As murky and undisclosed as the root motivations that drive the liberal arts can sometimes seem, there are some tacit assumptions and ambitions that do begin to take shape amongst the arena’s composite disciplines, collectively giving definition to the field of inquiry. Upon examination, “our lives, our world, and our future prosperity” are clearly central concerns that inhere at the very core of liberal arts research. By virtue of the commonalities there are to be found between the heterogeneous approaches to scholarship, analysis, and discourse that traverse the bodies of work found in the study of modern languages, history, philosophy, linguistics, et al. a clearer picture of what might be called the investigation of human enterprise, the study of the human sciences, emerges.
If we are to live in a world dependent upon the transmission of information, where not just functional literacy—the capacity to read and write an alphabet—is essential to gain access to the higher functions and institutions of our society, but also a symbolic and figurative literacy—one that allows the educated to gain some perspective about where and how the subject is situated in the larger world, and that that world has a reality that includes more than the present moment, but also a barely fathomable past and an receding horizon of contemporary cultures and concerns—then it is essential that the expressions and products of human perception and thought are studied. Our culture is the aggregate sum of its parts, past and present, and, when catalogued, the means an individual has to make sense of its existence can seem to be quite meager. A staggering amount of the information that bombards the mind of a contemporary ego relates to immediacy, to navigating and surviving the ever-shifting currents of a surging, interdependent ocean of things-which-must-be-done. What the liberal arts exist to do is to call attention, from within the moment, from the vantage of the perpetually ebbing present, to the patterns that emerge: the way that they replicate; how they imply sources; how they describe and prioritize hierarchies of concern that exist outside of the individual, and rather traverse the space between individuals, construct meaning, and define purposes.
The objects and expressions that humankind produces and has produced—from writing, to sculpture, to architecture, to visual arts, to music—all these things contain within them manifest and latent content. Just as Freud said of dreams, so is it true of all productions of the human mind. Objects that have been bequeathed to us from previous generations, due either to intention or happenstance, reverence or serendipity, these things comprise the substance of our enterprise as a self-referential species. Everything we have that has emerged from human impulse is not only record, but code. In the attempt to understand these objects and the ideas they articulate better, we are breaking a cipher that obscures every unexamined convention, every rote decision, every cultural moment of panic that threatens the cohesion of our collective project.
We are a cooperative species. This cooperative nature is more profound than our economic and national ties. What we read, how we converse, the stories that inspire us, the images that absorb us, the spaces we reside, gather, and celebrate in all contribute to how we prioritize and understand the world that we are constantly creating. Without an attempt to articulate the magnitude of what we express, and what we have been expressing from the beginning of recorded time, we have no hope of escaping dread of the future, or dissatisfaction with the past. Fear is the product of ignorance. This has been true of every region approached by human thought and then subject to resistance of comprehension. Just as we need science, mathematics, and medicine to render the world more approachable and livable, so do we need the liberal arts. Without an attempt to understand what it is that we do, what it is that we have been doing, and how it is that we mean to mean something to ourselves and others—how this project has been a driving force behind living a life worth living since a human being articulated “why?”—we are destined to live on the cusp of an ignorant panic, confounded by the symbols and structures of our own history. The liberal arts are what keep our lives and our world integrated with who we have been, and, increasingly, with who we are today as they study what transmits meaning, on an individual to global scale. The prospect of prosperity is dismal without meaning. Such a way of living can only promote an appalling transience, where the inhabitants of the now perform drastic acts of vivisection on the operations of society that carry the promise of a tomorrow capable of carrying on any insight from its predecessors. Ignoring the necessity of evaluating our connective tissues—the records of human expression—robs potential answers from any member of our race who dares to draw a question mark after doing something (anything) for its own sake.