The Continuing Importance of the Liberal Arts: An Interview with Dr. Cecilia Gaposchkin

Dartmouth College history professor Cecilia Gaposchkin has had an impressive career as a crusade historian. She is one of the world’s leading historians on the saint and crusading king Louis IX and one of the few crusade historians to hold a tenured position at an elite Ivy League school, the combination of which makes her a leading voice in the field. She is also a respected teacher, known for having a great impact on her students in the classroom.

Indeed, the Dartmouth Review has listed her among their “Best Professors,” noting:

“Her lectures are captivating and informative. More importantly, her classes provide students with the skills needed to be successful outside of academia. She makes every attempt possible to meet individually with her students, in whom she takes both an academic and a personal interest. She does not just demand excellence, but she provides each individual with the feedback necessary to develop and improve analytical abilities. She embodies the ideals of a liberal arts education, and her classes are a must for any student wanting to get the most out of his or her Dartmouth experience.”

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Image: Cecilia presenting a talk at a conference in Israel titled “Isaiah, Providence, and the Liberation of Jerusalem in the Latin Liturgy of the Holy City.”

Yet in communicating with Cecilia, assuming one did not already know of her background, one might not realize her significance in the field due to her always courteous, even humble, approach to dealing with junior scholars, myself included. Indeed, I recall how grateful I was in graduate school to have read her excellent book The Making of Saint Louis: Kingship, Sanctity, and Crusade in the Later Middles Ages (Cornell University Press, 2008) and always felt the same about my later exposure to her many other scholarly works. It should be noted that Cecilia’s fourth book, a devotional history of the crusades, tentatively titled Invisible Weapons: Liturgy and the Making of Crusade Ideology, is coming out with Cornell University Press in either late 2016 or early 2017.

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Images: Cecilia’s books, from left to right: The Making of Saint Louis (IX) of France: Kingship, Sanctity and Crusade in the Later Middle Ages; Blessed Louis, The Most Glorious of Kings: Texts relating to the Cult of Saint Louis of France (Notre Dame: 2012); and, with Sean Field and Larry Field, The Sanctity of Louis IX: Early Lives of Saint Louis by Geoffrey of Beaulieu and William of Chartres.

Yet for all her accomplishments, in my later communications with her, I was pleasantly surprised by her approachability, charity, and her efforts to seek out and listen to the opinions of other historians at all levels of their careers.

While Cecilia has come to have a respected voice as a scholar, with a reputation for generosity in her dealings with others, she has recently begun to apply herself as a public intellectual. In addition to being a leading crusade historian, Cecilia is also Assistant Dean of Faculty for PreMajor Advising at Dartmouth, so she has done a lot of thinking about the importance of selecting a major for today’s students. In 2015, she published a number of essays emphasizing the importance of the liberal arts. The first was on May 21st for The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “If Students Are Smart, They’ll Major in What They Love.” In it, she argued that when students are deciding on a college major, rather than seeking only to acquire technical skills and information that will be obsolete five years later, they should instead seek majors that offer, as she put it, “the ability to think with and through that information.”

She writes:

“Ask employers. Company representatives who recruit at my college consistently say they don’t really care about someone’s major…They care about a potential employee’s abilities: writing, researching, quantitative, and analytical skills. Some majors teach and hone some of these skills more than others do. Some career paths will use some more than others. But almost all white-collar jobs will require writing, communication, assessment, numeracy, and above all the creative application of knowledge.

To assume a necessary link between particular courses of study and students’ career prospects is to limit their options, and in many cases, their capacity for discovery and intellectual growth. Dartmouth College, for example, has educated two U.S. treasury secretaries, yet neither of them majored in economics or government: Henry Paulson was an English major, and Timothy Geithner majored in Asian and Middle Eastern studies. Plenty of other Dartmouth alumni explode the perceived link between major and careers: Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, majored in history; Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who wrote and directed The Lego Movie and directed 21 Jump Street, majored in government and art history, respectively.”

Cecilia is quite right to highlight the adaptability and longevity of such skills that continue to serve graduates in a tumultuous job market where graduates may end up employed at several jobs over the course of life time. Moreover, as students major in fields they believe to be the most practical for finding a high paying job after graduation, they often find themselves uninspired by the content as they are not pursuing their passions, or even their interests. This rang particularly true with me, as I teach at a college that emphasizes technical or professional degrees, which serve the goals and demands of the local community well. But I have also encountered many students majoring in business related fields, for example, that tell me how much they “love history,” yet will not major in it because they do not think it will have the same payoff as a business degree. As a result, they spend years laboring away on a topic that was not their first choice, with many often losing interest or performing marginally in their coursework. When (and if) they finally graduate with a C+ or a B- grade point average, after years of studying a subject that doesn’t really inspire them, they often, unfortunately, find the world does not open up for them quite like they had planned. On those occasions when some of them decided to jump ship and risk the potential or imagined consequences of getting a degree in history, I was often surprised by the “liberating” feeling they expressed in doing so. This was why Cecilia’s essay was like a breath of fresh air, and I was happy to share it on social media, where many of my former students, some of them now history majors, could read it as well.

Two months later, Cecilia followed up her piece in the Chronicle with an impassioned essay published by the Huffington Post titled, Just What Are the Liberal Arts Anyway?” She pointed out the oddity of how many parents mortgage their homes and futures to be able to affording sending their children to the most prestigious liberal arts colleges, which are almost always considered the most prestigious, but then, once admitted, will “resist the very mission of liberal education” in terms of the majors they choose. Consequently, she set out to explain what liberal education actually means.

Cecilia first explains what a liberal education is not, noting it is not technical training, such as for a degree in nursing, accounting, or computer systems administration. While these are all fine degrees and we certainly need majors in these fields, she points out that the liberal arts, in contrast, do not prepare students for “a single career,” but rather “a multitude of careers.” Nor is a liberal arts degree simply a degree in one of the humanities, as a liberal arts degree also encompasses the sciences.

So what then is a liberal arts degree?

Cecilia notes:

“It is a degree in thinking – in critical thinking. We say this all the time. But what, really, does this mean? And why is it valuable? It means that liberal education, done right and undertaken with enthusiasm, curiosity, and passion, makes you smarter.

That’s right.

Smarter.

That is, it hones your natural skills of discernment and intellect to productive thought and the creative application of knowledge. It exposes you to different types of thought (often through distribution and general education requirements) so that you can at once understand the power and the restrictions of different types of thought (that is, different disciplines). It teaches you how to use your thinking, and the skills acquired (reading, writing, numeracy, analysis, synthesis, the persuasive expression of conclusions, and the creative application of knowledge) in novel and creative ways. That is, it teaches you how to be nimble and creative. It teaches you to distinguish between fact and opinions, and to use facts to pursue informed agendas.

These skills are honed first in the context of an area of major study, but the point is that they are basic transferrable skills, to be used in any – or many – context(s). This is why, when employers hire students from liberal arts colleges, they care less about the student’s major than about the student’s ability to talk about their major…

This is why, looking back, careers often have so little relationship to majors. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard and currently a candidate for the republican presidential nomination, majored in Philosophy and Medieval History at Stanford. James Baker, former Secretary of State, studied Classics at Princeton. John Dickerson, the political journalist succeeding Bob Schieffer as host of Face the Nation majored in English at UVA. Colin Powell majored in Geology at CUNY. It is also why so many career successes appear to have had such varied career paths. It is precisely because they are not pigeon-holed into a single vocation and thus a single career path that they have the enviable ability to make and take new professional opportunities. This is what I mean by the creative application of knowledge.”

Bravo!

Cecilia also emphasized how the liberal arts are under attack. In response, and as a good medievalist, she notes, “it would be silly to do away with the system of higher education that has served us so well for so many centuries. It has been the driver of knowledge production and intellectual inquiry since the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was the Middle Ages that invented both the institution of university education and our notion of critical thinking.”

After that, Cecilia published three additional essays on the topic, including for The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, and The Conversation. The Washington Post piece is particularly noteworthy for its expanded explanation of the medieval origins and goals of the Liberal Arts, and why the same goals still apply today. She writes:

“And here is where I make my point. The very basis of this knowledge revolution continued to be rooted in the seven liberal arts. In the medieval university, one began one’s program of study with these, starting with the trivium and proceeding to the quadvium, before taking on the more specialized inquiry of law, or philosophy, or – especially – theology. They taught the basic intellectual skills needed before undertaking any of the “practical arts” (medicine, law, etc.), because the liberal arts were the training ground for intellectual competence that was the prerequisite for continuing on into the specialized disciplines (or professional practice) where there were actual stakes involved. Through the study of these seven essential knowledge skills (“artes”) one mastered the rudiments of competency (reading, writing, arithmetic) and has a wide sense of the breadth and limits of knowledge and the world generally (music, astronomy).

Skills. Breadth. Critical thinking. And the ability, like Abelard, to push forward, beyond received wisdom and practice and to create a new world. This is still the aim. Rhetoric has given way to English Literature. Arithmetic is now Math. Music is now mostly what we would call Physics. Modern liberal education still trains the basic intellectual skills of query and discernment that Abelard aimed for, generally now through general education and major requirements. Once mastered – just as in the Middle Ages – these skills can be applied to specialized training – medical school, the public sphere, business, whatever – what the Middle Ages regarded as the practical arts.”

Kindly, Cecilia has agreed to answer some questions related to the issues described here.

Question 1: Cecilia, why did you choose to become a historian? What led to your decision? What was your thinking about your chosen degree field at the time? I assume your thought process on the selection of a major was not as developed as you now demonstrate in these recent essays, but I could be wrong.

Well, I got really lucky. I was raised by two parents who truly understand and have lived the idea of intellectual and creative vocation, and was encouraged to study whatever I wanted. When I left for college at the University of Michigan, it didn’t really ever occur to me to make a strategic choice about what to study. At the time I had imagined going to law school (I wanted to be “Gracie” from LA Law – do you remember that TV series?), and was told you could “major in anything,” if you were going to apply to law school, and so I took courses I wanted to take. My first-year I was in a year-long great books sequence that, in retrospect, changed my life. I discovered the humanities. I discovered the pleasure of great ideas. And of the challenge and difficulty and pleasure of being asked to think and writing about what I thought about them.   In my second year I took some courses in medieval history and art history, and just loved it. UM had a “Medieval and Renaissance Studies” major, and so I did that. I accidentally completed an Art History Major (to some discomfiture; I tend to discourage students from double majoring, but when they ask me I must admit that I completed two). I knew people at the University of Michigan law school, and some seemed wistful about the idea of graduate school, but had taken out so many loans they couldn’t afford to switch gears. That seemed crazy to me. And so it seemed to me to make sense to go to graduate school and see how I liked it, and then if that didn’t suit me, to take on Law School. One I started, like so much else, it really was just one foot in front of the other. And I got really lucky along the way.

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Image: Cecilia in the spring of 1989 as a freshman at the University of Michigan. She notes: “I had not yet discovered the Middle Ages. But I had discovered the humanities.”

On the other end, I suspect my views on “major matters” (as I have come to think of them), in part comes out of the fact that I ended up a medievalist, and in part because I serve as my institution’s Assistant Dean of Faculty for Pre-Major Advising, which means I am invited regularly to think about the curriculum as a whole, and how individual students navigate through and make choices about areas of study. Also, I’m married to an Ancient historian, who is an extraordinary and award winning teacher, and so this is also something we have talked a lot about over the years.

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Image: Cecilia with her husband Paul  Christesen and their two children. Paul is the Chair of the Department of Classics at Dartmouth College.

But it is probably precisely because I am a medievalist – that is, because I study and teach something distant enough to be seen as not directly “relevant” (arg!) – that I have thought so hard about why and how the learning, the study, and the teaching of something like thirteenth-century kingship, or medieval liturgical ritual, or sanctity and heresy, has value in the institution, and to the students who might take my classes. It’s great when we end up having someone who wants to become a historian, but I don’t teach in a graduate program and I don’t believe my role as a teacher is to teach future historians how to be historians. So I’ve had to think through the ways in which the teaching of, say, the Crusades, or Medieval France, or Joan of Arc (to take three courses I offer) can contribute in a meaningful way to both an individual’s education and to society’s benefit. I could talk a lot about this.

Question 2: You have clearly established yourself as a respected crusade historian, but what sort of reception did you get to your more public efforts on behalf of the liberal arts? Not too many medievalists are active in this way. What sort of support and what sort of criticism did you receive?

Well, I’m not so sure that’s true, the middle part of your question. There are some truly fantastic medievalists who are writing publically. I’m thinking of someone like David Perry, at Dominican, who writes routinely on the Middle Ages and modern society (see David’s blog), and I’ve seen great pieces lately by Bruce Holsinger (UVA) and Tom Madden (Saint Louis University). But I understand your point. It is not something we’re really trained to do. So, to answer your question, it’s really another piece of luck. The administration invited a group called “The OpEd Project” to campus and I was a “fellow” last year. Their mission is get more voices into public discourse. Specifically, they began by trying to get more women to participate as what they call “idea leaders,” but naturally their mission has broadened. And when asked about what it was I wanted to say to the public, I gravitated to writing about liberal arts.

In a sense, my writing really comes more out of my role as the person in the administration who oversees faculty advising, probably more than my role as a medievalist. I have been in that role (Assistant Dean of Faculty for Advising) for over a decade now, and it has made appreciate from a different vantage point the different pressures that bear on the institution, on the students themselves, on the humanities, and frankly, on the very idea of “an education,” (which, with the rising cost of education, has become ever more about income-making and a kind of professional vocationalism). At the same time, as a medievalists, I am committed to the idea of the humanities, and as a medievalist who has read Abelard, to the value of humanistic inquiry in particular. And, as someone in the classroom, I understand that rigour and challenge and intellectual accountability, complex ideas, the creative application of knowledge, are what is really the value of what we teach, not whether ten years from now our students remember the date that Charlemagne was crowned Emperor. What I have written as op-eds mostly comes out of conversations I have been having with students for the last decade about why they are in college, and what they want to get out of college, and whether their assumptions in their decision making are accurate or not.

So, what’s the reaction been? Mostly positive. I’m talking about the reaction from my colleagues, from people who write me out of the blue, from people I have met. Most of these are people who have benefited from a liberal arts experience, and who now appreciate what it afforded them. Or who have something at stake in defending them. And I’ve met some fantastic people through this process, and it is actually leading to other sorts of collaboration. But honestly, this is mostly preaching to the choir.  These are not the people that need to hear this argument, and our challenge is to make the case for liberal learning to those people who don’t start by valuing it.  And they’re probably not the ones that are reading my pieces.

That said, there is the negative side too, in the responses.  For the most part, for my sanity, I try not to read the anonymous “comments” themselves, which people write below the opeds. Some of them are pretty dismissive. There is the “elitism” charge, and the “useless” charge. One comment did say something like “Kids don’t listen to this nutty professor. STEM is the way to go.” That one oddly delighted me. It prompted me to write a whole other essay on why STEM were part of the liberal arts, and not something separate from, or even opposed to, the liberal arts. But this is our real challenge — to reach these folks.  And here is where we in the academy must become conversant in making the argument for liberal education, in collecting data, and anecdotes, to make our point, and in insisting that higher education maintain an ideal of breadth and depth in ideas that is the core of the liberal arts. And above all, that those of us who teach in these fields can make this argument convincingly and repeatedly to our students, because it is very likely than many if not most of them will not arrive in our classrooms understanding what liberal arts education is to begin with.

Question 3: While the liberal arts are, as you note, often attacked, the so-called STEM degrees are promoted by politicians of both parties as a means of insuring the future prosperity and strength of the United States and its citizens. Rhetoric about the importance of educating people in these fields often argues that it is a solution to the many potential problems, ranging from income inequality to national defense. To pick just one example from the liberal arts, how might you make an argument for the importance of history majors as well? What important benefits can a society looking to the future derive from its historians? Why do historians matter to the well-being of a state and its citizens?

Well, this one seems obvious. I suspect we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in, in the Middle East, if people knew their history better; cared about the history of the region. I don’t mean the history of the crusades, which I suspect is probably over-determined by those people making this argument. I mean the long and complex history, including the crusades, and all the other invasions and wars, along with the internal rivalries among various groups in Middle East. You, more than anyone, are probably the person to make this case, as a historian of the crusades and a former Marine studying and publicly commenting on events in the modern Middle East. I’d be more interested in hearing your thoughts about that specifically.

That said, let me step back from the question a little bit. I don’t think the issue should be framed as “STEM-fields” v. “History,” or even ”STEM fields” v. “Humanities.” Any modern problem that we need to solve will need require all sorts of different types of expertise – technical and technological, cultural and anthropological, artistic, creative, quantitative. One of the things that I’ve learned from my Engineering colleagues here is that design thinking needs experts from every discipline and various perspectives, and this very necessarily involves what we normally think of as the humanities. But I would make two more points. The first I made in the OpEd I wrote for the Conversation, which just notes that whole industries exist in this world that are not Stem-based, and even STEM-based industries require writers, advertisers, managers that aren’t scientists and mathematicians. But the second is more qualitative. And that’s the importance of beauty and meaning in the world and in our lives. I simply don’t think I’d want to live in a society in which these weren’t things that were prized and valued, both for the sake of the individual and for the sake of society as a whole. That’s why we continue to be fascinated by Periclean Athens; and Renaissance Florence. I was drawn to study the middle ages because of the sublime beauty of gothic cathedrals. This said, I have made a point in my writing of trying to meet my audience where they are – concerned with jobs and careers, with the ability to pay back college loans, establish a lifestyle, buy house, raise a family, and so forth. And so I’ve made this argument repeatedly on veiled economic terms. Your “art history” degree can be every bit as “valuable” as an engineering one (winking at Obama), and your Philosophy degree as “valuable” as one in welding (winking at Rubio). But that doesn’t even begin to address the ineffable and extraordinary possibilities of the personal, intellectual, and even spiritual meaning that a true education can give one’s life. When we talk about someone “getting an education” – we don’t mean that they have been “trained” in a profession. It means something bigger than that, that one carries with one and that informs one’s life. And of course, the humanities do this in spades. My point is only that this kind of true education can also be remunerative. Can be a return on investment.

So I’m actually not a partisan of history in particular… Nevertheless, let’s take History as an example.   I wrote a book on Louis IX of France. I teach a couple classes that deal with him (Medieval France, the Crusades). It is unlikely that anyone really will need to know anything about Louis IX of France in almost any profession they pursue, so it’s not about learning any particular amount of content. It is about learning (ideally, through content you love), how to interpret, read texts, figure out what they say, understand their assumptions, draw conclusions from them, learn to argue those conclusions, and why they’re important, and then convince other people about those conclusions through the spoken and written word (and increasingly, the video presentation).

But then, from the other side, we need at particular moments people who do know about various types of content – for that moment when that material becomes important. And here’re we’re back to the Crusades and the Middle East. Because you can’t even begin to think about tackling a problem without understanding its complexities. And with the Middle East, one of its great complexities is its history. And the crusades are part of that history. How much was the issue about religion? How much was it about territory? Why this territory? How did and does religious piety intersect with violent action? These are still all live questions. And so we need responsible historians with a grasp of the forces involved that shaped the Middle East, its divisions, its identity, and its relationship with outside forces (Crusaders, Mamluks, the British; just some examples) to contribute their expertise, alongside people with other expertise.

Question 4: How can other supporters of your efforts do more to support the liberal arts and their importance? What is currently the greatest threat to the liberal arts and how can it be combated?

Three ways: First, be unfailing in the advocacy of learning and discovery at the highest levels of rigour. Doesn’t matter what it is about. The point is to commit to it and make it the center of one’s academic vocation.

Second, for those of us who are in the classroom, don’t just assume any of this is self-evident. Be explicit about the issues, and then about the pedagogy, and about the point of studying all this. Last year, I innocently asked in a class why I was having them write up these quizzes each class. “So you can make sure we’ve done the work?” No. That’s not why. The answer is to give them the ability to process the material in order to have something to say about it in class, to be forced to commit to an interpretation. Because the ability to interpret, to draw conclusions, is really what is important. I don’t do this nearly as often as I should in class. But I think most of the time, students have no idea why we’re asking them to jump through the hoops that we ask them to jump through. So I think we need to be clearer about how we’re teaching with ourselves, and then, above all, with our students. (This is not easy).

Third, for those of us farther along in our lives, describe and explain our varied paths, to show how the content of one’s education is not determinative of one’s professional options and fate. It is the embrace of the talents and abilities, applied with creativity and vigor, to new problems, that is determinative. This isn’t necessarily easy for us, since as academics we ended up actually pursuing the content of our studies (history), but we are the exception. Most history majors do not become historians. Most chem majors don’t become chemists. They become doctors, and consultants, and business executives. We just have to explain to them how and why that occurs.

Greatest threat?

The commodification of education, and the idea that the best education is vocational – that is, that it is specifically designed as job training. It is true that education is a good investment, but as soon as it is seen as only an investment, we begin to undermine what is truly extraordinary about a true education. Students aren’t clients. We aren’t providing a saleable product.

Question 5: Not to change the subject, but having the opportunity to dialogue with a leading crusade historian compels me to throw in a question or two about the state of crusade studies. What do you think is the future of crusade studies? Do you think, for example, new technology is going to have a significant impact on how we study the past? If so, how? Also, many historians, you and I included, are active on social media. How might social media be a tool for improving the overall state of research and collaboration in crusade studies, and would you advise budding crusade historians, perhaps still in graduate school, to be active online?

This is a great question.

I may be too old to be the one to answer it. I was a late adopter of Facebook. I’m still confused about how to use Twitter. But it is clear that this will have some sort of impact on how we do history.

I suspect most by way of amplification than any truly qualitative change. They say being a scholar is a solitary undertaking, but in my experience nothing could be farther from the truth. It seems to me a very social undertaking. The product (the “book” or the “article”) is individual, but it is the very rare historian who writes that book or article in isolation. We are constantly indebted to friends and colleagues who help us think through, evaluate, challenge, refine, what we are thinking about. That’s why the acknowledgments section of any book, where an author thanks all those people who helped him or her write it, is probably the most read pages of any actual book. That’s why work in progress seminars and conferences are so important – because we need feedback and very few of us do our thinking in isolation. And social media is one way of interacting with a group of colleagues interested and invested in the questions you are asking and who might be interested in weighing in. This has been great. Just a few weeks ago, as I was working revising my syllabus for my course on the crusades, I ventured a few queries into Facebook. The response I got was tremendous. This lively discussion about different types of sources, different approaches to teaching, different governing questions. In my experience, scholars are essentially generous. Generous with their ideas, and their feedback, and even their critiques. And social media (well, Facebook, I guess) is just a really efficient way of having those conversations with generous people who are invested in the same ideas as you are.

This is all a separate issue from the various other ways in which the new media environment will change our research habits.   Most notably for me, through the digitization of manuscripts which allow a different kind of interaction with “the archive.” This will utterly change our processes and presumably our products. And this is also different from the whole field of digital humanities, which I don’t quite understand yet but which is surely changing, or at least affecting, the questions we ask and thus the knowledge we seek.

Advice? I won’t presume to give advice. I will just say that, from my own experience, good work and dedication win out.

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