Yes, You Need the Liberal Arts

Liberal education and the liberal arts have fallen on hard times of late. And if we think there’s reason to resuscitate and revive them, and still a window in which to do so, we better not rely on the bromides of the past. The most damaging accusation against a liberal arts education is that it is practically useless, even if morally and spiritually valuable. But that is simply untrue — both for individuals and for society at large.

It’s easy to show how the study of medicine or business might be of use to individuals as well as to society. But when it comes to the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, showing the personal benefits or the societal benefits of Suzie learning Latin or Joey studying poetry seemed not all that obvious. In the domain of utility, the liberal arts do not bake bread, nor do they mend fractured bones; in the realm of moral virtue, they do not always work to soften a stony heart.

So, let us begin with what might be the use of a liberal education for each of us as individuals.

The liberal arts, properly conceived and taught, can introduce our students to the best thinkers, authors, and artists from antiquity to the present, give students exposure to what would be, for them, new ideas and perspectives, and offer them the chance to think through these matters for themselves and come to their own conclusions through reason and reflection. This might cultivate the ability in them to possess their own minds, freely, even in the face of what our culture, their peers, today’s ever-present “celebrities,” or even their more ideological professors might think. This is among the weightiest arguments for liberal education: The freedom to think, to imagine, to question, and to dissent is part of what it means to be a free man or woman.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that freedom of thought and inquiry can be constricted without impinging on freedom more generally. If we learn nothing else from classic literature, the great works of philosophy, or the study of historical figures, we should see that constraining freedom of the mind today leads to control in other, perhaps all, areas of human life and flourishing later.

Still, even this is not enough. I vividly remember reading in a biography of Abraham Lincoln that he ferociously studied Shakespeare, the Bible, poetry, and Jefferson not just to understand this or that better but, above all, to see what the pattern of a man’s life might be like. It was not enough for him to scan the world of learning and become more knowledgeable about many of life’s most serious matters — Lincoln wanted to see what he might be and do. That is, he needed to understand better how he should live.

In overcoming our ignorance of the past through history and our ignorance of human nature through philosophy and literature, we are less likely to be ruled by slogans or unexamined opinion, less likely to be moved simply by emotion or by demagogues, and perhaps even less easily duped because we lack a conception of the evil possibilities of our common natures.

In keeping with my view that we should stop overpromising the good that the liberal arts can do, I am not sure studying the liberal arts will make us better people, at least not as the world today often understands “better” — more charitable, kinder, perhaps more caring and compassionate, or, all in all, more “liberal.” There is, however, one attribute that a liberal education might indeed cultivate, though it is hardly counted as a virtue by many sides today — moderation. Perhaps this is the virtue a liberal education cultivates best, as well as the virtue for which it is often criticized most.

We live, as we all recognize, in a most immoderate age. Too much is passion, too much is commitment. But consider an education that encourages us and our students to look back with openness and respect for possible guidance, to look at the most important questions from many sides, to be skeptical of the biases and felt truths of the day. Such an education will do little to turn our students into what the vocal and committed on every side want us to be — warriors for this cause on the Right or fighters for that cause on the Left. There is no dearth of extremism, of passionate intensity in this world. If the thoughtfulness cultivated by our arts can put even a small brake on our enthusiasms, or can be a decent refuge from zealotry, well, that would be a great virtue.

Unquestionably, there are those in the humanities who pretend to have no idea what we’re talking about. “Of course,” they might argue, “we make our students more moral! We have taken the liberal arts from being something merely academic, merely antique and intellectual, and brought them into the realm of social justice, into the realm of politics and political activism. Through our teaching, we are producing university graduates who are progressive, supportive of all lifestyles, egalitarian in their views toward income redistribution, critical of narrow patriotism, and cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic in their worldview. Moreover, it follows that encouraging our students to be social justice activists along these political lines is part of the moral obligation of higher education.”

My sense is that many if not most Americans are suspicious, even scornful, of using higher education for political purposes of any stripe. To be thoughtful, to deliberate, and to begin to understand the meaning of personal morality and social justice is one thing, but to preach to our captive audience the answers that we think we know or to be dismissive of common beliefs is another. And moral self-righteousness rarely bears the aspect of virtue. Again, thoughtfulness is a hallmark of the liberal arts, but elitist sanctimony is another reason why much of the public finds itself so alienated from the liberal arts.

In trying to discern the benefits of a good liberal education to us as individuals, what shall we conclude? They can keep us from being ruled over by slogans and the untutored opinions of those around us; they can give us greater insight into matters of great importance; and, in a most practical way, they give us insight into our character and the character of those we meet.

Now, let me turn this analysis away from how a liberal education might benefit us as individuals and consider what I’d most like us to see — how a liberal education is of value to our country.

Let me return to what I know best, the American founding. I believe that if you told any of the founders that the highest knowledge is knowledge for its own sake, or knowledge untethered from any practical use, or learning only for our own edification and delight, or even learning for our own personal liberation, they would have found it hard to agree. Consider Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was perhaps the most liberally educated person of his day. It seems likely that he could read in six languages and was fluent in four. There was hardly a scientific teaching up to his time of which he didn’t have knowledge, nor were there many classic or philosophic texts beyond his understanding. After the Library of Congress was burned during the War of 1812, his personal library (all 6,487 books) became the basis of the new congressional library.

Linguist. Scientist. Philosopher. Yes, all of that, but more than that. His education also made him an amateur archeologist, a skilled architect, a valuable diplomat, our third president, founder of the University of Virginia, and the eloquent author of those basic principles of liberty and equality that gave America hope and direction. Jefferson learned from the study of modern political philosophy the self-evident truths that lay behind the writing of his, and our, Declaration of Independence. Spurn its history or disdain its author, but know that without it and the vision of human equality that the Declaration contains, we would not be this country.

Or consider Lincoln. If all his education did was make Lincoln into a private man useful to himself in his everyday life, few of us would notice, and none of us would truly care. What we should appreciate about Lincoln, and before him all the great men of the founding of our country, is the awareness that what was good for them as private intellects might also be of great value, of great use, to creating and then recreating a whole nation, perhaps a whole world.

Or consider James Madison. Without his study of the troubled history of all prior democracies or his inquiries into all confederacies, both classical and modern, coupled with his deep reflection on what we were once bold to call “human nature,” Madison could not have become the father of the Constitution. Without their philosophical, political, and historical studies of the preconditions of popular governments and the nature of tyrannical rule, Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay could not have written The Federalist Papers, nor could the populace have read and understood them.

It was hardly modern political science that was behind the making of America — it was the liberal arts.

Or think of John Witherspoon, a professor of moral philosophy and an early president of what would later become Princeton University. In ways far from modern commencement addresses, Witherspoon famously admonished his students: “Do not live useless and die contemptible.” To Witherspoon, to go to college and not draw from it things, many things, of use to oneself and to the world at large would have seemed a tragic waste. Recognizing that among those who went to Princeton and listened to President Witherspoon were nine future Cabinet members, 12 governors, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, three Supreme Court justices, a vice president, and a president (James Madison) who was also one of five of Witherspoon’s students at the Constitutional Convention, I can only assume that Witherspoon thought it was particularly contemptible to be useless in the public realm, not just ineffectual in our private lives.

Even in saying all this, we have not gone far enough.

Yes, the liberal arts were able to help raise up statesmen for this country when it was most in need — at the beginning and again when we were on the brink of the great dissolve. But let us remember things more ordinary: Few of us are called to be great leaders in this or that aspect of high public life. We are called to be parents, friends, neighbors, and citizens.

The study of Western civilization, its history and works and thought, was absolutely needed in our early leaders and rulers, but what of today? We live under a democratic government whose rulers are not appointed or anointed but whom we choose. Yes, the liberal arts may have once been the domain of aristocrats and gentlemen rulers, but in this democracy, we are all rulers. So, what characteristics should we want our co-rulers to have? To be ignorant of the past? Ignorant of our laws and mores and the reasons behind them? Forgetful of those who sacrificed to uphold them? Do we look for neighbors who are crude, blind to the beautiful, devoted to their own daily tasks and little else? Who in the world would want to be ruled by people like that?

The list goes on. Should we, as a people, be unaware of our history or the history of other countries? Should we live in ignorance of our national principles and the arguments for them? Should we know ever so little about the roots, attractions, and limits of other principles, principles perhaps antagonistic to our own? Should we be manipulated by the latest slogan or the newest emotional crusade to come along? Should we be swayed by demagogues or by appeals to our passions and our biases? Should we choose as our leaders “celebrities” — those only known for being known?

Is not the answer to all these questions evident?

Madison writes in the Tenth Federalist that there were three evils — he called them “diseases” — to which all democracies historically are prone: ignorance, instability, and injustice. The last two could, he hoped, be mitigated by constitutional arrangements and institutional structures: the separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and the like. But no political arrangements could solve the first problem, ignorance. For that, a rich, broad, and liberal education would be the foremost remedy. And not only for our leaders but, just as important, for all of us who choose our leaders. As Madison wrote, “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?” You may rest assured that Madison did not think that what passes for liberal education today would be enough to sustain this country and our democracy.

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