The Liberal Arts in the Age of Illiberalism

In the digital age of shorter attention spans and slogan-type writing, what becomes of a discipline premised on deep reading and critical reflection?

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While there is a concerted attempt to expand the scope of liberal arts for reasons ranging from ultra-nationalism to global rankings, it becomes essential to think of how liberal arts methods work for the digital age.

Liberal arts can be defined as being founded in humanistic inquiry for the well-being of both individual and society, and given to explorations of questions of method, social justice, scholarly traditions of interpretation and critical thinking.

The digital age, marked by a preponderance of visual texts, shorter attention spans and slogan-type writing (the tweet being a pre-eminent instance), appears to be at odds with the way liberal arts and its cohort of disciplines – history, literature, music, philology, philosophy – have traditionally thought, spoken, written and been taught.

The liberal arts’ traditional SOP

First, liberal arts call for deep thinking and reflection. This is facilitated by deep reading and reflection on what is read. This includes critical examination of the concepts, leaving nothing unexamined (for example, nationalism, secularism, heterosexuality).

It is interested in and reflects upon how words, discourses and registers are employed in the languages of national identity, history, names and identities to enable some people to belong and some, to be excommunicated. The liberal arts, when taught with rigour, ensure that the concepts and signifiers are also contextualised deeply, so that even supposedly innocuous usages are seen to pack ideological baggage that is discriminatory and not discerning.

For example, ‘clash of civilizations’, ‘aliens’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘natives’ are terms and signifiers that are loaded with specific historical connotations and which define peoples’ lives. In other words, the languages of politics, history-writing and the everyday are studied for questions of power, belonging, inclusion/exclusion – all of which require careful attention to words, registers and discourse. 

This is, of course, a time-consuming method. In the age of the MCQs, summaries and the precis as means of reducing the burden on teachers and students, – one notes in passing that the pandemic exacerbated these ‘systems’ in the name of making things easy – sustained engagement with concepts, terms and contexts which requires extended time is not possible, or even deemed necessary. Thus, we undertake the process of reading and interpretation at a speed that does not allow for deeper reflection. Philosophical concepts, literary forms and political ideas are made available in summary form, thereby erasing the possibility of reflection, and also a nuanced understanding of the same.

Also read: The Creativity of Liberal Arts Versus the Speed of Digital Culture

Then there is the form of liberal arts output; its form of delivery – the meditative essay, also born of the SOP of deep reading and sustained reflection.

The blog, the tweet and the slogan as genres of the new age demand short, terse and often cryptic writing. The popularity of the meme that summarises the ‘great’ novels in one sentence each; the Twitterature volume (Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books Retold Through Twitter by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin); The Royal Shakespeare Company tweeting Romeo and Juliet are instances of abbreviated liberal arts work.

The meditative essay, which takes a while to come to the core argument, uses footnotes and block quotes, then proceeds to unpack the arguments it is critiquing one by one is, perhaps, not a feasible genre now. In the age of post-truth and summaries, with their easy dismissal of arguments without a shred of evidence or logical reasoning, the liberal arts essay, which insists on hypothesis, rationale, argumentation, evidence, internal logic and modalities of refutation, is untenable. The liberal arts is not a quick field of inquiry, in short.

Second, the inherent resistance of liberal arts to sweeping generalisations that are made without evidence or worse, with selective evidence, ensures that it is an anachronism. The liberal arts do not endorse majoritarianism as proof of validation or truth-values; rather, the adheres to great African American thinker-activist Booker T. Washington’s, formulation, A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good, just because it’s accepted by a majority”.

Liberal arts will, of course, argue about how something came to be accepted as ‘fact’ or ‘truth’, the power structures that regimented ‘truth’, among others. So much so that the liberal arts approach would appear, in the digital age, like so much quibbling over nuances. 

And yet, that is the point.

The liberal arts’ refusal to be swayed by rhetorical flourishes and jingoism stems from its insistence on investigations into processes that enabled some dogma to become (exclusionary) truth, so that it unravels subtexts, ideologies and influences. Its insistence on examining systems of power ensures that concepts, contexts and processes are all unpacked to reveal how, for example, gender roles were made to appear ‘natural’.

The traditional liberal arts methodologies and concerns, from philology to history, semantics to image studies, philosophical explorations to ethical issues, demand a scrupulous attention to words, historical facts and specifics, and the social construction of facts rather than vague assertions that are deemed to be emotionally true. In an age where the superficial and the surface dominates the rhetoric of the tweet, which does not demand nuances and evidence, the liberal arts lose their principal strength: close attention to language, ideology and power.

Also read: Please Study Political Science – But Not Just to Sit for UPSC Exams

Third, the liberal arts’ foundational assumptions of equality, multiple identities and justice that undergirds its motto of plurality and pluralism, is unsustainable in a world given to easy binarisms (us/them, insider/outsider, original/fake). In an age when the emotional appeal, via jingoistic rhetoric, is given over to such binaries, then the liberal arts’ insistence on plurality of meaning, identity and origins becomes untenable.

In the age where emotional appeal gathers strength around notions of fixed, unchanging and originary identities, the liberal arts’ argument in favour of features and states of being like multiculturalism and syncretism, or fluid identities and borrowings/influences, shared borders and roots, would be nothing short of anathema. The liberal arts’ emphases, in short, lack emotional appeal because they appeal to nuanced, layered understandings, whether of the self or of society and not static identities and invented binarisms.   

Crude emotional appeal is not the liberal arts’ SOP. It is the careful, often plodding, appeal to reason (the feature of human civilization that the European Enlightenment, now of course debunked, enshrined). In an age of simplistic, reductive truths, an argument for multiple truths is just not tenable.

So then?

In his 2018 book Tyrant, Stephen Greenblatt, arguably the most influential Shakespeare scholar today, demonstrated how Shakespeare’s plays, often dismissed as tedious, outdated and of course, by a white, Christian and privileged male, can direct our attention to how democracies make dictators possible. That is, Greenblatt’s literary studies approach enables him to recontextualise Shakespeare in contemporary Trump’s America.

Stephen Greenblatt
W.W. Norton and Company, 2018.

But the key point is not the argument he makes; the point is how he makes it.

Written for the non-literary studies, non-academic audience, Greenblatt delivers a Shakespeare who could very well be a writer of a soap-opera script or a street-play. Greenblatt reads Shakespeare closely, needless to say, but he writes the interpretation in a language that is popular, even populist. Perhaps this is the way for the liberal arts to espouse.

A similar shift is perceivable in digital projects from established institutions and scholars: the Critical Posthumanism and Arcades projects; scholars like Rosi Braidotti and others blogging. Their lectures, quite a few of which are not academic in tone, are now on YouTube, alongside their more seriously-toned conference presentations and formal lectures. Videos and Instagram Reels are short, crisp and deliver the thoughts and ideas in a bite-sized portion rather than as the academic tome. 

Blogs now carry writings by celebrity authors, commentators and critics, but the delivery of their key concepts and ideas is through the language of popular writing. In the sciences, as we recognise, Matt Ridley transformed the communication strategies of high-end research, bringing it to the common reader.

Perhaps the solution lies in new forms of academic work, such as the photo essay (notably seen in the productions from the Centre for New Economic Studies), graphic medicine and developmental/environmental comics (by, to take just one example, the work of Rohan Chakraborty).

Perhaps the liberal arts need also to adopt and adapt a less forbidding (think, the Oxford University Press titles in History with 35 pages of endnotes, in small font!) tone of voice. The big publishers – Oxford University Press, Routledge and others – have redesigned scholarly resources in the form of online materials such as the Oxford Bibliography Online, Oxford Reference and Oxford Scholarship Online – which puts its high-academic work online, but also carries author-written chapter summaries. Routledge Historical Resources prefaces high-academic essays with easy-to-understand, jargon-free introductions. A language-shift is visible in these online works, which are authored by established scholars and thinkers.

Perhaps liberal art need to make a shift in their register without losing the nuances they traditionally espouse as SOP, in order to get the audience to read what they put out there. They cannot abdicate their primary humanistic inquiry; their foundational commitment to justice, plurality and equity; their long-standing resistance to totalitarianism; their commitment to structures of meaning-making.

What they can perhaps do – and need to do – is to recast their mode of argumentation in more popular registers.

Anna Kurian and Pramod K. Nayar are professors at the University of Hyderabad.