On liberal arts and flourishing

I wrote this a few years ago as part of my application to my current program, the College Fellows at UVA. My thoughts have since evolved (…or devolved into something less optimistic about the future of academia, tbh), but remain faithful to the general spirit.

At the beginning of the new decade, an algorithmically generated link to an article appeared in my browser. It touted an architect’s “radical vision” for a modern open office floor plan. This glassy new workplace, dubbed the “Eudaimonia machine,” was divided into strict zones to maximize productivity, even including a plunge in a shower space to shepherd employees into “deep work” zones. Its name, the architect claimed, referred to Aristotle’s concept of “the epitome of human capability.” The word eudaimonia was familiar to me. I had first encountered it as a freshman in a year-long liberal arts sequence in foundational texts. But this architecture of mechanistic efficiency — designed to reduce socialization and enhance productivity– resembled less Aristotle’s “human flourishing” than a concept I had learned of later: Agamben’s posthumanist vision of bare life, as theorized through the Nazi gas chambers.  

Projects like the “Eudaimonia machine” expose the difference between a surface literacy of glib reference and a true aesthetic literacy grounded in historical, ethical, and formal understanding. In the 21st century, the former dominates a ceaseless cultural sphere oversaturated by the rapid-fire discourses of social media. Digital streaming services, each owned by their own corporate platform, make it possible to exist in a cultural loop of personalized reference, free of the tensions inherent to encountering another place, time, and sensibility. Such trends may make ideals like historicity and rigor seem impossibly out of date. But I would argue that these ideals, as instituted through a comprehensive liberal arts education, are more necessary than ever. As mass culture becomes increasingly atomized, education must step in to shape a coherent, comprehensive body of shared knowledge. 

My area of research specialization, premodern China, had its own institution adjacent to a liberal arts education: a meritocratic imperial bureaucracy rooted in comprehensive learning. By reading and being morally cultivated by a classical body of knowledge, one could be raised to the civil service elite, who shared a language to articulate the conditions of elite governance. Today, in the American university, the vestigial structures of a similar elite meritocracy persist– the holdover from a time where an education promised civil subject-formation– but without any faith of purpose to guide them. Anxious platitudes of self-discovery hide the hollowness of increasingly specialized programs, which mistake intellectual freedom for the false freedom of consumer choice. This veneer of caring pluralism masks a loss of faith in the ability of an integrated scholarly pursuit to speak to the world, and have the world speak back in turn. 

When I think back to my own liberal arts experience, in which eighteen-year-olds huddled over a single Sappho verse, I consider a different kind of freedom– a freedom from the conditions of the present, the loss of oneself in the shared project of interpreting ancient voices. Only a liberal arts education can offer a common language rooted in the deep past that can guide, inform, and articulate the conditions of the present. 

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