Submitted as a 500 word writing statement for an academic job. Prompt: “1-page statement regarding the role of the liberal arts in the 21st-century.”
This week, in the small town of Washingtonville, Pennsylvania (population 276), a condemned building that had served for decades as a local bar was to be torn down. Contractors hired a backhoe and began the work of shredding the blighted building. But this building had a secret. Underneath the twentieth century vinyl paneling that wrapped its exterior were eighteenth century logs. Indeed, this was nothing short of an authentic American-as-apple-pie log cabin dating back to approximately the Revolutionary War.
The Mayor was called.
This story is remarkable in and of itself. American archaeology, as James Deetz notes, has such a narrow temporal window that it requires its own unique set of methods and tools. And yet, it is still jarring every time such a discovery happens: the re-realization that, hidden in plain sight, plastered over, whitewashed, bricked up, or buried under asphalt are the graveyards, the plantations, the slave ships, that comprise the material remnants of American history.
There is something more to this story—something that goes unmentioned in the news blurbs covering the event. What most impressed me about this story was the fact that someone noticed. Was it the construction worker who, peeling back the first vinyl panels, noticed that the wooden beams were not of any typical twentieth century construction? Was it the contractor, returning from lunch perhaps, seeing the building half-demolished (and her work, therefore, half-finished), that noticed there was something unusual about this routine demolition project?
Here, I believe, is the work of the invisible hand of the Liberal Arts. One of these workers, surely, took a Liberal Arts course—and because of it, they were able to see what would be, to most people, overlooked. This is the fundamental power of the Liberal Arts: through it, one learns the skills to perceive value, interest, newness, strangeness, uncanniness, hypocrisy, resonance, importance, in what would otherwise be overlooked. Plenty of people go about their day-to-day affairs with little or no attention to the invisible tendrils of history that intwine the surrounding world and bind them to it. The Liberal Arts not only reveal to us the overlooked, they show us how to search for it—they dare us to engage with the symbolism, irony, meaning and metaphor which permeate everything around us. They challenge us to see ourselves as participants in all this invisible meaningfulness—even if we are sitting in the seat of a backhoe poised to destroy an abandoned, condemned bar—should we dare to live so meaningfully. The whole point of the Liberal Arts is not simply to make the world we live in interesting and meaningful, but also to make your mind an interesting and meaningful place to live.
Without Liberal Arts, this piece of history would have been destroyed. Without this vision (be it of contractor of construction worker), I would bet that the people of Washingtonville would not have ever even noticed that they had unwittingly leveled the oldest building in their town, erasing the only material space in their community that temporally connects them to the time of the very person their town is named after, erasing—in a word—their heritage. No doubt this building will be the subject of much more research to come. Who knows?—maybe George Washington himself had a beer there.