Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, October 23, 2014

another note on the Southern Reach

Another note on the Southern Reach trilogy — or something that started as a note but then turned into a critique.

A couple of years ago I wrote that the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit was marred by “videogame aesthetics.” Remember the dwarves running across the bridges in the goblin caves? Classic side-scroller! It’s Super Thorin Brothers! [UPDATE: As Adam Roberts points out, this should surely be Super Moria Brothers.] But “all I could to was watch the dwarves bounce around from horror to horror. My hands felt empty and useless without the controller they so obviously needed. Video-game aesthetics are built around the assumption of manual activity: they work far better when you have something to do. I didn’t really want to sit passively and watch Peter Jackson play with his Xbox but that’s what I felt was happening to me for much of the second half of the movie.”

The narrative technique of the Southern Reach trilogy — especially in the first book — is likewise derived from videogames, though not side-scrollers: instead, first-person explorers are the model, especially (it seems to me) Myst and Riven. The explorations of Area X in Annihilation very strongly reminded me of my explorations of Myst Island, with, added-on, some of the interactive elements that emerged in Riven. (Myst and Riven could be said to have elements of “strange pastoral” also.)

The biologist walks through the forest to the lighthouse — hey, there’s a ruined village off to the side. Can you interact with anything there? Not really; keep going. The lighthouse is scary but unrewarding until you click on the rug and find the trap door! And then the return trip: can you find the path that lets you escape the moaning creature? If not, maybe you die, and the game restarts back at base camp?

And then in the second book: Explore the official Southern Reach facility! Walk through the spooky room with the gloves; see what's behind the locked door in your office — and search until you find the key that opens the one locked drawer in your desk. Then, if you're really clever, find the trap door — yes, another trap door, but this one in the ceiling of the storage closet! Some of this reminds me of the old text-based adventures games also: type “open the drawer” and you get “Opening the drawer reveals a strange plant, a dead mouse, and an old cellphone.”

Now, I don’t want to get carried away with this: text-based adventure games are a kind of interactive fiction, and interactive fiction draws on the narrative types and tropes of the novel. But there are certain kinds of actions you perform in those games, certain kinds of objects you interact with, that then make their way into videogames — and action and objects of those general kinds are what populate the Southern Reach saga.

So the story can feel at times like interactive fiction without the interaction; a point which leads me to another, one that might explain my own lack of excitement about the novel, despite its various excellences. Because so much of it seems to be translated from another medium, one perhaps better suited to the shape of the story, the Southern Reach story as a whole feels to me less like a novel than a novelization — in light of which it’s interesting to note the work VanderMeer has done in other media, including games and film.

I’m not happy about what seems to me the increasing influence of videogames on film and fiction — not because I dislike videogames, but because not every artistic medium does everything equally well. Maybe we should let videogames do what they do best; and when we make movies or write novels, we could do worse than think about what those media can do that videogames can’t.

UPDATE: corrections from Jeff VanderMeer:





I understand what VanderMeer is saying: that the books' descriptions of the natural world are based on his own love of an care for that world, based on "actual exploring." And I have no doubt that that's true! But I don't think that his explanation is in any way inconsistent with my thesis that the narrative technique of the novel is indebted to the first-person explorer videogame.

on the Southern Reach Trilogy

Having read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and thought about it for a while, I’ve decided that I don’t like it as much as I thought I would.

To be sure, some things about it are fantastic: the first volume in particular is sublimely creepy. But I am not sure whether the novel as a whole — and it is one novel broken into three parts, like Lord of the Rings — pays back the investment of time required to read 900 pages.

Mac Rogers, who likes the story very much, says this about it:

This frustration that manifests over and over throughout the trilogy — as the characters repeatedly fail not only to solve the mystery of Area X, but indeed to even meaningfully perceive it — doesn’t feel like a cheat, but rather a natural outgrowth of how these books see humanity. We’re isolated. We’re easily manipulated. We don’t cooperate. We’re poorly suited to our natural habitat, and insignificant in the face of its untamed grandeur. We care more about our image of ourselves, our identity, than about our interaction with the world around us. The colossal physical and spiritual transformation Area X represents is beyond human reference.

I think this is a very plausible read. The question is whether the book makes this point well, vividly, compellingly. The admirable Adam Roberts thinks it does. Writing particularly about the first volume, he argues that “what makes this book so remarkable is less what happens in it, and more its tense, eerie and unsettling vibe. Creating such an atmosphere is a balancing act: on the one hand, the writer must not destroy the mood with too much brute explanation; and on the other, he must not alienate the reader by being too annoyingly oblique. VanderMeer hits exactly the right balance.”

And Roberts thinks this continues to the end: “Finding a way satisfactorily to pay off so much mysteriously tense apprehension is no small challenge for a writer – and VanderMeer manages to avoid banality and opacity both, and generates some real emotional charge while he's about it.” Mac Rogers also talks about the book’s “payoffs,” and also thinks they are significant. I don’t. I’m okay with not getting standard-issue resolutions to mysteries if I get something of equal or greater value instead, but I don’t think that happens here. It seems to me that we know very little more at the conclusion of the novel than we knew at its outset, and what we do learn suffers from unnecessary “opacity” — is, indeed, “annoyingly oblique” in light of the investment of time and energy the book asks of its readers.

And I suspect that the book’s lack of resolution — so many of its major characters (all but one, I’d say) left in mid-journey, and some complications introduced in the third volume for no apparent reason — may be a set-up for a sequel. I don’t mind spending 300 pages being set up for a sequel, but 900? That’s too much to ask.

If my suspicion is correct — if we get a sequel that provides more conventional forms of resolution for the characters, and more conventional answers to the mysteries raised in these volumes — I wonder if Rogers and Roberts will need to revisit their praise for the balance between mystery and revelation they think VanderMeer achieves here. Wouldn’t more clarity be too much?

With all these complaints registered, I want to close by commending the books for their unusual and often eloquent attentiveness to the details of the natural world — and for raising the possibility that there could be massively powerful intelligences that encounter the natural world in ways totally alien to our own — in ways more like the way that animals and plants interact with one another, whether cooperatively, symbiotically, or violently. In another essay Roberts refers to the book as “strange pastoral”, and I think that’s a brilliant designation, and helps to show what the story of the Southern Reach does accomplish.

Monday, October 20, 2014

this brunch will not stand, man

This attack on brunch is worth noting because it exemplifies a couple of recent trends in opinion pieces.

First, we have strategic exaggeration. You don’t just say that you disapprove of brunch, you say that eating brunch manifests a “desire to reject adulthood.” You say it’s a rejection of “the social conventions of our parents’ generation.” You call it “the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture.” You quote someone else who says brunch is “a symptom of the soulless suburban conformity that is relentlessly colonizing our urban environments.”

In short, you make the most absurdly over-the-top claims imaginable so that when someone calls out the extremity of your language you can reply, “Dude, you need to get a sense of humor.” But of course you don’t actually take anything back, because you meant it. You really, really despise brunch, in a way that really, really is weirdly extreme. But you need not own that because you can invoke “humor” and “irony.”

Which leads to my second point of interest, which is: the panoptic reach of the pink police state. As I’ve noted before, I think James Poulos’s in-development thoughts on this topic are incisive and important, but let me just add some theses for disputation:

  • There is a Law of the Conservation of Moral Energy. That is, the amount of moral energy in a given society is constant. It just gets deployed in different ways.
  • As I have previously noted, in the pink police state there are no adiaphora: everything that is not forbidden is compulsory, and vice versa.
  • As more and more people in our society become convinced that consent is the only relevant ethical category in the domain of sex, the moral energy that once would have gone into policing sexual activity is transferred to questions about when you should eat your meals and what books you should (or should not) read in your spare time — with no diminishment of moral intensity.

Monday, October 13, 2014

update

Folks, things have been quiet around here for the past few days and will likely be quiet for the foreseeable future. I have a great deal on my plate, both professionally and personally. But a few bits of news and/or enlightenment:

1) I had planned to blog about Nick Carr's new book The Glass Cage here, but instead I'm going to review it for Books & Culture. So you'll see my thoughts in a more coherent form than I usually offer on this blog, but they'll be delayed. Spoiler: I like the book a lot and think you should certainly read it, though I have some reservations too.

2) I'm plugging away on my Big Book Project — which gets bigger the more I work on it, so that the more I write the farther I get from the finish line — and, inspired by some of the figures in that story, I'm working my way through some larger and more general thoughts about imagination, creativity, and theology. I lay out some of the problems in this oddball essay; and I point towards a few constructive responses to those problems in a handful of quotes I've posted to my tumblr: here, here, and here. Consider that a teaser for a book to be released in about 2024 (should I be spared).

3) Two other books I'll be reviewing in the coming months: Adam Roberts's magnificent new edition of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, and a wonderful new volume of Italo Calvino's Complete Cosmicomics.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

more on social structures and imaginative work

A couple of follow-ups on yesterday’s oddball rantish thing on the social and economic structures that enable or disable genuine imagination:

First, a really thoughtful response from my friend Bryan McGraw, who can provide a political philosopher’s take on these issues. Please read it all, but here’s an excerpt:

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer. See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty! Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held). And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way. That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

In a well-known passage, C. S. Lewis writes, “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.” I think (I hope) that later ages will see almost all of today’s political thought as wrapped up in the unquestioned and even unconfronted assumption that people are simply “calculating preference machines.”

More directly to the point of my article, while Eisenhower may have wanted us to distrust the “military-industrial complex” because of its power to involve private industry in policy-making, and while that is a very important warning indeed, when government, mega-industry, and the university system all become entangled beyond the possibility of disentanglement, the flow of influence runs in all directions, but especially from the richer to the less-rich — from the patrons to the patronized. And that puts universities in the position of being shaped far more than they shape; and that, in turn, puts the artists and writers who work for the university in an even more dependent position. This worries me.

I think I’ll have more to say about Bryan’s smart response, but for now just one note: I do think the anti-capitalist left is likely to find something to cheer in my post; they and I have a good deal in common. My politics are probably too incoherent to describe, but one might say that they are sorta kinda paleo-conservative green-communitarian, emphasizing the need to renew and strengthen the institutions (especially family and local community, and schools insofar as they grow out of family and local community) that mediate between the individual and the nation-state, for the better care of people and the created order. And since the nation-state that is growing and growing and growing in power is an international-capitalist one, I end up agreeing with the left that that nation-state’s dominance is probably our largest single political problem. When I think about politics, I have infinitely more sympathy for a left-anarchist like David Graeber than I do for any National Greatness conservatism. (Bryan, set me straight if I’m leaving the true path here.)

Second: One of the reasons I want to make an argument for regenerating genuine imagination, genuine creativity, is that “imagination” and “creativity” and today almost totally co-opted by scenes like this — the happy-clappy “super excited” artificially-generated enthusiasm of the TED world that Benjamin Bratton has called, in one of the most apt phrases of the twenty-first century, “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”. If that’s what imagination and creativity are all about, may God save us all from them.

Kathy Sierra and online abuse

Kathy Sierra has written a post about her experiences with what we (mildly) call online harassment — a post that may not stay up for long, so if you’re at all inclined, please read it while you can. I just want to say a few words.

1) Understand where I’m coming from when I talk about things like this: I wrote a book on the history of the theological doctrine of original sin that more-or-less openly endorses the claim that we are all fallen, all broken, all tempted by wickedness and all sometimes successfully tempted. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart.” So no wickedness surprises me.

2) Wickedness has to be called by its true name.

3) The people who have abused and harassed and threatened Kathy Sierra (and Lord knows how many other women with online lives) have acted wickedly. Their behavior is not trivial: it is malicious to the highest degree.

4) Psychological and emotional abuse is no less wicked than physical abuse; in some circumstances it can be worse.

5) It does no good to say that these are the acts of “a few bad apples” in the tech world. We have no way of knowing what percentage of men in the tech world act in this way — but in total numbers, there are certainly far more than “a few.” It would be impossible for a relative handful of men using multiple user names to do as much harassing of women as gets done in forums, in comment threads, on Twitter, and elsewhere online. Regardless of the percentages, there are a great many of these cruel and malicious men, and they are very active, and virtually nothing is being done to stop them.

6) What corruption is in my heart, or yours, is not something that can be determined solely by our actions. We may restrain our darkest impulses out of fear — fear of being shamed or punished. It is when we have no fear of exposure or retribution that we act according to our desires. The men who harass women online do so because they think they are protected. For the same reason, children will torment animals when they think adults can't see — they know they have power over the animals, and rejoice in exploiting that power. For the same reason, in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, people administered electrical shocks to strangers because they were protected by the authority of the scientists who assigned them that task.

7) It is impossible to overstress how outraged the mobs at Reddit were when one of their nastiest and most prominent trolls was doxxed — this threatened everything they had come to take for granted about their ability to manage their online presence. We have no way of knowing how many men started controlling their cruel impulses after this exposure; probably not very many, since it could be seen as a one-off. But if exposure were more common, we might see some changes in behavior.

8) As the Milgram experiment shows, exposure isn’t the only thing people fear: the people who administered those electrical shocks had their own willingness to inflict torture exposed, but by and large they didn’t mind: they were “happy to be of service”. Similarly, weev has been exposed as one of Kathy Sierra’s abusers, but he has paid no evident social price for being so exposed: as Sierra points out, leading figures in the tech world chat with him in a friendly manner and treat him with respect. To some he is a hero, a martyr. He doesn’t need to be protected from exposure; he is protected by the good opinion and warm bonhomie of his fellow geeks.

9) The best analogy I can think of to this cadre of misogynist trolls is the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan arose not in the era of slavery but as a response to the abolition of slavery, when white men felt that their previously undisputed social dominance was in danger of being undermined. Only a relatively small number of men participated in the the Klan’s lynchings and burnings; but almost no one spoke out against them. Though they protected their identities with masks, those identities were nonetheless widely known; yet upstanding citizens greeted them on the street every day, looked them in the eye, smiled, shook their hands. Perfunctory legal inquiries sometimes led to slaps on the wrist, but the Klansmen were willing to risk that, because they paid no social price for their actions. Indeed, they were feared, respected, and sometimes secretly admired — and they knew it.

10) This is why Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Similarly, in this situation the heart of the problem is not people like weev, but the moderate, reasonable, friendly people in the tech world who enable weev. The dedicated trolls are probably beyond correction — and are certainly beyond reasoning with: they are drunk on the power they wield. But those in positions of power in the tech world who would never abuse women online or offline and yet tolerate, even sort of admire, the trolls — they may be reachable. They must be reachable. But reason may not be the only or even the best tool. They are going to have to be exposed, and shamed into action to change the structure of the technological tools and services they control. Otherwise there is no foreseeable end to the kind of abuse that Kathy Sierra and countless other women have experienced.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Devil's Bargain, expanded

It's here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

rebel tech

Electronic technologies are seeking to escape my control — and they are largely succeeding!

This must stop.

Take Ello, about which I have written. I fooled around for a bit, but it has no privacy controls of any kind: everything is public to everyone, nobody can be blocked, etc. I understand that the service is new and still under development, but I won’t be back until I can control my environment (if then).

And then there’s this: I subscribe to some magazines on iOS, because with my aging eyes — I’ve mentioned this before — I really like being able to adjust the type size. (Most print magazines are close to unreadable for me now, unless I take off my glasses and hold them inches from my face, which is not the most comfortable way to read.) But the iOS 8 update broke a number of magazines in Apple’s Newsstand, including Scientific American, and while some of them have been fixed, SciAm has been both inactive and silent. I have paid for their magazines, but I can’t read them; and so far they have not responded to my emails.

These are just reminders that, for all the convenience that online and digital life provides, and while we use a great deal, we own very little indeed. I admire Comixology’s recent move to enable PDF or CBZ downloads of comics I’ve purchased from them — “from participating publishers.” But Marvel and DC (among others) aren’t participating.

So I guess I’d better get used to reading magazines and comics a few inches from my de-spectacled face. And I should rededicate myself to owning my turf.

never mind (for now)

It seems that my thoughts on the issues raised in the previous two posts are expanding, like No-Face in Spirited Away, into something significantly larger than I can manage here. So you will hear more from me on these matters, but probably not in this format.

the devil's bargain: part 2

inc.com

I promised a follow-up to my previous post, so here I am. In this post and the next I want to discuss two essays by David Graeber — one and two — because I think that, while they seem to have very different purposes, they contribute in interesting and useful ways to a single important point.

Let me say at the outset that I have significant reservations about some details of the arguments that Graeber develops. But I want to see what ideas emerge if we at least take those arguments seriously.

In the first of these essays Graeber takes up the old “Where are our flying cars?” question — or, in my favorite version of the complaint, Jaron Lanier’s sharp comment: “Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, ‘In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX.’”

Here’s Graeber:

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened? The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies. The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now — only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

So why have things turned out this way? That’s the subject of Graeber’s essay, and if you’re interested in this question at all you should read the whole thing, because he makes his case in some detail. But he sums up that case here:

By the sixties, conservative political forces were growing skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading Soviet threat allowed for a reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic arrangements, or indeed directions that could support a campaign of reversing the gains of progressive social movements and achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites saw as a global class war. The change of priorities was introduced as a withdrawal of big-government projects and a return to the market, but in fact the change shifted government-directed research away from programs like NASA or alternative energy sources and toward military, information, and medical technologies.

The question Graber wants to put to us is this: To what extent are our imaginations shaped — constrained, limited — by our having had to live with the technological choices made by the military-industrial complex — by industries and universities working in close collaboration with the government, in a spirit of subservience to its needs?

Or, to put it another way: How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? To see “sophisticated simulations” of the things we used to hope we’d really see as good enough?
Next time, I’ll look at the second Graeber essay and start to draw together some of my themes.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

the devil's bargain: part 1

blackmur

So wrote R. P. Blackmur, an eminent poet and critic from Princeton University, writing in the Sewanee Review in 1945. His essay is called “The Economy of the American Writer: Preliminary Notes,” and his chief question is whether it is possible for literary writers to make a living. Plus ça change, oui? An essay very much worth reading for anyone, but especially for people who think that the problem of the aspiring-artist-piecing-together-a-rough-living is a phenomenon of the millennial generation.

Anyhow, Blackmur is concerned because he has run some numbers.

blackmur2

In these circumstances, where can the necessary money — money sufficient to allow artists to pursue their art full-time (or nearly so) — come from?

From our vantage point, perhaps the most interesting point here is Blackmur’s uncertainty about the most likely source of support for artists: will they find their place in the world of the university, or in the world of the non-profit foundation? We know how it turned out: while foundations do still support artists of various kinds, universities have turned out to be the chief patrons of American artists — especially writers.

Blackmur sees that even at his moment support for writers and artists is drifting towards the university; he’s just not altogether happy about that. He’s not happy because he has seen that “the universities are themselves increasingly becoming social and technical service stations — are increasingly attracted into the orbit of the market system.” Social and technical service stations: a prophetic word if there ever was one. The universities have in the intervening seventy years become generous patrons of the arts; but what is virtually impossible for us to see, because we can’t re-run history, is the extent to which the arts have been limited and confined by being absorbed into an institution that has utterly lost its independence from “the market system” — that has simply and fully become what the Marxist critic Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus,” an institution that does not overtly belong to the massive nation-state but exists largely to support and when possible fulfill the nation-state’s purposes.

One of my favorite things about W. H. Auden is his tendency, when he has something very serious to say, to cast it in comic terms. In 1946 Auden wrote a poem for the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. It is called “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” and you may listen to the poet read it here. As Adam Kirsch has noted, Harvard had played an important role in the war:

Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had perished. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the highest level: President James Bryant Conant had been one of those consulted when President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Now that the Cold War was under way, the partnership between the University and the federal government was destined to grow even closer. 

But as Kirsch only hints, Auden was deeply suspicious of the capture of intellectual life by what, fifteen years later, President Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex”; and he presented his poem as a direct, if superficially light-hearted, attack on that capture. For Auden, Conant was a perfect embodiment of the “new barbarian” who was breaking down the best of Western culture from within. (See more about this here.)

Soon after his return from Harvard, Auden told his friend Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

first of a series of posts

Saturday, October 4, 2014

defending the liberal arts, once more

Thanks to those who answered my question about defenses of the liberal arts and the humanities.

What makes for a good defense of the liberal arts? (I’ll refer only to the liberal arts in the rest of this post, since defenses of the humanities can usually be fit within that larger category.) That’s a question that can only be answered in relation to a particular audience.

The first possible audience is those who are already involved in the liberal arts but are not sure precisely why — people who sense that what they are doing has some value, but can’t confidently articulate it. For those people, essays like this one, by my colleague Elizabeth Corey, do a wonderful job of teasing out the implicit values and commitments in what we do.

A second possible audience includes people — scientists, or people who associate themselves with SCIENCE (their mental capitals, not mine) — who think that science alone is truth-conducive and that the artes liberales are just a higher form of fooling around.

A third possible audience — and for those of us who teach in liberal-arts settings a likely one — is an especially tough one: parents of college students who want their investment in their children’s education to be repaid in the coin of … well, coin: a good job upon graduation, or as soon after graduate as possible, followed by a lifetime of financial security and steady income growth.

To that first audience I can enthusiastically recommend essays like Elizabeth Corey’s; to the second I am prepared to make some strong arguments about the multiple forms of knowledge and the limits of the scientific method; but to the third audience I don’t have any arguments that I really care to make.

To be sure, I truly believe that study of the liberal arts can yield much economic value, and I can point parents to many, many financially successful people who are quite vocal about how much of their success they owe to liberal education; and when pressed I dutifully pass along the relevant information — because I believe it’s true. But my heart is never in such defenses.

For one thing, I don’t expect the parents to buy it. Parents who think about their children’s education according to an ROI model tend to have very specific beliefs about what professions are sufficiently remunerative, and about how people get into those professions; I know from long experience that those beliefs are not easily shaken.

But even more to the point, I may believe that the liberal arts have economic value but that’s not why I’m in the line of work I’m in; and that’s not why young people want to major in liberal-arts disciplines, either. They, like me, will trot out the ROI arguments, but their hearts aren’t in it either, a condition quite transparent to their parents.

This situation bears close and significant analogies to another one I find myself in fairly regularly: being asked to explain why I am a Christian, or why I think Christianity makes sense. Over several decades I have tried many responses to those folks, but I now think the best one is simply this: Come and see. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs; what Christians believe is intimately intertwined with what they do. Christian life is a set of practices — intellectual, doxastic, social, economic — and cannot be fully defended, or even accounted for, to people unwilling to participate, at least to some degree, in those practices. To put it another way, you can’t get any return on an investment (of time and observation) that you haven’t made.

I think much the same can be said of the liberal arts. When properly pursued, they constitute something close to a way of life: a set of practices of inquiry conducted by people who share space and time with one another, whose conversations are extended and embodied. If you want to understand the value of a liberal education, in a very real sense you have to be there.

So to the parents who can’t understand why they should pay for their son or daughter to study literature or philosophy or art history, maybe the best thing I can say is something like this: “I fully understand your concern. And you have every right to know what you are paying for, and to believe that it has value. But if you want to know what value this education has, you’ll need to spend some time with us. It may not make sense from the outside; so come and see.”