Yes, the Liberal Arts Are In Decline—and the World’s Really Not That Sad About It

Students today, with the encouragement of their professors, are increasingly deciding their own paths of study through fields that are defined by general principles and methods rather than by specific works or thinkers. To some that sounds like a dishearteningly cold pragmatism, but why should anyone be surprised when a newly, and happily, diverse student body finds it hard to get excited about fields of study that until very recently defined many of them into irrelevance? The natural and social sciences have also left a lot of diversity to be desired, but at least when Marie Curie discovered radium, she didn’t have to publish her findings under a male pen name.

The liberal arts are adapting, yes, but as they adapt, they come less and less to resemble what their defenders are mourning: a dedication to “great books and grand subjects,” in the words of Joseph Epstein, who makes clear his loyalty to a particular flavor of “greatness” when he, quite candidly, decries the decision that “the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture.” Epstein preferred a world when there was a “general consensus” about what needed to be taught in college, and that consensus included the conviction that ancient Greeks and Romans were more important to study than—this comes straight from Epstein—African-Americans.

Epstein doesn’t think we’ll find his perspective offensive, because he writes from a perspective that has presumably measured Frederick Douglass against Aristotle and, after careful and fair consideration, given the prize for sagacity to Aristotle. He’s counting on us agreeing that it’s outrageous that Douglass would be taught instead of Aristotle—but that’s a cheat. Just because Toni Morrison has now bumped, say, Proust from syllabi of world literature does not mean that the notion of a “general consensus” about whose books should be taught is any more defensible than it was when African-Americans needed to found their own colleges because the “general consensus” was that blacks didn’t belong at white colleges.

This isn’t a manifesto: I’m not saying we should replace literature with sociology, or philosophy with physics, or poetry with calculus. What I’m saying is that empirically, the world is changing, and higher education is changing along with it. What we now understand, and that Epstein et al seem loath to admit, is that the “general consensus” that defined the humanities in their heyday was never really all that general.

Read the entire post by Jay Gabler

Elizabeth Olsen in “Liberal Arts”: Manic pixie dream school

Earlier this year I wrote a post called “What It Means To Be 36.” I wrote, “I don’t want to be ‘36’—or ‘26,’ or ‘46.’ This is nothing new: I felt the same way about being ‘16’ when I was 16. When adults would refer to me as a ‘teenager,’ I’d tip my nose slightly in the air and say, ‘I prefer the term adolescent.’ Now, as then, I want my life to be seen and judged for what it is, not against an outdated yardstick for what it’s ‘supposed’ to be. Look at who I am and not how old I am.”

Jesse (Josh Radnor), the protagonist of Liberal Arts, is 35 years old and wants desperately to be “35.” He’s pretty sure that means hooking up with a 30-something bookstore clerk instead of a 19-year-old college student, and the way he cites age in his conversations with both (foreplay murmur: “You’re so…age-appropriate!”) would give either or both ample excuse to smack him.

Jesse’s retired professor (Richard Jenkins) has it right: “No one feels like an adult…that’s life’s dirty secret.” Someone was bound to say something resonant in the second half of this movie, since writer-director Radnor takes the charming and sympathetic characters he’s developed in the first act and subjects them to a grueling obstacle course of contrived scenes that have Jesse being lectured on the meaning of life by everyone up to and including a stoner in a ski cap (a ludicrously miscast Zac Efron).

It’s a damn shame, because that first act really isn’t too bad. Jesse, a newly-single New Yorker who supposedly works as a college admissions officer despite the screenplay’s later need for him to have not given so much as a single thought to the continued existence of college and college students for the past decade and a half, drives back to his Midwest alma mater (played by Kenyon College, Radnor’s actual alma mater) to attend his old prof’s retirement party. He ends up spending a long day with sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who—need it be said?—is poised but naïve, with a crush on Jesse that will soon cause him to enact a crisis of conscience in the most obnoxious way possible.

I reserved judgment on Elizabeth Olsen’s acting ability after Martha Marcy May Marlene, a movie that required her to do little more than look photogenically troubled; though Liberal Arts is a much worse movie, it provides Olsen with a more dynamic character, and she gives Zibby subtle dimension. Maybe the best thing that can be said about Radnor’s filmmaking here is that he allows Olsen to create a credible, genuinely lovable character in a film that often makes you want to beat yourself with a meat tenderizer to distract yourself from Jesse’s idiot character and his bicker-esque journey.

For a film that ostensibly celebrates finding the appropriate contentments for one’s age, Liberal Arts leaves one with a distasteful feeling that Radnor isn’t playing fair. The three rivals for Jesse’s attentions are the luminous and complex Zibby, a bitter and cruel cougar (Allison Janney), and a perfectly nice woman Jesse’s own age who gets little screen time and likes to point out Jesse’s grey hairs. She thinks that Jesse’s going to love being old; that may be so, but I have a hunch that Josh Radnor is going to really fucking hate it.

Jay Gabler