties to overwhelm an aware of our strengths. One of them is how many and how sturdy are the experiments and blueprints we have at hand for the reinvention of liberal education. Their authors and curators are fully aware of new educational technologies, of globalization, and of the need for democratic access to higher education. Nationally, the digital humanities are here in their eager youthfulness. Nationally, such visionaries as Carol Geary Schneider and the American Association of Colleges and Universities are redesigning the undergraduate curriculum. Globally, new liberal arts colleges are being built. In the midst of such activities, the defenses of the liberal arts are formidable.
One of the finest is Martha Nussbaum’s 1997 Cultivating Humanity, a triumph of beneficial knowledge. At once passionate and learned, Nussbaum studied fifteen United States colleges and universities. Her examples of a liberal arts curriculum included Western classical culture and its traditions, “non-Western” cultures, and such new fields as women’s studies. At the end of her research, she could outline the norms and values of democratic citizenship in a multicultural and multinational world—rooted in contemporary educational practices in liberal education. When we are liberally educated, we lead an examined life. This entails admitting one’s own ignorance and liberating one’s mind from sterile customs and habits. With such humility and freedom, we can exercise the “narrative imagination,” and become a “citizen of the world.” Nussbaum’s liberal artisan resists the seductions of totalitarianism and its slippery, falsifying public language. In brief, the liberal artisan has no truck with Animal Farms.
Conceptually compatible, but addressed to readers of op-ed pages, is the defense published by Mary Sue Coleman and John L. Hennessy. Who the authors are matters as much as what they say, which will be familiar to hard-core liberal artisans. For Coleman is a biochemist who is the president of a large public research university in America’s heartland, the University of Michigan; Hennessy is a computer scientist who is president of a large private research university in Silicon Valley, Stanford University. They agree that we must improve education in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines. However, they fear that the aggressive push for better education in the STEM disciplines is marginalizing the humanities and social sciences. This is socially, economically, and culturally dangerous, because these disciplines educate students for leadership and dealing with the stubborn facts of “the human condition.” They teach us how to communicate and to be resilient and courageous. They help us create lives of “purpose and meaning.” In these lives, we respect “diversity and complexity.” They cultivate the passion for lifelong learning, that students will need if they are “to thrive in a world requiring constant adaptation.”
Reading Nussbaum and Coleman and Hennessy should make the chicks feel little, the pigs feel abashed, and the sheep feel sheepish. I am grateful for such guardians. However, and this does not lessen my gratitude, many of the defenses of liberal education are elegantly, usefully utilitarian. They tell the chicks and the pigs and the sheep that liberal education matters in the world, that liberal education does good and valuable things for people. They imply, or state explicitly, that supporting liberal education is in the self-interest of all the farm animals.
My own recommendations for enlivening our cats are less defenses of the liberal arts than four prescriptive cries for change in the behavior of my liberal artisans. Liberal arts may not be for the faint of heart, but neither are they today for the stodgy of will. My prescriptions concern a reform of graduate education, more alliances within the disarray of liberal artisans, more public love of our subjects, and, finally and most hopelessly Utopian, a change in our name.
Reform of graduate education.
The reform movement in graduate education is now over two decades old. One of small contributions has been my advocacy, since 2002, of what I call “general education for graduate education. Its genesis was an encounter with a graduate student. She was complaining about serving as a teaching assistant in the NYU undergraduate core curriculum because it was too remote from her specialty, gender studies. “What book are you studying ?,”, I asked. “Genesis,” she said. “The Bible,” I yelped, “ how can you object to teaching the Bible? It is inseparable from gender studies.” “But I have read parts of it already,” she said, “I don’t have to do it again.” If adult guardian dogs can bark in front of a self-isolated disciplinary kennel, this was a puppy learning to say Woof Woof.
The simple ambition of general education for graduate education is to have students from across the university study together, at least for one course. They might, for example, explore the history of the university itself. Here they would encounter and learn from The Disciplinary Other. Then they would form interdisciplinary teaching groups and enter an undergraduate classroom. They would be conversant with the current educational technologies, and perhaps show faculty members how to migrate to new digital worlds. In their blended classroom, they would teach, not with feelings of anxiety or resentment, but with excitement because of the intrinsic interest of interdisciplinary explorations and inquiry.
More alliance within the disarray of liberal artisans.
The indifference and hostility of academic disciplines to each other has a self-destructive
parallel in the comparative indifference of various groups of liberal artisans to each other. At least three such groups exist. If they had more systematic alliances, they could serve together as advocates for the liberal arts, practice life-long education, and offer each other insights and ideas. The first group consists of professional liberal artisans, largely within the academy and its ancillary organizations. My graduate student, so reluctant to teach in a core curriculum, will join them—if she finds and keeps an academic job. Given their location within the academy, the professional liberal artisans argue endlessly and anxiously about a core curriculum, and about the meaning of disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and adisciplinarity. Some humanists chime in that we must ask why we think of ourselves as being disciplined in the first place.
The second group are the public liberal artisans. Most of them have liberal arts educations; many of them may once have been professional academics. However, they now earn their livings by devoting themselves to making the liberal arts widely accessible on platforms outside of the academy. They design and support activities in primary and secondary education, public programming, publishing, the media, games, and the Internet. In the public sector, they include the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the state councils of both, all of which do call for collaborations between academics and public figures. In the private sector, public liberal artisans include foundations and benefactors who donate to liberal arts colleges, libraries, museums, and cultural groups. They support productions of Shakespeare in the parks and in the schools. They produce, direct, and write such films as the 2009 film, A Night at the Smithsonian, itself a sequel to A Night at the Museum . It is delightful and instructive to see history and anthropology and archaeology become animated. How wonderful I found it to see Amelia Earhart fly again.
My third group are community liberal artisans. They gather together voluntarily in an infinite variety of ways to practice the liberal arts. The first and most elemental of these ways is the family—singing the “Alphabet Song” to a child, taking a beloved niece in high school to her first Broadway show, Cats. These community liberal artisans can form reading groups or book clubs. They can go on tours to cultural sites. They might sit on the boards of libraries or museums. In the last decade, they are self-starters on the Internet, providing an intellectual and cultural ferment that crystallizes in a liquid, fluid fashion. They are links in pixelated networks of knowledge, inquiry, and curricular materials. They self-publish historical fiction and history; review operas on their own blogs; polish or demolish entries in Wikipedia. More and more rapidly, these materials are entering academic syllabi, a new and unregulated curricular currency. In turn, professional liberal artisans are wooing thousands and thousands of new students through their MOOCyness, a new and still being tested pedagogy.
More public love of our subjects.
Of my three groups—professional liberal artisans, public liberal artisans, and community liberal
artisans—perhaps the community liberal artists most openly express their feelings about the liberal arts. They are less constrained by professional norms. I can even hiss and snarl—like a ferocious cat— as I argue that liberal artisans must speak with greater urgency and love. If we do not openly love and cherish the liberal arts, why should anyone else? Why should the chicks and the pigs and the sheep give a whit? . What we love is not only what the liberal arts do to and for us, but what they are. It is important to tell truth to power, but many liberal artisans have been so busy doing so that we have forgotten to speak with love and awe about the substance of our inquiries. Our subject matter can be extremely painful. Indeed, I have written about the deep connections between the liberal arts and war. However, our subject matter can also be awesome: beautiful, inspiring, and enchanting. In my global classroom in Abu Dhabi, I tell students that because of our diversity, we can create a micro-republic of learning united by our syllabus. Who is Antigone and why does she matter? What is Shakespeare’s play, MERCHANT OF VENICE, and why does it matter? What is Melville’s story “Benito Cereno,” and why does it matter? Should we weep when Benito refuses to speak and is executed? What is Assia Djebar’s novel about the Algerian war of independence, CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD, and why does it matter?
In a recent essay, “What Dido did, Satan saw & O’Keeffe painted : How the humanities can come out on top in the education debate, ” Mark Bauerlein commands and implores us to teach how beautiful, rich, and exhilarating the liberal arts can be. He disdains, even reviles, must of what liberal artisans have done since 1960s. However, his call to respect, revere, and enjoy our materials is appealing, despite its passages of silly snarkiness. As he writes correctly, “…defenders could easily serve multiculturalism by citing great works by women and people-of-color and artists….insisting …that we can preserve the superb tradition of African American writing…Phillis Wheatley, (Frederick) Dougass, Up from Slavery and Souls of Black Folk, Hurston’s fiction and Baldwin’s prose.” His examples are from the humanities, but they could have been from the sciences. Think of the wonders of the brains of men, women, and animals; of the irresisitible mysteries of dark matter.
Our students can serve as our witnesses—such as the journalist Sarah Vowell. Her story is a life-affirming combination of personal grit, government aid, and liberal learning. She tells how Caroline Kennedy, at the 2008 Democratic Convention, paid tribute to her uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, and talked about his making education more affordable through his support of Pell Grants. Then, Vowell writes, to her surprise, she started to cry. For she was remembering how she had paid her way through Montana State University, a land-grant university, with loans, a minimum-wage job preparing sandwiches at a “joint called the Pickle Barrel,” and Pell Grants. Because of Pell Grants, she had to work only 30 hours a week instead of 40. And those extra 10 hours permitted her to pass geology, and to take German every day at 8 a.m. “for fun.” It permitted her to wander into the office of the student newspaper and find her “calling.” She went to graduate school, and then to her career, and has paid taxes that add up to much more than the sum of her Pell grants. She concludes, , “…my perfectly ordinary education, received in public schools and a land grant university, is not merely the foundation on which I make a living. My education made my life. In a sometimes ugly world, my schooling opened a trap door to a bottomless pit of beauty—to Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong and Frank Lloyd Wright, to the old movies and old masters that have been my constant companions in my unalienable pursuit of happiness.”
Listen to Sarah Vowell’s story, you chicks and pigs and sheep. Dare to approach the trap door to a bottomless pit of beauty.
A change in our name.
The 21st century has a terrible typhoon of survival issues bearing down. Will we be able to recognize, with respect, the rights of others? And, psychologically, the otherness of others? Will we have enough food, water, and shelter for everyone? Will we sheath the knives of poverty? Will we be able to lessen the harrowing hold of conflict and of war upon our politics, wars among states, war within states, rogue wars across states? Will we be able to practice all our religions without Fundamentalists, of any faith, saying only one religion will do? And our technology, our robots and computers, will they serve us, or will we become even more like them?
As I list these issues, I wonder if our species is wise enough to take them on, and stare them down. Are we really homo sapiens, or just selfish saps. But then, I remember the hope of a liberal education. It demonstrates how much human beings can build, how greatly we are homo faber. What we have done can give us hope about what we can do. We make language, an activity we share with birds and animals and insects, even if our language enables us to curse. We make history, though we often murder as we do so. We makes machines, and software programs, and poems, and songs. What if we were to call liberal education “Creativity and Creations.” It will confront destruction as well as construction, nuclear war as well as Homer, acts of torture as well as Sanskrit, but it will open the trapdoor into beauty.
No doubt Old Macdonald, a realist, is shaking his head at my Utopianism. However, I am realist enough to know that we must engage in a political as well as a rhetoric struggle if the cats of liberal education are to leap about and prowl in yet another new life. The struggle will be school by school, state by state, bureaucracy by bureaucracy. We must not permit the chickens, in their quest for cheapness, to impose false economies. We must fight with the pigs and the sheep for equity of investment in education as well as for equity of access. As for the quarreling horses, neighing away in their paddocks, I say, “Get over it.” Liberal education needs all of us. If I can read Mark Bauerlein, he can send money to PBS to support Henry Louis Gates’ programs on the African-American experience. I would pay tribute to the wise dogs who guard all of liberal education, not just one disciplinary kennel or another. As for the cats of liberal education—so graceful, so strong, so wily, so diverse, so surprisingly capable of fierceness if necessary—I would say your next life is as important as the sustainability of the earth itself. Without you, we would have no farm on which to grow food for thought and for our souls. Liberal artisans, we do have a future with a renewable land, oceans, the cosmos of thought and imagination and creativity and creations. I would bet the farm on it.
iI proposed this term in my essay about liberal education, “The Ideals of the Liberal Artisan: Notes Toward an Evolving Group Biography,” Transforming Undergraduate Education: Theory That Compels and Practices That Succeed, , ed. Donald W. Harward. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012, pp. 51-72.
iiW.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co.,, Norton Critical Edition, 1999, p. 74.
iiiFor reasons that are worth exploring, enrollments in the liberal arts, especially in the humanities, leveled off even as liberal education became more diverse—in students, faculty, and subject matter.
ivMartha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A C lassical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Chicago and London: Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 328.
vMary Sue Coleman and John L. Hennessy, “Lessons from the humanities and social sciences,” “Opinions,” Washington Post (November 14, 2013).
viScience, technology, engineering, mathematics.
viiMy most recent, summary statement about graduate education is “Graduate Education: The Nerve Center of Higher Education,” What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education, ed. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Harry Lewis. New York and London: Teachers College Press, 2012, pp. 132-155.
viiiMy advocacy of teaching with love, “Loving an Author, Loving a Text: Getting Love Back into the Humanities,” Confrontation, No. 104 (Summer 2009): 13-29.
ixMark Bauerlein, “What Dido did, Satan saw & O’Keeffe painted,” The New Criterion, Volume 32 November 2013, on page 4 ( www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/What-Dido-did–Satan-saw—O-Keeffe-painted—7728 ).
xSarah Vowell, “Bringing Pell Grants to My Eyes,” The New York Times Sunday Opinion, August 31, 2008, 12 WK
Spring 2014: Reinventing Liberal Education