University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Spring 2001

Something Rotten In the State of the Arts?

Purists claim the arts should not be sullied by business. Pragmatists devalue the BA for failing to impart job skills. A pox on them, for they are all wrong. A defence of the liberal arts degree

In the spring of 1972, I was sitting in the University College refectory when my friend Allan Sternberg, who was enrolled in what was then called Commerce and Finance, came in with a group of fellow math students and showed me an algebra word problem they had been trying to solve for a week. Illustration: Bruce RobertsI was taking no math courses, no science courses, nothing but liberal arts and Spanish. I solved the problem in 10 minutes, using a line of reasoning Allan and his friends considered just this side of insane. I suspected it was insane, too, that I’d managed to solve the problem. The only thing I knew for sure, with an instinct I wouldn’t be able to understand for a long time afterward, was that if I had been taking math instead of English, Commerce and Finance instead of Soc and Phil, I would never have come up with the answer.

That day in 1972 recently came into focus again when I became aware of what at first seemed like a raging tempest in a teapot, but which turned out to be a fundamental debate regarding the liberal arts and their relationship to the university and the world. Rodney Dangerfield might have characterized it as a controversy over the issue of liberal arts respect. In particular, it was about the public reaction to a series of ads. I first saw the ads myself last fall in an issue of this magazine, but a lot of others had already seen them in the Globe and Mail, where they had been running earlier. The joint brainchild of Carl Amrhein, dean of arts and science, and Kim Luke, the faculty’s public relations director, the ads (designed by the TAXI agency in Toronto) had the understated, quirky cleverness of the early Volkswagen ads. If you are reading this, you are probably familiar with them. The first one I saw, and my favourite, consisted of hand-printed block text on a sheet in a looseleaf notebook, reading: “You have an English degree. Now what? A) Correct other people’s grammar; B) Run Bank of Montreal.” Below was the student card of one Tony Comper, U of T English grad and the actual chairman and CEO of Bank of Montreal. Subsequent ads, equally funny, featured (among others) Gordon Cheesbrough, philosophy graduate and president and CEO of Altamira Investment Services Inc., and Maureen Kempston Darkes, political science grad and president and general manager of General Motors of Canada Ltd. All were smart deflations of the myth of the impracticality of a liberal arts degree. They were terrific. They were also accurate.

A few months before the ads appeared, coincidentally, Mike Harris, premier of Ontario, had insinuated that there were too many philosophers and sociologists being graduated, and by inference that they lacked the required practical skills necessary for the job market. The bald truth, however, is that a remarkable 90 per cent of liberal arts graduates have jobs within six months of graduation, 97 per cent two years after graduation. Here, at last, was a non-whiny, ironic, hip justification of a field of study and a way of life that most of us who had sat in the UC refectory knew instinctively was of great value, but who hadn’t had the “facts” till now to lobby effectively against “practical” studies proponents like Premier Mike.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read a letter to the editor in the winter issue of University of Toronto Magazine railing against the ads, from one Leyland Gordon (BA 1995 Trinity). Gordon found the idea of “applauding the [business] ‘success’ of past liberal arts grads to be offensive and entirely at odds with the mandate of a liberal arts education.” The strategy was just a “further reflection of the growing corporatization of the university system,” he wrote. “Can’t we applaud these disciplines for their own sake?… Please stop promoting U of T liberal arts programs as buy-in-now, sell-out-later venues.”

And Gordon was far from alone. A significant number of students, faculty and alumni at the university opposed the ads for similarly purist reasons. Dean Amrhein quickly became familiar with the complaint. “The criticism went like this: the core value of a liberal arts degree has everything to do with personal achievement and not utility; it is not meant to be sold, because that’s not why people take these courses,” he says. University presidents across the country could not get enough of U of T’s ads, but a vocal proportion of the university’s community thought they demeaned the pursuit of the arts by characterizing them as a means to an end. Hyping the study of literature because it might make you a bank president was seen as slander; selling the humanities was a kind of monumental con job.

My immediate response, besides a split second of disbelief, was, so what? In the first place, the ads weren’t a con job in the purest sense of the term, because the con was in the means, not the end. A true con job would have meant that an arts degree didn’t confer the possibilities it obviously did, that more than 90 per cent of the faculty’s graduates did not end up employed within six months of graduation (the same percentage as science students). And Tony Comper wasn’t the chairman of Bank of Montreal. But even if the ads were a con job, process-wise because in our heart of hearts we would rather have people studying Milton because of the rush of epiphany it delivers as opposed to the thrill of the opening stock-market quotes – so what again? If you have something good to sell, sell it. The first rule of selling is to get the product to the consumer, or the product into the consumer, at which point the virtues of the product take over. Once you get someone to open As I Lay Dying, the magic of Addie Bundren’s weird post-mortem journey is sufficient to keep him or her there. Have great work transmitted by a good and passionate teacher, and the most diehard Philistine doesn’t have a chance. The ads were to get people into classes that needed no ads, to the place where Art sold itself.

But the “so what?” went deeper than that, to what, after a quarter-century of writing journalism and fiction and screenplays in the “real” world, I had come to regard as two of the more insidious illusions of the ivory tower complex when it came to the humanities and their selling. The first illusion is the “tower” half of the complex, what you might call the Illusion of the Fragmentation of Experience. This is the notion that the humanities, like the university itself, can somehow divorce themselves successfully from the real world, the world of logic and reason, in the same way an Orthodox Jew tries to separate his cerebral upper half from his carnal lower half by wearing a garment called a gartel around his waist. In both cases, it turns out, the separation is an illusion (the rebbes knew this if the university didn’t), an attempt to convince ourselves that “arts” and “science,” and “cerebral” and “carnal” were natural divisions handed down by God at a cocktail party after the Big Bang, and not constructs as artificial as a Beanie Baby. But constructs they are, a sometimes helpful, sometimes misleading way of taxonomizing our experience of the world. In reality, arts and science can’t be divided any more than passion and reason can.

This becomes manifestly evident when you talk to people like Michael Dixon. Dixon (BA 1965 UC, MA 1967) is the graduate director of English; he is also a fascinating mirror image of the ads in question. His own educational history is instructive: a gifted science student in the late ’50s, when “it was the Sputnik era and if you did well in high school science, the assumption was you would go into science in university,” Dixon did study math and physics at U of T. He then left to work for IBM, then just branching tentatively into something called the computer. However, Dixon was also concurrently writing poetry and taking philosophy and linguistics courses on the side, stimulated by an interest in the relationship “between English and the artificial languages being developed for computers.” He ended up taking a leave from IBM (although he kept returning in the summers to make money), earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and philosophy at U of T, and a PhD in English at Harvard University, at which point he left IBM for good and apparently entered the enemy camp, a teaching career in the liberal arts.

Apparently is the salient point. More interesting than the facts of Dixon’s background is what that background has meant for his pedagogy. “I have always thought,” he says, “that my English students should be as clear-thinking as physics students, and I suspect that the methods of thinking, the organization of thought and self-correcting processes, are very similar. A novel or a play is a kind of laboratory case of a paradoxically ideal type, the type you only dream about in science, where in order to test your ideas, all the evidence that needs to be used to test it – the text – is available. If you make a mistake you are in a unique position to find out why this disconnect exists between your impression and what’s on the page.”

What’s essential to note is that Dixon isn’t claiming that scientific methods are superior and should be grafted onto English, or that literature is a “super-science” improvement on the laboratory arts, but something more subtly radical: that the problem-solving processes, deductive and inductive, in both disciplines are the same. “If I had my way I would have a first-year course, common for every science and humanities undergraduate, in which students had to define a problem, design a way to examine that problem, set up a hypothesis and test it,” he says. “You’d have French literature and thermodynamic students side by side, and it would take them about 15 minutes to realize that their approach to problem-solving was the same.”

If your average arts purist would blanch at the notion that the best way to attack a Shakespeare sonnet is to try the same strategy you would use with a Werner Heisenberg thought experiment, then another of Dixon’s ideas regarding the beneficial impact of the humanities on the sciences might render a science purist even paler: this is the Platonic notion of aporia, or “pathlessness.” Or, in non-Platonic terms, the value of admitting that you don’t know. “Plato thought that wisdom always started with aporia, when you recognize you are off the well-worn path, you’re not following anyone else’s path, you’re not in a rut,” says Dixon. “Trying to create that state of aporia is the business of education. It doesn’t matter what field you are in, what you are after is that sense of wonderment and dilemma that is both hard to induce in students and hard to accept, because it makes you vulnerable and uncertain. It’s the opposite of good training or doing scales, both of which have their uses, but won’t carry you to the ultimate destination.”

And it’s precisely this aporia – or at least the lack of it – that Jeremy Carver, who is effectively Dixon’s own occupational mirror image, never tires of talking about. A kid from an acknowledged “artsy” family (he and his father were regular onstage extras when the opera came to town), Carver (BA 1961 UC) is professor emeritus of medical genetics and microbiology. He first became a renowned biochemistry researcher at U of T and then the renowned CEO of GLYCODesign Inc., a publicly traded biotech company in downtown Toronto with a working capital of $47 million. GLYCODesigns’ prize creation to date is a molecule named GD0039, which has a good chance one day of stopping cancer cells from metastasizing – and being one of the keys to understanding cancer. A staunch campaigner against what he regards as the destructive modern overspecialization of science and the inability of researchers from various disciplines to speak meaningfully to each other, Carver sees the divide between the artistic and scientific methods as equally artificial and frustrating – particularly because his work can’t be done without that certain liberal arts “thing.”

“I’ve said it a hundred times, in recruiting for our company the problem hasn’t been finding people with technical skills, but finding those with people skills,” says Carver. “This isn’t a dreamy New Age mantra, it’s a precise talent. Because we don’t know everything in science, the ability to admit to other people that you don’t know something is a priceless asset, in many ways more important than knowing mere content. The key ingredient in any kind of creative investigation is to be able to think about things synthetically, pull them together and find common threads.”

A few miles away from Carver’s lab, at AmGen Research Institute in Toronto, a scientist of another generation, U of T associate professor of medical biophysics and immunology Josef Penninger goes even further. Lauded recently as one of the most exciting young researchers in the world, Penninger, at the astonishing age of 36, has published more than 125 scientific articles and made major breakthroughs in four different medical fields in the past five years. Most recently he and his associates have isolated their own molecule, CD45, which appears to be instrumental in switching the immune system on and off, another molecular key to finding a cure for cancer. But Penninger’s high school education, in a special school run by monks in Austria, was heavy on Plato and Socrates and light on biology and chemistry. Later at the University of Innsbruck, where he earned an MD and PhD, he was “fairly bored with medicine” and so wrote articles about his passion, Spanish architecture in the Middle Ages. He remains convinced that if he had taken “only science for 10 years,” he wouldn’t be where he is now. And what he learned by educational fiat is what he considers to be sorely lacking in students of the “solid” disciplines today.

“I’m teaching immunology at the med school at U of T, and I asked my students how many of them had read Plato in their lives, and not a single one had. I thought it was very sad; I think it should be mandatory for students in high school or university to take Latin, Greek, to learn art, no choice,” he says. “I find the people who are really interesting are the people who can put things in context, the ones who don’t have a portfolio, who have to make decisions that are broad. If you have detailed knowledge and no idea about anything else, you’re in trouble. That’s why I would force kids to read Plato, to think and to come up with new solutions. And to learn art, which, if it’s good, involves putting novel things together that have never been put together before. Picasso takes the seat and handlebar of a bicycle and makes the head of a bull. Science does the same thing.”

Not only does Penninger (who is short odds to one day win a Nobel Prize) think science students should be compelled to study the humanities, he thinks they should study them rigorously, with no “bird courses” to accommodate any lurking non-artistic frailties. It was in something of the same spirit that U of T’s Governing Council recently took a stand for rigour and standards of its own, voting, in April 2000, to abolish the 15-credit bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees. An extra year of five credits is insurance against, for one thing, academic tunnel vision, and its attendant fallout. “I’m no more sympathetic toward arts students who are ignorant of science and proud of it than I am of an engineering student who boasts that he’s never read a novel,” says Dixon. “They are both impoverished.”

Or: to be informed on only one end of the human scale is to be uninformed. The urbs, when it comes to a rounded education, truly orbs. The laws of nature and the nature of laws – that is, what we think of as empirical on the one hand and intuitive on the other – ultimately curve around to meet each other. And the boundaries between disciplines too often end up being not just artificial, but sacrificial: when we heed them too closely we sacrifice the openness of our own minds.

There was one person, one Commerce and Finance guy, in the UC refectory that afternoon in 1972 when I fluked the answer to the algebra problem, who was not sanguine about what I had done. In fact, he was truly offended by it. When my friend Allan and the rest of his buddies clapped me on the back and we went out for Chinese food and beer, this one fellow stayed sitting at the table in the flat, white basement light, obviously brooding. According to the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, one of the hardest things to do is respond to anomaly, to something that challenges your world view, and this particular undergraduate had run into a major anomaly: me.

Glancing back at him on my way up the little staircase to the quadrangle, I had the sense that he thought there was something wrong in the air, not just about my solution of the problem but also the too-easy melodramatic conclusion we drew about my solving it, like some ludicrous scene out of Good Will Hunting. And he was probably right. I didn’t fully believe the pats on my back either; I still don’t. I wouldn’t think of advocating the Zen method of algebra solutions today, any more than I would want a Poet Laureate performing my triple bypass surgery. What had seduced us all momentarily in the refectory was the story of the moment; the cunningness of the instant narrative. What the brooding guy sensed – what the people who objected to the ads in the Globe and Mail are probably subconsciously leery of bringing out into the open – was the crafty face of art itself. Art whose end justifies any means. Art the Slick Salesman. Art the Ultimate Con Game.

And this is the second piece of the ivory tower illusion when it comes to the arts and the selling of the arts, the “ivory” part of the illusion, the illusion that art is too pure to be sold. But since when has it been indelicate to sell something that is a dedicated selling tool itself? And what is art, if not the greatest selling job of all time?

The humanities are based on a larger story, the story of humanity, and whether that story has been told in a novel, or an opera, or a movie, or a rap video, it is at bottom a con – not a con in that it is a cheat, but a con in that it appears to be selling one thing but really is just trying to hook you so it can sell something else entirely: the moral or the still point of the turning world, take your pick. The whole aim of art is to get the consumer of it to a place the artist considers vital. Good artists, in both senses of the word, will do anything to get their audiences there: borrow, lie, steal and cheat.

It’s the same with the teaching of art. A great teacher of the humanities will entertain you first, teach you second. The inspiration comes from the click of the tumblers after the thrill of the roller-coaster ride is done. A master artist once she has you in her thrall will exalt your spirit; a master teacher will cajole it. But they’re both salespeople.

And what they’re selling is something that, in spite of what the technology-besotted politicians say about the surfeit of philosophers (and paucity of golfers) on the planet, is not going anywhere. In a world where finding multiple outlets for information is the battle cry, art is in a perfect position to lead the shock troops. People still take magazines, not Palm pilots, into the can to read, and chances are Bill Gates will buy Harry Potter for his children in book, not electronic, form. Ninety per cent of the younger generation in my extended family are actors and animators and playwrights, and most of them are finding work in their chosen or related fields, because the outlets for that work are exploding.

If that trend continues, is it outlandish to think that in 20 years ads may be appearing in technology journals on campus trumpeting the benefits of a science degree for landing a job in the film industry?

And who will be offended then?

Jay Teitel (BA 1973 UC) is a Toronto writer and editor.

Recent Posts