An article in today's NYT bemoans the state of the Humanities in American colleges and universities:
...in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency. Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities” — which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.
The natural response is to argue that a liberal arts education - which is very much what Confucius had in mind when he talked about education, though he would certainly emphasize moral theory and character education - is useful in the competitive global economy:
While I agree that all of what Bok says is true, I am leery of defending liberal arts, or something like, say, ancient Chinese philosophy (which may, on the face of it, not appear to be immediately relevant to getting a technical job) on grounds of utility. I am afraid that, given the ever deepening power of technology and capitalist standards of efficiency, if we accept those as standards of justification we will, ultimately, lose. I made a similar argument, years ago, about my son, Aidan.
What we need is a spirited defense of uselessness. And where better to do that than on a blog named, The Useless Tree.
Zhuangzi, who gives us the useless tree image, makes at least three defenses of uselessness (which I spell out in the last chapter of my book, Aidan's Way, excerpted below):
1) "If you have no use, you have no grief."
This first interpretation points to liberation. Without the appeal of utility, the useless tree is not cut down; it grows to mammoth proportions while those with sweet fruit or beautiful wood are hacked and cut until, wounded, they die. It is the classic Taoist idea: by doing nothing, the useless tree gains what we all seek. It escapes death and grief. And, by extension, a similar kind of liberation from grief attends to all uselessness, even the Humanities.
2) "Everyone knows that to be useful is useful, but who knows how useful it is to be useless?"
Here there is a suggestion of inadvertent accomplishment. Utility can be found in the apparently useless tree. In one version of the story the ugly behemoth stands next to, and shelters, the village shrine, becoming, through its impressive immensity, a part of the shrine itself. It has a certain function. In another rendition, Chuang Tzu says that the good-for-nothing hulk is, actually, good precisely for its provision of nothingness: "Why not plant it in a village where there’s nothing at all, a land where emptiness stretches away forever! Then, you could be no one drifting lazily beside it, roam boundless and free as you doze in its shade."
The tree thus becomes a facilitator, bringing those who care to use it closer to the Way.
This is a kind of utility by disutility, a backdoor utility justification. Thus, even though it comes close to doing what I am trying to avoid (i.e. justify useless things - like liberal arts and ancient Chinese philosophy - in terms of utility), it is a ironic variation on that theme.
3) "Look, it isn’t like the rest of us: it’s harboring something utterly different. If we praise its practicality, we’ll miss the point altogether, won’t we? "
This is my favorite approach. There is no need for calculation and assessment of the apparently useless. All such efforts are merely vain attempts to make sense of life in terms of only one part of it, the useful (and often not terribly interesting) part. But if, as Zhuangzi argues elsewhere, each thing is integral unto itself; if ... "the real is originally there in things, and the sufficient is originally there in things. There's nothing that is not real and nothing that is not sufficient"…then, why should I ever worry about constructing a notion of usefulness to judge the apparently useless? In doing so, I am blinding myself to large portions of human experience, to say nothing of the broader contours of Way. Indeed, it would, by Zhuangzi's standards, be just as efficacious to reverse field and try to understand the apparently useful in terms of the seemingly useless. Or maybe it would be best to not even try to understand, in some formal rational way, but just see. Otherwise… …"we’ll miss the point altogether, won’t we?"
To bring this back to the Humanities and liberal arts education, Confucius would justify his curriculum (ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and computation) in the manner of Derek Bok - such learning will have a useful effect on the world, it will lead people to live better lives and that will produce better societies, polities and economies. And all of that is for the good.
But Zhaungzi goes further and asks us to embrace the apparently useless. Why not study ancient Chinese philosophy? It is there, it is part of Way, it will tell you as much as you need to know of Way as any other subject, be that chemistry or economics or some other "useful" field. It is certainly a broader (and I would say much more interesting) view of Way than accounting or business. Zhuangzi would not disdain more practical pursuits; quite to the contrary, he rather famously presents meat-cutting as a means of apprehending Way. But why not poetry, too? That is a way into Way also, just as "useful" in that regard as meat-cutting or accounting or whatever. Li Bai (Li Bo) certainly thought so, and we remember him today as having quite a place in the world. He may have had a hard time finding and holding down a job, but he had a heck of a good time of it...