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Hey, Click and Clack! A Puzzler for 'Car Talk'

Publication Date: 2004-05-11

When I was on Car Talk, they made fun of Vermont, physicists, and the French. There was no way I was going to mention that I have a graduate degree in medieval literature.

This is from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 36, Page B20


This is Warren, from Hartford. You know, the capital of Connecticut. The city you make fun of for being so boring. But we can talk about Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sheff v. O'Neill on educational equity another time.

Listen, guys, I've been a loyal listener for years. What I know about cars, I've learned from you. I admire your program for a bunch of reasons. You take terrific environmental stands, making fun of urban and suburban SUV's and showing us how to pollute less by not warming up the car in cold weather. You take on giant companies, like General Motors, and accuse them of shoddy work. You've got a real bead on the terror in the hearts of parents of driving teenagers. And from time to time you tread deftly into the most delicate automotive realms of all: relationships between men and women.

Still, I'm not writing just to sing your praises. I've got a problem, and I'm not sure it's automotive. It's about the liberal arts, you see, and how you seem to be trashing them.

For the longest time, you just went after art history. You know what I mean. You'd have some female graduate student with a car issue, and you would go, "What's your degree gonna be in -- no, don't tell me, ART HISTORY!" Much yukking it up, because, as we all know, she'll never get a job. She might be a lot of fun, and have an interesting car or relationship problem, but what you really want is for her to get a degree that will land her a job so she can buy a used Camry. It's not that you're hard-hearted. You care, and that's wonderful. Sort of.

Now I've heard you going after the "liberal arts." Look what happens when we don't defend the art historians!

Maybe you don't mean it, but you've turned all of the liberal arts into straight men, a quaint collection of college majors invented by professors and administrators to suck impressionable young people into the quicksand of youthful impracticality and adult poverty. English? Philosophy? History? Fuhgeddaboutit! As for us studying, teaching, hoping to find a job in these fields, or even pulling down what passes for a salary -- dreamers all! The wave of the future is clear: engineering, business, computer science.

Before writing, I figured I'd better do some research, so I finally looked up your Web site. I knew you'd gone to MIT, Ray, but didn't know your degree was in humanities and science, and I sure didn't know that you, Tom, couldn't get enough of school. You even got a Ph.D. in something or other and lived the soft life as a college professor for eight years or so.

But I still think you've got the liberal arts all wrong. (Even though I admit that lots of us do our jobs badly, how different does that make us from any other profession, like radio host or car mechanic?) When we give up on people getting a liberal-arts education, we also give up on the idea of a decent, democratic political system -- or even good coffee-shop conversation, which you seem to live for, Tom. Where else can students learn the art of broad thinking and democratic deliberation, as opposed to the kind of shouting that fills up so much of the radio dial?

Face it, guys. The reason your show is so popular isn't because you are car-mechanic geniuses -- it's because you put car problems into broader contexts: philosophical, psychological, even historical. And the only reason you can do that is because you studied the liberal arts.

I'll go a step further. You guys are walking -- well, talking -- advertisements for the liberal arts, just the way you are for your highbrow radio network. You have an apparently insatiable curiosity about the world. You know how to talk respectfully and empathetically to lots of different kinds of people, and seem to like doing it. You handle yourselves well with questions that come out of all fields. You should be poster guys for recruiters for liberal-arts colleges. You know how to do exactly what we hope our students will do.

But then you go and talk about the liberal arts as though what we do in philosophy or ethics classes is teach students to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. You know better. We help them learn how to ask questions about how they know things, about what makes a good life, and how to think about human behavior.

Because you've got kids, you know that young people are bombarded with images pushing instant gratification, whether it's speed on highways or credit on cards. Newspapers, Web sites, television, movies, all require that important issues fit into the smallest, most easily digestible packages. We professor types try to teach students to evaluate evidence, construct arguments, and empathize with people (except urban SUV drivers, maybe), whether a thousand years ago, or 10,000 miles away, or even in the next room. You do the same thing. You're always interrupting callers with a "hold on now" -- and then getting them to back up, fill in the gaps, lay out the context, open up their story so it begins to yield its own solutions. It's very nice, what you do.

The liberal arts are the only antidote to the public lying that seems so rampant today. Thomas Jefferson was right: Education should "enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom." You see, I think you can chart the coarsening in our politics and culture as inversely proportional (now there's an MIT phrase!) to the respect shown for the liberal arts, in education as well as the world at large.

On the other hand, if guys who are as decent, funny, self-deprecating, and insightful as you two have declared open season on the liberal arts, we who work in the liberal-arts biz must be doing a lousy job of PR, at the very least. I know we've got work to do, but you could really help us out.

Take parents, for instance. You talk to them a lot more than to kids. And parents are a BIG problem. At our fall "preview days," they all clump over at the business-school, or engineering, or computer-science tables. When the kid -- bless her! -- wanders over to English or history or languages, the parents hang back -- you should see the eyes rolling! -- needing to be convinced that a degree in history is worth 120 grand.

Most of us smile ingratiatingly and wilt under the pressure, mumbling unconvincingly what we've heard about employability, the importance of critical thinking, and the value of a well-rounded education. Their eyes glaze over, if they're not snoring. But we should be shouting the obvious from the rooftop of the admissions building: If you don't learn to read well and write clearly, you will always be prey for those who do! A liberal-arts degree will keep you working at the highest level, most flexibly, and most satisfyingly, over the course of your lifetimes!

Look at Tom and Ray, we should tell the parents and their kids. They've had many different jobs -- without the liberal arts they'd have been street bums. If you develop the thinking skills that allow you to move from profession to profession, you will have the very best preparation for the roller-coaster ride of the 21st-century economy. What can you do with an art-history degree? You can understand how human beings have tried to account for their world, and represent its beauty and terror, its depth and its pain. You can get prepared to enter the business world, and be confident that you'll stay your own person. That's what we ought to be saying, proudly, passionately, and as though we believed it.

And you guys, Tom and Ray, could be saying it on the radio. Pre-med students dive into their science courses and resurface as doctors 10 years later. We know they make great mechanics -- but can they talk to their patients, or to the folks at the next table in the coffee shop? Or take lawyers and accountants, M.B.A.'s and engineers; they all know how to land and execute the contract, to work for the client or the boss. It's OK to learn that sort of stuff -- it's just that people should only learn it after they've learned how to think and evaluate and critique and commit.

So if you'll help us out on your end, we can do some stuff too. Maybe you've already helped by laughing at us. We liberal-arts types have a tendency to duck and cover. We need to get clear, ourselves, about why the liberal arts matter: What we do is honorable, has an ancient history, and remains the core of any college or university worth its salt. Period.

We need to stand up for ourselves, at faculty meetings, in committees, and in legislatures, and say why what we do matters. We need to take to the airwaves, the columns of the school and local newspapers, and show how the liberal arts educate students in ways of learning and living. We'll need to take some licks, of course. After all, we've got plenty of numbskulls who get a charge out of speaking in academic tongues and showing their contempt for regular folks. And the business types are always going to make fun of us. But getting out there, and talking straight to the folks with the checkbooks -- parents, trustees, legislators -- will earn us a lot more respect than hiding or whining.

So, Tom and Ray, why not drive home in the same car that brought you? She's got a few miles on her, sure, and she might not have the latest gadgets, but she's roomy and sturdy, with classical lines and surprising power. Best of all, she'll take you just about anywhere you want to go.

How about you lay off the liberal arts for a while -- including art history? Without them you wouldn't have a show, and you sure won't have much of an audience in the future. And that would be a real shame. Hey, guys, take care. And don't drive like my brother.

Warren Goldstein is an associate professor of history and chair of the department at the University of Hartford. He is the author of William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience, (Yale University Press, 2004).

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 36, Page B20

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