[Remarks delivered October 6, 2017 at the Heyman Center of Columbia University]
It is a great pleasure to return to Columbia after an absence of forty-six years, and to speak in this lovely building, which did not exist when I lived just three blocks south of where we now sit. The Sixties were a good time for the Liberal Arts in America. The dramatic expansion of higher education after World War II created so many entry level Assistant Professorships across the curriculum that doctoral students were being offered teaching positions even before they had begun to write their dissertations. The Cold War prompted the Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act, and although most of the money went to military research and Area Studies, enough spilled over into the Humanities, and even into the Libraries, to create a seller’s market for Philosophers, Literary Critics, Historians, Classicists, and Comparative Linguists.
Alas, half a century later, the balloon has deflated. Teaching positions are scarce, commercial publishers no longer rush to sign up scholarly books, and a corporate model of management has taken over America’s college and university administration buildings. I have even been told by a Columbia friend that thirty percent of Columbia College’s graduating seniors, have been blessed by a truly remarkable liberal education, choose investment banking as their career. No longer do the Liberal Arts have the unquestioning support of alumni/ae and state legislatures. So this is perhaps a good time to ask, once again, an old and familiar question: What good is a Liberal Education?
In the next hour or so, I shall offer a new and rather unexpected answer to this question. But although what I have to say has never, to my, knowledge, been said in quite this way before, it is not at all entirely original with me. Rather, I shall be expanding on some deep insights offered more than half a century ago by my old friend and comrade and one-time co-author, Herbert Marcuse. I shall lay before you today a politically radical defense of Liberal Education. But Before turning to that defense, I thought it might be helpful to review briefly three familiar defenses of Liberal Education that have been offered by its champions.
The oldest is a claim popular at Oxford and Cambridge four hundred years ago. A study of the classics, it was thought, would give gentlemen of high estate the proper finish, or patina, that would allow them to move gracefully in polite circles. A command of Greek and Latin, like a well-turned leg and a well-filled codpiece, was an evidence of good bloodlines. It was even suggested that a familiarity with ancient tongues and literatures might deepen a young man's understanding of human affairs, although that was, to be sure, more of a tutor's hope than a realistic expectation. I say “gentleman” because a gentle lady was expected to exhibit skill with the needle, perhaps to play a bit on the spinet, and of course to have mastered Oeconomics, which in those days meant the management of a household.
It might be thought that in these democratic times, when the rich masquerade in designer jeans and tie dyed skirts, this defense of liberal education has passed away, but it continues to crop up in unexpected places. My favorite example is the Massachusetts Institute of technology, or MIT, as it is know throughout the world. About sixty years ago or more, MIT was turning out class after class of superbly trained engineers, who secured good jobs in America’s great corporations, when the MIT deans discover ed that they had a problem. Their students rapidly climb the corporate ladder until, roughly ten years after graduation, they would become eligible for management positions in the higher reaches of their corporate employers. At that point, they would be expected to exhibit some fluency with the written word and an easy familiarity with the writers, poets, philosophers, and painters whose names were dropped at executive cocktail parties. MIT’s finest were losing out to competitors from Harvard, Columbia, Yale, or Princeton had conferred upon them the appropriate stigmata of a liberal education. The deans decided they had to go out and buy MIT some humanists and social scientists to prepare their students for corporate success. And, being MIT, they bought themselves Paul Samuelson, they bought themselves Noam Chomsky. In 1980, they even bought themselves my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, an accomplished literary scholar, who was offered a professorship in the Literature Section of the Humanities Department at MIT.
The second traditional justification of a Liberal Education is that, in the steeply pyramidal and profoundly unequal American economy, it separates the Suits from the Shirts, as we used to say. Without a liberal education, you can get a job that leaves you sweaty and tired at the end of the day, a job that pays a wage weekly, and which offers few benefits unless you are unionized. With a liberal education, you can secure a position in which you end each day neither tired nor sweaty, receive an annual salary disbursed monthly, and enjoy a variety of benefits, including a paid vacation. When I was a college Freshman in 1950, only 5% of American adults had a four year college degree. Sixty-seven years later, that number has climbed to 35%, which means that two out of three Americans are forever barred from being doctors, lawyers, professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers, corporate executives, or FBI agents.
My description might suggest that I am scornful of this justification of liberal education, but I must not be too dismissive, for I am myself its very exemplar. My grandfather, Barnet Wolff, arrived in America as a babe in arms in 1880. He never finished elementary school and worked as a cigar salesman while devoting his life to the Socialist Party here in New York City. His oldest son, my father, graduated from Boy’s High School, got a free college education at C.C.N.Y., and went on to become a high school teacher and, eventually, high school principal. And here I am, the fulfilment of my family’s dream, a college professor who writes books.
I often think this must be what it is like for a young Catholic boy who honors his father and mother by becoming a priest. Except that I did not have to give up sex.
There is, third, the justification for liberal education which I have always associated most immediately with the University of Chicago under the guidance of Robert Maynard Hutchins, but which has been given expression, in one form or another, in Harvard's General Education and Core Curriculum programs, in Columbia's Contemporary Civilization course, in the Great Books curriculum of St. John's College, and in countless other curricula and institutions besides: the conception of liberal education as an initiation into the two millennia long Great Conversation.
When I was a boy, I found in my parents' attic, buried under a mound of ancient science textbooks, a slender volume entitled "Heavenly Discourses," by Charles Erskine Scott Wood. This consisted, as the title perhaps suggests, of a series of imaginary conversations in heaven among famous men and women of the western cultural tradition who could not, under normal historical circumstances, have encountered one another here on earth.
The book made an enormous impression on me - so much so that my very first college paper was an imaginary heavenly discourse, featuring John Stuart Mill, T. S. Eliot, Zarathustra, and Carl Sandburg, on the issues posed by Ortega y Gasset's REVOLT OF THE MASSES. [As you might perhaps guess, Sandburg won.]
The ideal of the Great Conversation is merely an elaborate formalization of Wood's charming conceit. Western Civilization is conceived as a perpetual debate about a number of timeless questions, conducted by the great minds of the Judeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman tradition, with its medieval Arabic variants, through the medium of a small, but continuously growing, library of great works of philosophy, tragedy, poetry, fiction, history, political theory - and, more recently, sociology, anthropology, economics, and anthropology. Homer and the nameless authors of the Old Testament, Sophocles and Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar, Paul and the Evangelists, Ovid, Sappho, Philo, Tertullian, Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, Erasmus, Luther, Chaucer, Calvin, John of Salisbury, Jean Bodin, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Locke, Galileo, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Herder, Marx, Smith, Bentham, Mill - on and on they come, quibbling, quarreling, drawing distinctions, splitting hairs, proving the existence of God, refuting the proofs for the existence of God, reading one another, referring to one another - a grand faculty seminar, captured for all time in no more than several hundred immortal books.
A liberal education - so this story has it - is a ticket of admission to the Conversation. Most of us are mere auditors, much as I was when, as a boy of ten, I sat on the steps of the staircase leading from my parents' living room and listened to my parents, my uncles and aunts, and the neighbors debating politics, literature, and the bureaucratic insanities of the New York City School System in which they worked. An inspired few actually enter the Conversation, and make to it contributions that will be taken up into the immortal lists of Great Books. But for the rest of us, it is enough that we have been initiated into its rituals and shibboleths. Throughout our lives, that eternal debate will be the intellectual accompaniment of our quotidien lives.
And so we come, at last, to the real subject of this lecture, a new, radical, and thoroughly unexpected defense of Liberal Education. I take as my text today one of Marcuse’s most profound and provocative phrases: “surplus repression,” which makes its appearance in his early work, Eros and Civilization. By an explication of the notion of surplus repression, and a close reading of a single paragraph from the chapter on repressive desublimation in Marcuse’s most famous work, One-Dimensional Man, I can, I think, lay before you a deep justification of liberal education that will explain both how it plays a central role in the critique and reformation of society, and why it is so appropriately undertaken at that moment in late adolescence and early adulthood which we in the United States identify as the undergraduate years.
Marcuse, who as a member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, participated in the great early twentieth century attempt to fuse the central insights of Marx and Freud, begins Eros and Civilization by accepting the pessimistic thesis of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, that some measure of psychic repression is the necessary precondition for the organised social existence of humanity. Let us begin therefore, where Freud does, with the earliest stages of childhood development.
The new-born infant does not possess a coherent rational self or ego with which to negotiate its relationship to the external world. Indeed, it does not yet so much as possess a conception of itself in contradistinction to its surroundings. What we think of as the ordinary thought-processes of reality orientation – the distinction of self and other, the recognition of relations of space, time, and causality, the distinction between desire and satisfaction, between wish and actuality – all these are in fact secondary accomplishments, painfully acquired in the wake of initial and continuing frustrations. Each of the stages of normal childhood development has a profoundly ambivalent significance for the child, at one and the same time a source of power, satisfaction, and self-esteem, and a suffering of frustration, pain, and rage.
The new-born infant is put to the breast and responds with a natural suckling instinct, gaining warmth, food, and comfort. It is happy. [Incidentally Freud, like other typical late nineteenth century Viennese professional men, probably spent virtually no time with his infant children. His brilliant theorizing was derived from the interpretation of the dreams and associations of his adult patients. But I am, if I may adapt the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern American father, and I have actually spent many hours caring for my new-born sons, so I can attest to the accuracy of Freud’s account.] The next time the infant is hungry, or so Freud hypothesizes, it conjures the image of the breast, but the image, alas, gives neither warmth nor milk. The infant suffers frustration and feels rage at this failure, the first of many, and it cries. Anyone who has actually watched a tiny baby cry will acknowledge that it is as disappointed, as frustrated, as outraged as a human being can be. It grows red in the face with anger. [What, you will ask, has any of this to do with a liberal education? Patience, patience. I remind you that Rousseau’s great educational work, Émile, begins with an extended discussion of swaddling and breast-feeding.] And then, something quite astonishing and unexpected happens, or at least it does in the early life of a normal, healthy baby: the baby is picked up, soothed, and fed. This is a profoundly important moment, the first of many similar moments to come. Again and again, the baby, and then the young child, learns the deeply ambivalent truth that although it is incapable of achieving the instantaneous and effortless gratification that it desires, there are things it can learn to do that will, with delays and frustrations along the way, to be sure, bring the pleasure it seeks. This elementary fact is, Freud teaches us, the basic template of all human existence.
One example can perhaps stand for the entire years-long process. Little babies, as I have said, are at first unable to express their desires, save by the painful and inefficient method of crying. Still, a fortunate baby will succeed in getting its parent’s attention by crying, and the parent will become hyper-sensitively attuned to those slight variations in the cry which indicate whether it is hunger, fatigue, colic, or teething that is the cause. Eventually, a baby learns to sit up in a high chair and eat with its hands or with a spoon, and (we may suppose) it learns as well that when it waves its hands and makes a demanding noise, it gets a cookie. The baby, let us remember, will be deeply ambivalent about this learned behaviour, for what the baby wants (or so Freud persuasively tells us) is to have its hunger, or its desire for a cookie, instantaneously gratified, without even the temporary frustration of waiting until the parent decodes the cry and responds. But though this state of affairs has come about at the cost of frustration and pain, it is also a source of power and gratification. By learning how to command its parent’s response, the baby can get the cookie. What is more, the parent is likely to respond with manifest pleasure to the baby’s ability to sit up and communicate its wants.
One day, something inexplicable, terrible, frustrating, painful happens. The baby makes its demanding noise, with the cookie in full view just outside its reach, and the parent, instead of immediately handing it over, as has happened every day for as long as the baby can remember, now picks up the cookie, holds it tantalisingly before the baby, and says in what can only be construed as a deliberately sadistic voice, “Can you say ‘cookie’?”
Well, all of us know the rest of this story, for all of us have lived through it. The acquisition of language, the mastery of one’s bowels, the control of one’s temper – all of the stages in development that make one an adult human being who is recognisably a member of a society – all have a negative side, a side associated with shame, rage, pain, frustration, resentment, a backside, as we learn to think of it, as well as a positive side associated with praise, self-esteem, public reward, power, satisfaction – a front, which, as our language very nicely suggests, is both an officially good side and also a pretence, a fake.
By and large, we do not forget the frustration, the pain, the rage, nor do we ever forget those infantile fantasies of omnipotence and instantaneous gratification. We repress those fantasies, drive them out of consciousness, deny them, put them behind us, as we like to say. But, like our own backsides, and the faeces which issue from them, they remain, and exercise a secret, shameful attraction for us.
This brief reminder of our common heritage makes it clear that the repression of “unacceptable” wishes – as Freud so quaintly and aptly labelled them in his earlier writings – is an essential precondition for our development of the ability to interact effectively with the world, and with one another. Mastery of our own bodies, mastery of language, the psychic ability and willingness to defer gratification long enough to perform necessary work, the ability to control destructive, and self-destructive, rages or desires – civilisation, society, culture, survival all depend upon them. But necessary though they are, they are painful; throughout our lives, we carry, repressed, those delicious, illicit fantasies of total, immediate, uncompromised gratification, of instantaneous, magical fulfilment, of the permission to indulge the desires that have been stigmatised as negative.
With great flair, Marcuse combines Freud’s thesis, of the necessity of some repression for the existence of human civilisation, with the central concept of Marx’s political economy – surplus value. According to Marx, it is the labour required for the production of commodities that regulates their exchange in a capitalist market. Inasmuch as workers sell their own capacity for labour in the market like a commodity, through the wage bargain, competition eventually sets its price – the wage – at a level equal to the amount of labour required to produce that capacity, which is to say the amount of labour required to produce the workers’ food, clothing, and shelter. This labour, Marx says, can be called “necessary labour,” for in every economic system, including socialism, of course, it must be performed if the workers are to be able to remain alive and continue their labours. But, Marx argues, the workers are forced, by the conditions of the labour market, to work more hours than is embodied in their consumption goods, and the extra labour time, through the processes of market exchange, is transmuted into surplus exchange value. That surplus value, Marx demonstrates, is the source of the profits, interest, and rents that the propertied classes appropriate. In sum, Marx asserts, capitalism rests upon the capitalist appropriation of surplus value, or, more succinctly, upon exploitation.
Marcuse transfers these concepts of necessary and surplus labour to the sphere of the psyche, and rechristens them “necessary and surplus repression.” Just as there is a certain quantum of necessary labour that must be performed in any society, so there is a certain amount of necessary repression, as we have seen, that is the precondition of human existence as such. But in some societies, just as workers are forced to perform more than merely necessary labour, its fruits being appropriated by a ruling class, so in those same societies, and most particularly in capitalist society, workers, and indeed others as well, have inflicted upon them extra, or surplus, repression, whose function is not to make human society in general possible, but rather to serve and support the particular exploitative, unjust, repressive economic and political institutions and policies of the ruling classes.
Over and above the deferral of gratification demanded by the exigencies of nature and human intercourse, the capitalist workplace demands an additional level of work discipline, of self-denial, of obedience, of surplus repression. Marcuse notes, by way of rough proof, the extraordinary fact that despite the doubling, trebling, quadrupling of worker productivity achieved by technological advance, the average work week has shortened only slightly, if at all, in the past three-quarters of a century.
In One-Dimensional Man, in what has always seemed to me one of the truly inspired texts of twentieth century social theory, Marcuse deploys this insight to explain the structure and conditions of social protest, and the subjective psychological sources of the energy that fuels social change. The argument goes like this: The energy on which we draw for work, for art, and for politics, as well as for sex, is the fund of originally undifferentiated libidinal energy with which we are born, and which we attach to various objects through the psychic processes of sublimation, displacement, and cathexis. The gratifications we obtain are, as Freud poignantly shows us, always somewhat diminished, compromised, shadowed by the unavoidable adjustments to reality. The pleasures of useful, fruitful, unalienated labour, the satisfactions of artistic creation, even the sensuous delights of sexual intercourse, necessarily fall short of what is longed for in our repressed fantasies. To give a single, elementary example: all of us who write books of philosophy will acknowledge, I imagine, that in our most secret dreams, we lust after a review that begins something like this: “Not since Plato wrote The Republic has a work of such power and brilliance burst upon the scene” – after which, we become instantaneously rich, young, thin, and flooded with absolutely risk-free offers of polymorphic sexual satisfaction. What actually happens, if we are fortunate, is that we are moderately favourably reviewed, by someone with his or her own fantasies of instant gratification, and then have the genuine, but subdued pleasure, in years to come, of stumbling on references to our production, or of encounters with a praising reader.
Now, Marcuse suggests, there is real surplus psychic repression inflicted on all of us in our society, most particularly on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and the established, institutionalised structures of political and economic repression being what they are, it takes an enormous, painful, dangerous mobilisation of psychic energy to fight those structures and reduce the quantum of surplus repression. But since the dangers of revolt and resistance are so great, and most especially because the repression has been internalised in each of us in the form of an unnecessarily punitive set of self-inflicted restraints, a reasoned, measured, realistic call for incremental improvements is unlikely to elicit the burst of revolutionary energy needed for any change at all. “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! You have a modest reduction in surplus repression to win!” is not a slogan calculated to bring suffering men and women into the streets and to the barricades.
What in fact happens, Marcuse suggests, is that revolutionary change is energised by the utopian, siren call of liberation, which, whatever the language in which it is couched, is experienced subjectively as a promise of the gratification of those infantile fantasies of instantaneous, magical, total gratification that lurk within us all. Workers’ liberation, Black liberation, Women’s liberation, Gay liberation – all appeal, necessarily, meretriciously to be sure, and yet productively, to these universal repressed fantasies. Only the tapping of such powerful wellsprings of psychic energy can move us to the heroic feats required for even modest reductions in surplus repression.
The upshot of every revolution is therefore inevitably disappointment, for no matter how successful the revolution, it cannot, in the nature of things, liberate us from necessary repression. After the victory celebrations, we must still go to work, use the toilet, submit ourselves to some code or other of dress, of speech, of sexual conduct. Nevertheless, despite these repeated disappointments, we must keep alive the fantasies, and attach them to our political aspirations, for they are the essential motor of real world social, economic, and political progress.
In this project, the great works of art, literature, philosophy and music of our cultural tradition play an essential, and rather surprising, role. Regardless of their manifest content and apparent purpose, these works, which we customarily consider the appropriate subject of a liberal education, play a continuingly subversive role. They keep alive, in powerful and covert ways, the fantasies of gratification, the promise of happiness, the anger at even necessary repression, on which radical political action feeds.
To explain somewhat how even the most seemingly abstract works of art perform this function, let me read to you a single paragraph from Marcuse’s discussion, and then explicate it by reference to a Bach fugue. Here is the passage:
The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form: beauty as the “promesse de bonheur.” In the form of the oeuvre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order.
Consider now a Bach fugue, which can stand, in our analysis, for any work of art or literature that submits itself, as all true art must, to some canon of formal constraint. We could as well consider a sonnet, a portrait, a statue, or indeed a Platonic dialogue. The rules governing the composition of a fugue are extremely strict. They constitute, psychologically speaking, a repression of the composer’s instinctual, creative energies. In the hands of novices, the fugue-form is a straitjacket, painfully forcing them to adjust their musical line in unnatural ways. It is, speaking at the very deepest psychological level, the equivalent of being required to use the toilet, or to say “cookie” before being fed. But in the hands of Bach, all is transformed. Bach’s fugues seem effortless. They magically transcend the constraints of the form, all the while rigidly conforming to them. Thus, we may suppose, God played as He created the world, laughing in delight at the effortless production of a cosmos ruled by inflexible universal laws.
The result is sheer, sensuous beauty which is, at one and the same time, liberated from the constraints of form and completely consonant with those constraints. The fugue thus holds out, magically, the promise of total satisfaction, the “promesse de bonheur,” that is to be found in the unconscious of each of us. In the same fashion, a Dickinson poem, a Rodin sculpture, a Platonic dialogue, a van Gogh still life reawaken in us the fantasy of perfect, effortless gratification. These works of art and literature keep alive in us the possibility that there is a life better than the network of compromises in which we are enmeshed, a second dimension to existence in which freedom replaces necessity, happiness replaces suffering.
The great works of humanistic writing, be they philosophy, history, theology, or criticism, accomplish the same end. The pure, rational arguments of Spinoza’s Ethics recall for us the image of a world in which reason is an instrument of liberation, not of domination. The sheer formal beauty of a mathematical proof, the effortless derivation of the most powerful conclusions from apparently innocent premises, holds out to us the hope of instantaneous ecstasy.
In all seriousness, I suggest to you that this is the real justification for keeping alive the great tradition of liberal arts and letters in our colleges and universities. Not as a patina for modern aristocrats, not as an instrument of upward mobility, not even as an introduction to the Great Conversation, but as a way of putting young men and women in touch with their repressed fantasies of gratification, in such a fashion as to awaken in them the hope, the dream, the unquenchable thirst for liberation from which social progress must come.
By way of illustration, let me tell you a true story. More than forty years ago, I taught for a year as a visiting professor at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. One semester I was assigned an Introduction to Philosophy that met, thanks to the peculiar schedule pattern then in use at Rutgers, on Monday mornings at 8:00 a.m. and Thursday afternoons at 4:00 p.m. For the only time in my teaching career, I assigned a casebook – a collection of readings from the great philosophers – instead of a group of complete original works, and each Monday morning and Thursday afternoon, I soldiered away, “covering” the material, as we delicately put it in the trade.
Sometime in the late Fall, I got to Hume, who was represented by a few well-chosen pages from Part III of Book One of the Treatise – which, as some of you will know, is the locus for his famous sceptical critique of causal reasoning. I was dead bored with the material, with the course, and with myself by this time, and I can confidently assure you that I was not doing a superlative job of teaching. I had studied Hume first as a Freshman, then as a Sophomore, then while writing my doctoral dissertation, and innumerable times since. I was so thoroughly inoculated against the force of his arguments that I could scarcely recall a time when I had found them even mildly provocative.
One day, after class, a young man came up to talk to me, very agitated. He had been troubled by Hume’s arguments he said – I found this rather astonishing, as you can imagine – and had gone to talk things over with his priest. The priest, whose seminary training had not prepared him for this sort of problem from his parishioners, referred him to the Office of Information of the Diocese. The young man called the Diocese, and was referred to a Monsignor, who, after listening to his concerns, said abruptly, “Well, some people think that. But we don’t,” and hung up the phone. What should he do?, the student wanted to know.
Let me tell you, I was humbled by the episode. Despite my best efforts to deaden the impact of the text, and the utterly unpromising conditions of an 8:00 a.m. introductory class, David Hume had reached his hand across two centuries, seized that young man by the scruff of the neck, and given him a shaking that bid fair to liberate him from a lifetime of unthinking subservience to received authority.
That is what a liberal education can accomplished, and that is why, in every college and university, a protected sanctuary must be preserved for undergraduate liberal education.
What good is a liberal education? At its best, it can tap into deeply repressed infantile fantasies of omnipotence and instantaneous gratification and fuel our real world struggle for liberation. It can give us courage to confront oppression and exploitation and to fight against it. And as we struggle, it can keep alive our hope, doomed though it is to disappointment, that one day, we shall be able to cry, with Martin Luther King, “Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, Free At Last!”