Meaning matters: The highest value of liberal learning

Posted on August 1, 2015

Dr. N. Bradley Christie, senior vice president for academic affairs at Erskine College, delivered the following address at the Dean’s Convocation on April 23, 2015. An abridged version was published in the Fall 2015 issue of Inside Erskine

chemistry illustrationFor several years I have collected articles, mostly from The Chronicle of Higher Education, on the plight of the liberal arts. One of the earliest pieces in my collection is typical: “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?” The author’s answer is Yes, but not in universities. That’s the general tenor of all these pieces. Although I still collect these commentaries, I’m weary of the “debate” over the “beleaguered and declining” humanities, because most of it really isn’t debate but more like posturing or whining. The bottom line is that interest in any particular field of inquiry waxes and wanes. The humanities have weathered tough times before, and more, no doubt, lie ahead. But liberal learning has always survived—indeed, at times it has flourished—and this will be the case for the future.

[In April] I attended two very different meetings. The first was a periodic gathering of academics like me—deans and provosts and vice presidents for academic affairs. We heard a presentation about an innovative program designed to address several problems with South Carolina public education, including the need to better prepare high school students for future work. We were shown that, although the high school graduation rate in SC has climbed to 80%, over half of those graduates—41%—require remedial course work. At the same time, it is estimated that 85% of jobs in the next five years will require some post-secondary education and that over 65% will require a two- or four-year degree. Recent polling indicates that a good job is the new global dream, the number one social value for people everywhere. It’s the value driving much of the change and many of the pressures we’re feeling in higher education, especially at liberal arts institutions like Erskine.

Most of the statistics shared at this meeting did not surprise me. But this one did: According to one survey of business leaders and young people from Asia, Europe, and North America, they expect that 50% of occupations available today will not even exist by 2025. 50%. In only 10 years. One conclusion: “new jobs will require creative intelligence, social and emotional intelligence, and the ability to leverage artificial intelligence.” That may not sound particularly hopeful for a revival of the liberal arts. On the other hand, at least one business hiring consultant has determined that 46% of new hires fail in that first job within 18 months. And 89% of those fail not because they lack “hard” skills or technical knowledge or expertise. They fail for “attitudinal” reasons, because they lack “soft” skills like communication and people skills, the kinds of things that liberal learning values and develops.

At the other meeting I attended, TEDx-Greenville, one of the presenters, a researcher at Clemson, spoke about elastin, the protein that allows many tissues in the body to resume their original shape after stretching or contracting. This presenter was clearly brilliant, a poster professor for STEM education. But he had a great way of conveying this highly technical, “hard”-skills work he does with “soft”-skills devices like demos, analogies, and humor. His presentation culminated in a practical application of some of this research. He had explained how early study had revealed a lot about the nature of the protein and the challenges of preserving it and facilitating its regeneration. Elastin doesn’t age well; over time it tends to stiffen up, dry out, and lose its ability to regenerate. This man’s lab had developed therapies to help improve the protein’s regenerative ability, but only at the cellular level. To treat entire human structures like arteries, muscles, or organs would be prohibitively tedious and expensive.

So, he told us, he began to imagine: What if we could somehow transport the molecular building blocks of this protein and concentrate them on diseased tissues or areas at risk of damage or degeneration? It sounded like a science fiction scenario as he described deploying nano robots—1/15th the thickness of a sheet of paper—like super-tiny train cars carrying even tinier chemical cargo to the tissue walls of arteries in laboratory animals. But it wasn’t fiction. It was a science problem solved. And this solution has tremendous implications for future human health. In other words, it is significant. It means something, potentially to a lot of people. It was an act of creativity. But I hope you noticed that it began as an act of imagination. And that is the point: that for humans, meaning-making trumps knowledge. Imagination is the highest value of liberal learning.

liberal arts

Works of imagination, of course, fall under the purview of the liberal arts and are the particular currency of the humanities. Humans create such works (usually) to convey meaning, which many people associate with truth. But “A work of the imagination is inherently an untruth, yet it is one that reveals a truth.” This from yet another recent post in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an essay by Michelle Valois, an English professor and chair of liberal arts and sciences and general studies at Mount Wachusett Community College. And I will quote professor Valois at some length because she gets to the heart of the matter:

A painting, a poem, or a dance is trying to express something important about the human condition, a truth that is revealed through intuition and feeling. The creator engages in logical and analytical thinking, too, but the act of creation is fueled by our capacity to intuit knowledge and beauty, to imagine what is not and never has been through a faculty different from reason. The receiver of the work can analyze it—a logical endeavor. But art also engages the viewer/reader/listener in the act of making meaning, finding relevance—not only through analysis but by connecting emotionally with the meaning that the work helps us to make.

Hannah Arendt writes in The Life of the Mind: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.” [my emphases] (“From Imagination to Truth,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 January 2015)

I think of that researcher at Clemson, a world-class scientist who operates analytically and logically at a very high level. Yet in pursuing some of his work’s most daunting questions, his thinking turns to the imagination for a creative solution. In that way he becomes rather an artist of the arteries, his lab something of an artist’s studio. I’m not sure he would appreciate that description; I’m not sure how aware he is that at some points he operates like an artist. I want to be fair to this brilliant man, but I suspect that what drives him is what he considers a purely scientific motive. And, writes Valois:

What makes art different from science is that the scientific method relies on proof and evidence. Scientists and philosophers pursue knowledge to gain truth, to understand the truth of how things work and why they work as they do. While those pursuits do make meaning, they prioritize truth [knowledge] over meaning. A work of the imagination, while revealing truth, prioritizes meaning over truth [knowledge].

Liberal learning, the humanities in particular, privilege meaning and meaning-making over mere knowledge. And if Hannah Arendt was right, that priority—what she called the “appetite for meaning,” which is uniquely human—makes not only art but all human inquiry, including the scientific, even possible.

Back at Wachusett Community College where Professor Valois teaches, as also at Clemson and here at Erskine, faculty and administration are being pressed to articulate outcomes and to measure and quantify student learning as never before. This pressure accounts for a good bit of the scrutiny now brought to bear on the liberal arts and sciences. Valois fears that a learning outcome like “creating” will be co-opted by things like “creative problem solving” and “creative thinking.”

“Creative problem solving” and “creative thinking” [are] both pieces of the same puzzle, but only small pieces. And those skills are so similar to analysis that to emphasize them too much is to shift focus away from what creation can do for students that analysis cannot.

Frankly, this is precisely what I saw last spring in the first presentation I described: The innovative approach aimed at transforming SC public education is all about “creative thinking and problem solving.” For example, in one middle school, every 6th grader has been given a laptop and a personal dashboard to measure progress on standards across all disciplines. High-stakes MAP test scores have risen dramatically, which bodes well for many of these students’ futures. I must applaud such an effort and its results. I want to be fair to it, too, but there’s more to human creativity than problem-solving and logic. Valois again:

Nurses, for example, use creative problem solving every day, and the training of nurses must emphasize that skill. But creativity encompasses much more because the problems that are often solved in creative problem solving—the thinking that is creative in the context of most disciplines outside the humanities—have a “right” or “best” answer. We want our students to be fluent in this skill, but don’t we also want them to engage in making meaning beyond solving problems?

Professor Valois knows something about nurses. Four years ago she underwent “brutal treatment for a highly treatable cancer.” For a time she lost the ability to talk, swallow, drink, and eat. She had difficulty communicating with her family, especially her 4-year-old twins. She received plenty of support and encouragement, all welcome and appreciated. “But the most profound gift [she] received came from [her] college’s nurse,” who sent her a 13th-century poem called “The Guest House.” In translation the poem begins, “This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival.”

A metaphor is, by its very nature, a lie. Sometimes it’s a simple lie; sometimes not. I am not a house. But during my illness, the image of myself as a guest house was a lie that told a truth I needed to hear, a lie that helped me to endure pain and suffering by telling me that along with suffering, the house that I was would also be visited by other guests. The poem instructed me to “welcome and entertain them all! / Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows / who violently sweep [my] house, / empty of its furniture.”

Radiation and chemotherapy did not just sweep me clean; they stole much that spring…The poem, though, insisted that I “treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing [me] out / for some new delight.”

The nurse had prescribed just the right medicine… [one] that my radiologist could not administer. Would the poem have shrunk my tumor? No. Did I not want a treatment plan guided by the latest in modern medicine, the result of careful study and years of research? Of course. I’ve heard it said that the arts and humanities are “nice to have” but not “need to have.” Four years ago, I needed a doctor who could treat my cancer with the most effective medical protocol available, but I also needed someone who understood the emotional aspects of healing.

Friends, that is why liberal learning will survive. That is why the humanities will not only survive but periodically flourish again. Because we are human. And humankind must have meaning, must make meaning. We can’t help it. Being wired this way is part of what it means to be made in God’s own image. This aspect of being human which the humanities privilege even above mere knowledge, is not only liberal learning’s greatest value; it is a necessity and our greatest responsibility—as image bearers, and as teachers and learners.

You can view Dr. Vyavahare’s TEDx-Greenville talk about his work with elastin here: