Universities and liberal education: Lamenting our loss

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Universities and liberal education: Lamenting our loss

(Centennial Fellow) Martin Gilbert, in his biography of the greatest leader of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, tells of rumors seeping out to Germany of “the extent of the German slaughter of Jews on the eastern front, the murder by gas of Polish Jews in three special death camps at Chelmno, Belzec, and Treblinka, and of the deportation of Jews from France, Belgium, and Holland to an unknown destination in the East.”

As Churchill wrote at the time, this was “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men.” Christopher Flannery goes on to say, “The German people were the most technically advanced, some might say highly educated people in the world at that time… devoting their considerable skills, acquired at great effort and expense, to the extermination of a people” (Flannery, 1996).”

With this, Flannery gives the most telling definition of liberal education: its distinction from technical education. The distinction might best be seen in a scene from Jurassic Park in which Jeff Golblum, playing a mathematician, chastises the creators of the dinosaurs by saying, “you were so concerned with whether you could, you didn’t ask whether you should.”

John Henry Newman’s seminal “The Idea of a University,” first published in 1859, harkens back, almost wistfully, to the origins of the university and its roots in religions’ search for the rational universe. Newman believed the goal of the university should be “the cultivation of the intellect.” He believed the university is almost a training ground in the etiquette of the mind.

The study of the great ideas should manifest itself in “good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self command and steadiness of view.” These would then create a body of habits by which one chooses his conception of the good life. What the university creates is “knowledge, truth, a grasp of the real

[which is] a good in itself.” This is akin to Aristotle’s definition of freedom – doing something for its own sake.

Newman continues saying “If then a practical end must be assigned to a University … I say it is that of training good members of society.” The motto of my alma mater, New York University, is A Private University in the Public Service. This is a civic education, a Liberal Education.

What then is a liberal education? Plato teaches that we must judge all things as good or bad. Any skill can be used to produce that which is beneficial or that which is destructive; his example is medicine. But how do we know what is good and what is bad? Leo Strauss tells us that one of the lessons of philosophy is that great minds disagree. How are we poor mortals to tell the difference? Aristotle claims, and many parents can verify, that we all desire to know. What are the best things to know? What is the greatest human question? What is our telos, our highest good? A liberal education is education to distinguish, “good from evil, justice from injustice, what is noble and beautiful from what is base and degrading.”

Steve Balch says, “The liberal arts are the arts of freedom distinguished from the arts of necessity, those arts fundamental to survival.” Liberal arts are not forced upon us by the needs of mere life but are chosen for the sake of the good life. The liberal arts were understood to be the necessary preparation for the lofty and rigorous discipline of understanding in its fullness what has been called “the truth [that] shall make you free” (John 8:32).

In this tradition, Flannery continues, the liberal arts are literally arts of freedom. Unlike the compulsory arts of war and economics, the liberal arts are not forced upon us by the needs of mere life but are chosen for the sake of the pursuit of the good life. They are arts not for the acquisition or accomplishment of necessary things but for the guidance to choose worthy things. That is, they are not merely instrumental arts but arts that are in some respect an end in themselves.

The first task of the liberal arts is to secure the liberation of the mind from those many fetters that can bind it, notably ignorance, prejudice, and the influence of the passions. To return to Strauss, “liberal education consists in listening to the conversation among the greatest minds…. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful [beyond the sensory]” (Strauss, 1959).

The Decline of Liberal Education and the Rise of Modernity

Thomas Hobbes is the beginning of the end of the moral community. Aristotle said humans should pursue excellence, the summum bonum. Hobbes disagrees saying, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, there is no there there. There is no highest good, goal that we should pursue. As late as the seventeenth century, the ancient tradition of the liberal arts was still intact, though certainly under siege. Then, Hobbes launches his assault on the ancient.

The rejection of the idea of a final end or highest good as the central concern of life and education marks a decisive break in the two thousand year tradition of the liberal arts. With this break, the arts of freedom begin to be replaced by the arts of living. Education oriented to the highest good is replaced by education in the service of the lowest common denominator – avoidance of death or preservation of life and physical comfort. Mastery of nature for the relief of man’s estate begins to become the governing objective of education. The highest aim of education becomes the aim of a distinctively modern science in which “Knowledge and human power are synonymous.”

The aim is no longer to teach men how to live well; it is to “enlarge the power and empire of mankind in general over the universe.” If there are not higher goals, what is the goal of the university? We fall back to appealing to the lowest common denominator, a technical expertise in survival.

The modern and the scientific started to venerate value neutrality, in fact a means to rid the university, and society, of the Church. But education is never value neutral. To get an education is a value statement. Originally universities were religious. The norms of the modern university, its hierarchical structure, the guild-like collegiality of the disciplines, graduate apprenticeships, caps and gowns, show us the medieval roots are still present. The task of a liberal education is a value laden task: what subjects are valuable, what questions are great questions, what answers are universal are all moral questions. Universities are voluntary moral communities devoted to rigorous discourse on these questions.

Serious deliberation requires a shared sense of the moral community. Therefore, the laws of citizens, e.g., the 1st amendment, must be different from the laws of studies. To repeat: the mission of the institution is rigorous discourse on the great questions. What has happened in the modern university is the virtues, which sustain that mission, have been subverted at the altar of political ideology. The root problem is that the virtues of free inquiry and intellectual honesty have been separated. These are not two separate virtues but the embodiment of the life of the mind.

Advocating free inquiry is of course necessary, indeed crucial. However, when separated from intellectual honesty, there is no way in which to judge those subjects which are worthy of serious discourse; there is no way to separate Shakespeare from Danielle Steele, Bach from Madonna, Arthur Miller from the Vagina Monologues or James Madison from Ann Coulter, animals from humans, war from peace and ultimately life from death…. Leo Strauss said that liberal education is the counter poise to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.”

Jaroslav Pelikan tells the story of a prominent scholar who voted against a distinguished candidate for a position in theology on the grounds that, as a priest he would not be able to carry out his duties because he was “under orders.” But this professor subsequently voted in favor of another distinguished candidate for a position in Politics who was a Marxist. And the sad part is most intellectuals are incapable of apprehending the inconsistency because we are no longer serious about ideas, we are no longer intellectually honest but Hobbesian creatures in a state of nature pursuing our own agendas and not caring who gets in the way.

Christopher Flannery, 1998 “Liberal Arts and Liberal Education,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 1, 1998.
Steven Balch, “The Dubious Value of Value Neutrality” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 16, 2006.
Leo Strauss, “What Is Liberal Education?” An Address Delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults June 6, 1959.
John G. Sullivan, “The Idea of a University Revisited”

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