Donald Trump and the Liberal Arts: A Guest Post


The liberal arts teaches judgement informed by virtue, wisdom and prudence.  Donald Trump seems to possess none of these character traits.  This guest post comes from Matthew Boedy, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the Department of English at the University of North Georgia.  –JF

President-elect Donald Trump more than once has told us how smart he is. He has also touted his education, specifically his University of Pennsylvania bachelor’s degree in economics.

Penn’s Wharton School offers a B.S. in economics with a caveat that it does not have “traditional” majors, but concentrations that are defined by four upper-level courses in one area. It’s unclear if this was what Trump faced in the late 60s, when he attended.

Most importantly, Wharton also makes it clear its degree is not a liberal arts degree. Wharton notes to its prospective students the main difference between its degree and a BA: “When you are deciding on where to go to college, you should ask yourself whether you want to focus on the theory of economics (BA) or the application of economics and business knowledge (BS).”

The theory/application divide is an old canard, and sadly, to see it used by one of the most prestigious business school in the world is sad. That said, Wharton’s BS degree is somewhat of a typical liberal arts degree, with a diverse course load. Wharton notes that more than “30% of the classes you need to graduate must be taken outside of Wharton…” But Wharton notes in its undergraduate catalogue that “studying economics in a liberal arts program” is “very different” than getting the BS at Wharton. The latter is focused “on solutions” not theories primarily. It adds that the diverse course load – that “studying business within social, political, and historical context” – “makes you a better agent of change.” This is the best argument for a liberal arts degree that I can make.

Let’s assume for a moment that Trump has a “liberal arts” degree. How it is performed or promoted is important. He promotes incessantly the central aspect of a liberal arts degree, long its hallmark: a formation of judgment, the use of intelligence on a range of issues. But it is also important to note that the traditional judgment acquired through such a degree is not the same as Trump’s version.

It is not merely that Trump’s repeated phrase “I alone can fix it” is authoritarian; it is a twisted exaggeration of this central discipline instilled by a liberal arts degree. What makes Trump’s line twisted is that he has removed from his liberal arts training the central controlling element: the virtuous, wise, or prudent judgment.

If we are going to defend the liberal arts from its usual critics – and the Wharton School here will stand in for many – and their rhetoric of useless, jobless liberal arts graduates roaming the streets with only theories and not solutions to the world’s problems, we must do it by touting this type of judgment. And not without irony, this judgment is the very thing needed to answer and respond to – to stand up against – Trump, the demagogue.

That is why it is important to contrast the judgment claimed by Trump and the one offered by a traditional liberal arts degree. Undergraduate degrees such as History, English, and the rest are based on two central features – a specific techne of the discipline and the ethos created by that discipline. These two terms are based in one of the original humanities, rhetoric. The first term can be defined as skills, or craft. We learn how to think like a historian or think historically, for example. This is why a broad course load is important. Thinking like a historian includes the broad contextual study Wharton argues is taught to its students. This balance between a particular discipline and its application over a broad range of contexts is one definition of not only the humanities but being human. We are more fully human when we think in these ways. Organizing, schematizing, or in general prioritizing complexity is one result of a liberal arts degree. And this is in part the kind of judgment Trump assures us he has. He is not a stupid person, cunning even.

What is missing is ethos. This is another Greek term that can be defined as character. And it is important to note ethos is based on a collection of virtues. Like the broad context of study, these virtues appear across the educational spectrum and humanize us.

In many ways, the central virtue though is judgment. But it is not intended to be a cunning or divisive judgment, a way to move amid issues for personal gain, a “gut instinct” for reading people and moments for deals. It is what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” This wisdom is to be used toward a more just society, a freer one.

The liberal arts offers this judgment based on centuries worth of human thought, progress, regressions, and religious ideals. It offers then a tradition through which to assess our own judgment. This tradition is non-existent in Trump. It is not that he does not read or read widely, it is that he has taken his education as a formation of self, a self now above and beyond education. He is, like, a smart guy. Indeed. Like smart. He touts a judgment akin to the one offered by liberal arts. But it is only “like” it – cunningly similar enough to allow him to twist ethos into a call for authoritarianism. Liberal arts offers the kind of judgment one needs to be a true change agent, one that can offer solutions to the issues we face. Liberal arts is a public good, not a private, divisive education.

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