The New Liberal Arts
September 3, 2009 2:27 AM   Subscribe

The New Liberal Arts book is out. 47 pages of free pdf about things the various authors think will help prepare you for modern life. Earlier discussion about the planning phase of the book.
posted by srboisvert (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
So New is the new new?
posted by chavenet at 2:48 AM on September 3, 2009

I spent $120,000 on a liberal arts education and all I got was a 47 page PDF.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:02 AM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Your FINAL PROJECT, which accounts for 50% of your grade, will take the
findings from your lab explorations and explode them into a fully-simulated
environment, previous examples of which include:

Getting plastic surgery.
Starting a tribute band.
Launching an ofshore gold farm.
Committing a crime and making your own video reenactment.
Founding an LSD-induced cosplay cult.

Just an average day for the average MeFite, of course...
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:22 AM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Getting plastic surgery.
Starting a tribute band.
Launching an ofshore gold farm.
Committing a crime and making your own video reenactment.
Founding an LSD-induced cosplay cult.

Oh, man. Is it Friday already?
posted by mhoye at 4:03 AM on September 3, 2009

I really liked Dan Levine's idea of teaching "finding". There's an art to it, certainly
posted by MrMerlot at 4:07 AM on September 3, 2009

Replacing "logic" and "rhetoric" and "music" with stuff like this is pretty FAIL. (Or even just proposing that they're on the same footing, for that matter.) I thought Astronomy being present in the original list was kind of pushing it. But obviously I was mistaken, there were really timeless, universal, and transcendent things like "Genderfuck" and "Marketing" missing.

And euggh, this whole thing is so grossly narcissistic. What do you want to bet that all of those people now describe themselves as "authors" on their web sites? Because they of course all included their web sites, right underneath each and every occurrence of their name in the book. Oh, and look, there's even a section of biographies because there just wasn't enough of themselves in the New Liberal Arts.

Good show that this is just a PDF because this is the sort of book that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
posted by XMLicious at 4:30 AM on September 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

Inaccuracy is the art of being intentionally inartful in an immaculate way; it differs from most other liberal arts in that it is not constricted by the singular political perspective ever so entrenched in academe. Thus, it behooves the modern renaissance 2.0 person-in-training to see the world as composed of the true dichotomies—conservatives and liberals, bloggers and journalists, Friendster and MySpace, vapidity and profundity, and greatness and failure. And obviously, a future contributor to society needs to display vim and pizazz in order to make a contribution. Afer all, inaccuracy can start wars—or end them.

Yokels who describe themselves as "creatives" might like this and want to attend workshops on it.
posted by fleetmouse at 5:10 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

They forgot "Webcomics"
posted by dng at 5:18 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Actually XMLicious, those are e-mail addresses and twitter accounts, blog addresses and Web sites, which I'm guessing is to encourage dialogue with the "authors."

Personally I think this is interesting. Knowledge changes and while I still feel that rhetoric, logic and music are very good subjects to know a little something about, more learning is always a good thing. Many of these subjects are about how we are choosing to interface with our cultures and societies. Others are about how these societies and cultures are interfacing with us and how to tell the difference.

Marketing, Myth and magic, Finding -- these are very interesting subjects for consideration, and our understanding of them is increasingly important to the modern person. Reality engineering is a good title for an interesting topic. So is micropolitics and even genderfuck. It wouldn't hurt us to look at gender a little more closely, because, yes, the concepts does well and truly fuck with us.

You can argue that perhaps we shouldn't shove good ol' rhetoric aside for Inaccuracy, and I think you'd be right, but there is a place for both.

Don't get me wrong, I love to condemn hipster douchebags as much as the next midwesterner, but in this instance, this is a little booklet that could really lead to some thoughtful conversations.
posted by BeReasonable at 5:34 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I LOVE the idea of selling a book on the premise that once x number of copies are sold, it will be made available for free. Is this new or has this been done before?
posted by marsha56 at 5:46 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yokels who describe themselves as "creatives" might like this and want to attend workshops on it.

Wanna start a business hosting workshops for yokels?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:11 AM on September 3, 2009

renaissance 2.0
Oh my.
posted by atrazine at 6:16 AM on September 3, 2009

BeReasonable - But "looking at gender more closely" just is not an art. These are nowhere close to "New Liberal Arts", they're at best "Things That Make You Go Hmmm in Late 2009".

And even if "Genderfuck" was an art the Greeks kinda had that covered with Tiresias millenia ago. Being extremely impressed with your own insights or your generation's or your era's is pretty much the complete antithesis of the notion that there are transcendent liberal arts that define a human's intellectual dexterity across the ages, from Aristotle to Thomas Becket to Abraham Lincoln.

Doing something like incorporating non-Western intellectual lineages into our concept of liberal arts, like those of China or India, and perhaps refining our concept of logic or music or rhetoric with some 20th and 21st century insight maybe would constitute "purifying" the liberal arts as this book talks about in its introduction. But tossing up "Coding and Decoding" on the list, and in that context dropping tidbits about modern linguistics and computer programming as though the topic is all some newfangled notion instead of a subject that occupied people from the dawn of philosophy and scholarship and all the way down through human history in many if not all the cultures on Earth, is not purifying the liberal arts.

"This beautiful object is our way of keeping faith with the past." - bullshit I say, and narcissistic bullshit at that.
posted by XMLicious at 6:31 AM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

The fourth sentence of the first entry refers directly to the reader as "you my dear student." That's about as far as I got. I like my condescension to at least try to be subtle.
posted by oddman at 6:40 AM on September 3, 2009

I think you've kind of missed their central premise, which is that liberal arts changes over time: "And this is the truth of it: The liberal arts have always been changing just as much as we have."

And I think I definitely disagree with your definition of liberal arts. When I was in school, it was more along the lines of this: "studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills (rather than occupational or professional skills)." In that context, this little deal is spot on.

Although I think you have identified a weak spot in this, which is where is globalization or even GlobalFuck? Where is the study of how everyone else's culture is changing your culture?

I do think the use of the word purified is sort of at odds with the rest of what that introduction says and I actually just skipped over that.
posted by BeReasonable at 6:45 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

In this digital world, your attention, once in abundant supply, has become SEX increasingly scarce.

posted by Cookiebastard at 6:59 AM on September 3, 2009

Until right now, I always thought snarkmarket and snarkout were the same person. Stupid me.
posted by mathowie at 7:05 AM on September 3, 2009

>What do you want to bet that all of those people now describe themselves as "authors" on their web sites?

I, too, long for the days when 'author' wasn't so debased a term, and we all looked up to them as fonts of wisdom.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:57 AM on September 3, 2009

These folks just kicked my old notions of education square in the teeth, and then the teeth were on the floor, and then they stomped on the teeth and said "Take that, old notions of education!" And it was all in a PDF!

It was just, like, so cool when the one guy used FUCK -- "FUCK," for God's sake! -- in his essay. Remember that? The "Gender...FUCK!!"? Oh man, that was so awesome. I wish my old professors were like some of these guys. Imagine that!

"'The Maypole of Merry Mount' is totally PURITAN/RESIDUALFUCK! Richard Wright is RACEFUCK! Derrida is WORDFUCK!"

I would've busted a FUCKFUCK if that'd happened. LOLZ.

I showed this to a friend, and he was all like, "Oh, this is just another sad gasp from postmodernism; the intellectual trend that, despite its emphasis on remembering the temporal, cultural, and historical contextualization of ideas, just won't admit its own irrelevance in the new millennium."

(Mind you, this friend of mine, he's a real pedant. He needs a PEDANTFUCK where, like, we upset normative notions of what it means for him to sleep next to his Thomas Percy's. He's such a fag. No, it's cool for me to say it, don't worry -- I saw Hedwig...twice.)

He went on, "Not everything that needs to be said can be said quickly. Merely replacing so-called old, revered notions with trendy ideas based on current market trends -- 'marketing' for 'rhetoric,' for instance - does not constitute sound pedagogy, even in theory."

What an asshole.

Then he said, "A syntax and message semi-reconstituted from the dead avenue of critical theory and a tinted-Pink political bent that makes the song 'It's a New Day'sound like 'The Internationale' do not inspire me to 'purify' liberal arts -- they just give me a stomach ache."

STOOPID JERK! I totally want to take these classes! And shouldn't education be based on what I, as the paying fucking customer, want to take?



posted by ford and the prefects at 8:10 AM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nice list (the descriptions of the concepts are a bit breezy, though), but any curriculum really serious about making it in the modern world should have HVAC, Medical Billing Specialist, and Get Your Degree in there.
posted by ignignokt at 8:36 AM on September 3, 2009

"'The Maypole of Merry Mount' is totally PURITAN/RESIDUALFUCK! Richard Wright is RACEFUCK! Derrida is WORDFUCK!"

That's wordwang!

"Oh, this is just another sad gasp from postmodernism; the intellectual trend that, despite its emphasis on remembering the temporal, cultural, and historical contextualization of ideas, just won't admit its own irrelevance in the new millennium."

Well, I could give your friend the benefit of the doubt and grant that he might actually know what postmoderism was. But let's face it, I'd be betting against the odds.
posted by atrazine at 8:52 AM on September 3, 2009

Wow, it looks like the Chaos magicians got someone to take them seriously. Really. this was a lot cooler when it was called The Invisibles, all the postmodern bullshit plus magic(k) and Grant Morrison.
posted by khaibit at 8:52 AM on September 3, 2009

BeReasonable: I think you've kind of missed their central premise, which is that liberal arts changes over time: 'And this is the truth of it: The liberal arts have always been changing just as much as we have.'

That's still a false premise. We haven't changed all that much - not so much that "Logic" has become "Genderfuck" and "Rhetoric" has become "Attention Economics". The people from a thousand years ago and a hundred years ago weren't some bug-eyed aliens, as conservatives would have us believe all foreigners and especially Muslims and Communists are. They were just like we are now apart from our per capita GDP's and a few other details of materialistic value.

And thousands of years right down to a hundred years ago and less is what we're talking about. Here is Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis from the Fifth Century and here are the same seven things listed on the seal of the University of Pennsylvania, founded by good ol' Ben Franklin, from their 1894 course catalog. This isn't some personal definition of the liberal arts I'm using. It's all over the place in the U. S. "classical education movement" of the early-to-mid 20th century too.

This is same the list of seven liberal arts that is mentioned in the introduction of the PDF we're discussing. But, y'know, in this work which the authors so modestly and self-effacingly name a "beautiful object" they have improved upon and "purified" the liberal arts - 'cause all those people during the last few thousand years, they just wouldn't get us modern women and men.

Ever since, let me see, about the time the eldest of these authors was born everything totally changed. Those old liberal arts just couldn't handle the needs of us edgy, distinctive, unique 21st centurarians¹.

¹ Centurarians: totally invented word developed for "New Vocabulary", which has much improved and purified words compared to the Old Vocabulary, fo' shizzle.
posted by XMLicious at 8:56 AM on September 3, 2009

(Checking my links, I guess I should have said "seven of the same things" rather than "the same seven things".)
posted by XMLicious at 8:58 AM on September 3, 2009

As a snarky aside...
Does anyone know of any overtly conservative schools who may have re-named the area of Liberal Arts to something else, given the general hate of anything remotely Liberal. Freedom Arts, perhaps?

It just seems like something that would happen in this country today, given the crazy polarization and balkanization of ideology we're experiencing.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:17 AM on September 3, 2009

Wait, people actually paid for this "book"? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for folding new knowledge in with old knowledge to make a new knowledge cake, but these essays are feel contrived and they don't seem to even try to integrate the old with the new.
posted by bigmusic at 9:33 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

XMLicious, I think it is time I got off your lawn. I took logic in school. Interesting class. Yay, funny symbols and puzzles. If I had taken say, coding and decoding, would I have perhaps covered similar themes but also something that was less abstracted?

I get that nothing is new under the sun, but at the same time, perhaps we can relate the old to more modern concerns in a more modern way...

And to make my point again, I think your version of the liberal arts and mine don't match. I get that you're saying rhetoric,logic, etc. but it doesn't have to mean that and doesn't seem to be what they are saying it means. At my school, it didn't mean that and from a quick search, Harvard doesn't think so either.

The liberal arts is a title for a group of arts. What those arts are has changed. That is what they are saying when they mention your liberal arts. It's only to explain that the arts where changed, and then changed again and again.
posted by BeReasonable at 9:38 AM on September 3, 2009

I can't wait till the "Stuff White People Like" crowd and the New Media Twitterati start making Olympics 2.0 with hacky-sack and ARGs.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 9:42 AM on September 3, 2009

But let's face it, I'd be betting against the odds.

All grumpy academics know at least one facet of postmodernism -- the one that pisses them off the most.
posted by ford and the prefects at 9:46 AM on September 3, 2009

They should have called the PDF Marky Mark on Marketing Marketing. It reminds me of this. Its like how the adults talk in Peanuts cartoons or listening to chickens squawking with beakfulls of marbles.
posted by sciurus at 10:16 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

BeReasonable: I think it is time I got off your lawn...

Wow, BeReasonable, you pull off the condescending thing quite well for someone who's being reasonable.

Look, they started off the book discussing the trivium and quadrivium and saying things like The very name, 'liberal arts,' evokes a body of learning that is as durable as it is ancient. Feel free to assert that it's inappropriate or something to call them on this but for me to disagree doesn't make me ornery or old-fashioned, regardless of what it says on the Harvard web site.

But even if they'd just taken it upon themselves to define a new liberal arts relative just to what it says on the Harvard web site, doing that and talking about purifying the liberal arts and declaring this POS of a typeset blog thread a "beautiful object" would still be pretty arrogant.

Relating old things to modern things is just fine (and I apologize, I should have conceded that before - you were courteous enough to compliment a number of my points which set a fine example), it's doing so while setting yourself and your ideas up on a pedestal that I object to. Like many if not most people, in my line of work I often come up with stuff I think IMO is pretty innovative, on which I spend quite a bit more time than appears to have been spent on the average essay in this book, but I don't talk about changing paradigms or laud the aesthetic qualities of my work. (Okay, maybe a little bit inside my head, but doing that publicly and talking about "purifying" a field is right out.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:56 AM on September 3, 2009

I like the concept a lot and was looking forward to reading this, and was really disappointed that the articles were very, very slight, with obvious neo-cliches disguised as insights. Chicken Soup 2.0 for the Stuff White People Like Soul or Lack Thereof
posted by speicus at 12:19 PM on September 3, 2009

XMLicious, I sincerely apologize if my opening came off as condescending. I was going more for humor.

The thing is, I think you've kind of fixated on two little things, and in my mind, I see it as you think things ought to be this way and not that way.

The dividing line seems to be your understanding is the traditional understanding of the term, of the concepts, and of what constitutes the things under discussion. The authors and I don't see things that way.

The definition of liberal arts seems to be what you reference, but also what I originally referenced. If you accept my definition: studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills (rather than occupational or professional skills), this all is much less offensive.

As for the purifying thing, I just don't see why you're fixating on that. Seriously it's one word in the middle of scads of paragraphs about how liberal arts changes over times and that is, in fact, where they mention the trivium and quadrivium. I would suggest that you just ignore that. It will allow you to enjoy the ideas presented more.

As to the reference of the beautiful object, I think they are literally referring to the physical book itself. "If you’re reading this as a physical book: We hope you enjoy it, too. This beautiful object is our way of keeping faith with the past."

I think they are alluding to the classical styling of the book. Not necessarily the content within. Less douchey, more retro.

Truthfully, I recognize this is all very light on substance, but I think the idea behind it is quite interesting and I am a person who is excited by ideas...
posted by BeReasonable at 12:41 PM on September 3, 2009

but I think the idea behind it is quite interesting and I am a person who is excited by ideas...

Are we to believe then, BeReasonable, that those of us who stand in opposition to The New Liberal Arts concept -- and all such similar concepts -- are not excited by ideas?

My (non-satirical, less-jerkish) argument against this concept has this thesis: it's better to understand the concepts outlined in this pamphlet by way of their classical precedents, not as the things in themselves.

Let's take the, er, "Genderfuck." Does studying canonical texts dealing with gender help students come to understand how social structures shape their personal gender identities? Yes. Can students, from this point, begin to play with those identities -- to question them in new, exciting ways? Certainly. Now, here's the rub: Will this method -- studying "the old" to understand "the new" -- accomplish the same ends as the author's proposed "Genderfuck"? Well, let's look at the stated goals of this proposed course, the questions this teacher wants the students to ask:
A) Where do my ideas about normal gender come from?
B) How do I regulate my thoughts and behavior based on those ideas?
C) What are the rewards associated with meeting standards of gender?
D) What are the consequences of failing to live up to gender norms?
E) What would I be like if I didn’t feel compelled to act like one particular
I think the answer is yes: if we offer students the basic skills a Liberal Arts education means to impart, through the lens of established cultural texts, they will be able to apply those skills to "non-traditional" texts, including themselves and their bodies.

I'll concede that educators have for far too long resisted bringing non-traditional texts (including the self) into play in the classroom. However, a massive over-correction one way or another will do little to rectify the situation. So, we train a generation of students to understand and analyze the works of Charles Saatchi but not Sophocles. Well, what happens to Sophocles? And does Charles Saatchi really need the academy's help to get his message out? Seems to me that him and his ilk have been doing a fine job of that without our help.

In other words: An eighteen-year-old doesn't need my help learning to read Cribs, but she sure as hell needs my help learning to read Homer.

Yes, an increased emphasis on media literacy would help even out the balance between old timers and 2.0-heads. It could start in secondary education, before students step foot inside a college classroom. As an instructor, I would constantly bring in "non-traditional texts." However, they functioned as supplements to and not replacements for the core texts and concepts that one needs to be competently culturally literate.

A former professor of mine put it this way: we're creating a generation of students who want to be Charles Mingus before they can play their basic scales. I see the function of the core Liberal Arts curriculum -- particularly the all-important first year -- as teaching students to play their damn scales.
posted by ford and the prefects at 1:25 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

[The] definition of liberal arts...was more along the lines of this: "studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills (rather than occupational or professional skills)."

Well, yes, but there's a bit more to it than that, at least if you consider the original Medieval Academic context of the liberal arts - and since this is explicitly an attempt to recast the arts for a new era, we ignore that original context at our peril.

The liberal arts are "liberal" because they were the exclusive province of men at liberty - in the original conception, sons of the nobility and of the more elevated burghers. They were at the pinnacle of their society, and their private concerns mapped fairly well to the tip of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Provisionally accepting that model, you could say that they were after a medieval Christian sort of self-actualization, consisting in the pursuit of (again, medieval and Christian versions of) morality, creativity, abstract problem-solving, and the collection and understanding of knowledge.

Their education was designed to suit. In form, it was abstract and apolitical, as befit men who had no practical wants and therefore no desire to change the status quo; and for content it drew from the finest (and the most abstract and apolitical) of theology and classical learning.

An educated free man was dedicated first to Truth. He could reason it out like an Aristotle (logic), contend it like an Aquinas (rhetoric), and phrase it with the felicity of an Abelard (grammar). His second concern was knowledge of numbers, for the way that they expressed "the love that moves the sun and other stars" rather than for themselves or their applications. Wikipedia puts it well - "arithmetic was pure number, geometry was number in space, music number in time, and astronomy number in space and time."

His education didn't consider numbers in relation to people, any more than its conception of Truth left room for the compromises of life as it is lived. After his education was complete, the Free Man might go on to law, medicine, the monastery, or the court; he might find himself a great deal in the world and its macculate affairs; but these things held little challenge for a mind founded on the crystal of the higher spheres.

Or so it was supposed at the time. From a bit of a distance, we can see that one of the effects of a programmatic education in a dead language is the strengthening of class; "free men" of different countries who can bandy Plato in Latin have more in common with each other than with the tacitly enslaved serfs who work their lands. We can debate endlessly about the explicit assumptions of the liberal arts and its components, and I actually think that an early education in abstract thought, critical reasoning, rhetoric, and mathematics is worthwhile in itself. But implicitly, the liberal arts have always been a form of upper-class socialization, and so the whole concept is problematic.

Elements of the medieval concept of the liberal education persisted in tertiary ed up through the early 1900s. Consider these elements of the "liberal humanist" method of criticism:
...3. [Literature] must be studied in isolation... all that is necessary is close verbal analysis of text without previous expectations

4. human nature is unchanging; continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation

5. individuality transcends the forces of society, experience, and language... people's personalities do not change
Sound familiar? The Christian focus faded, but not the emphasis on fixed and eternal Truth apart from "society, experience, and language." And keep in mind that most of the liberal humanist academics were scions of the upper class. The liberal arts didn't much change after all.

As regards the New Liberal Arts™ - well, there's no larger philosophical program at work, no pedagogical theory, no guiding principle beyond sheer "RELEVANCE!!!"; and most of the subjects are either political ("genderfuck," "reality engineering") or practical ("journalism," "home economics"). It doesn't seem like an organized attempt to criticize the flaws inherent in the liberal arts, nor like a try at redeeming those elements of it that still have power to excite - the connection with thousands of years of striving, the attraction of pure thought, the pride of a clean and well-tempered mind.
posted by Iridic at 1:47 PM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

Oh hey, I'm in this book. I wrote the piece on Myth and Magic. They approached me after I wrote stacks of comments on the original entry (which was linked to above).

For those of you going on about "Stuff White People Like": Myself and at least one other contributor are Malaysian. And I've had issues with my uni's chosen academic sources being so heavily Western-centric while making other cultures "exotic" and only good as sources of appropriation. Take of that what you will.

(Also, I do write for other things, mainly online, but it hasn't occured to me to mention this in my resume yet.)
posted by divabat at 3:50 PM on September 4, 2009

The new liberal arts are statistics and algorithms, not late-stage "theory" bullshit.
posted by grobstein at 2:04 AM on September 5, 2009

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