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How Liberal Arts Colleges Could Save Civilization

The left is waging an all-out war on tradition. If they are to be stopped, colleges must resume their role as custodians of that tradition.

Under woke pressure, Loyola Maryland recently removed Flannery O’Connor’s name from a residence hall. Another Jesuit school, Canisius College, has eliminated its classics program and begun steps to “streamline” its core curriculum. These are not unrelated phenomena. Nor are these educational losses unrelated to the general destruction and desecration in several major American cities at the moment.

The same desire to “burn it all down” is applied to banks, books, and bourgeois norms throughout the West. Businesses are smashed, and curricula are slashed. All are instances of the zeitgeist’s mad rush toward amnesia and oblivion. Recently, I can peruse neither the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education nor of any more general news periodicals without thinking of the closing words of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad:

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! Is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

The same love of darkness which will tear down statues, regardless of who they depict, will sacrifice the liberal arts core of education in the name of relevance. The culture wars are not really about right versus left; they are about memory versus oblivion. There is a battle in the Western world over the continuation of Western civilization, a battle between those who would remember because they understand that memory sustains civilization and those who would forget for the very same reason. One side offers continuity based on a rich cultural inheritance. The other side offers a capitulation into darkness and barbarism. We have come to a point at which our nation’s liberal arts colleges, particularly our few remaining Christian liberal arts colleges, must choose.

If the liberal arts college doesn’t do the work of remembering, then who will? We may continue to have a strong slate of research universities, public and private, dedicated to the generation of new knowledge, but who will preserve what has already been known for centuries and millennia? The unique role of the scholar is to remember. That is what distinguishes the scholar from the scientist, whose concern is primarily with the advancement of knowledge. In modern education we have confused these two roles, and the result is the proliferation of bad “scientists” in the humanities, ever more desperately fumbling after some new take on their “fields.” In pursuing the latest trends and developments—and the notoriety and grants that go with them—the liberal arts college finds itself at odds with its core identity, which is essentially conservative in the truest meaning of that word.

As Michael Oakeshott makes clear in The Voice of Liberal Learning, the essence of the liberal arts is not in being “well-rounded” by taking a smattering of unconnected and arbitrary classes, nor in merely fostering “critical thinking”—which often means simply learning to ape the opinions and beliefs of the professor—but rather in the reception of an inheritance. This inheritance enables us to be more than well-rounded; it prepares us to be more fully formed. It fosters something greater than critical thinking; it fosters the use of reason. To do so requires the kind of cultural memory preserved in a strong core curriculum. The inherently conservative goal of a liberal arts education is to form students into the kind of people who can think for themselves but who would never be so ignorant and shallow as to attempt thinking by themselves. The educated person doesn’t need to reinvent the world every five minutes but rather thinks alongside the great minds of the past.

Yet the ethos of the moment rejects out of hand the insights of the mos maiorum. An indifference from many on the right to the permanent things—which James Matthew Wilson in his The Vision of the Soul has traced to a strategic shift among conservatives toward an almost exclusive focus on economics during the Reagan years—has left culture in the hands of the left, who have not stewarded it well. The culture wars reveal that the right has for too long been indifferent to the inheritance of Western culture and the left has been forthrightly antagonistic to it. Meanwhile, a shrinking handful of liberal arts colleges have continued to pass on the inheritance of Western civilization through robust and coherent core curricula.

Such colleges now more than ever face a pressure toward cultural oblivion, a pressure to abandon their core principle of remembering. Colleagues sometimes speak loftily of remaining “above the culture wars,” but they have failed to realize that the war has come to us. If one teaches Old Testament or European history or Shakespeare, then one’s classroom is the frontline. A growing number of people on the left see the very act of teaching Homer or T.S. Eliot as inherently political, and unacceptably so. The chant of Jesse Jackson at Stanford—“Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go”—has only grown over the past thirty-three years from a commentary on curricula to what is nearly a statement of a negative metaphysics. It is a death wish for a civilization, and it is a widely shared sentiment. The forces of amnesia will not be satisfied until all traces of the past have been eliminated so that their utopia of the summer fly may be established. If a college is going to hold the line against oblivion, from now on it will require a great deal of courage and conviction. It will also require the generous support of those who oppose the amnesiac agenda.

Educating in the tradition of the Christian West has always been a matter of remembering, a vision articulated by Hugh of St. Victor, Cardinal John Henry Newman, Christopher Dawson, and many others. A commitment to memory in the face of oblivion entails a strong and sizable core curriculum rather than a smattering of unrelated “electives” or a small collection of “general ed” requirements that are there merely to be gotten out of the way. This is so because to assert that memory matters is to assert that the contents of memory, the things to be remembered, matter.

A true core curriculum preserves the ethos of the classical liberal arts not by preserving the medieval trivium and quadrivium in amber but rather by carrying on the essential mission of the seven liberal arts in the Western university: the transmission of a cultural heritage. In studying grammar, rhetoric, and logic, the original liberal arts students encountered the best minds of the past and kept them alive in their own minds. In studying arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, they kept alive the great tradition of reason’s place near the center of Western civilization and of the wondrous relationship between reason and beauty.

Such a mission does not dictate a seven-course core corresponding exactly to the seven liberal arts of tradition, but it does dictate that certain types of courses form part of the modern liberal arts core. Ideally, there will be ancient languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. If these languages do not live in our Christian liberal arts colleges, they will be dead languages indeed. There should be courses covering the history and literature of the Western world from Ancient Greece through the twentieth century. Such courses will take several semesters to complete, but neglecting such study is to shirk our responsibility for keeping what has been passed down to us. There must, of course, be core courses in the Bible. Additionally, if our purpose is rooted in remembering, the Christian liberal arts college would be wise to add courses in historical theology and in the founding principles of the American republic. There must be courses in philosophy and logic to introduce students to the big questions that have driven human thought and to the tools used to address those questions. There also must be courses in mathematics and science, courses geared not primarily toward producing new professional mathematicians and scientists but rather toward initiating students into the understandings of abstract reason and of empirical investigation that have played a crucial role in Western epistemology. Such a curriculum is the spirit, if not the letter, of the trivium and the quadrivium, and the college that opposes oblivion makes such a core its top priority as well as the center of its identity.

The church would do well to remember that supporting liberal arts colleges is the best chance at preserving a culture in which religious liberty is preserved. The integration of the Christian faith and the Western political tradition has resulted in the freedom of conscience that allows the church to continue to preach. Maintaining this political legacy of freedom requires a substantial population that understands the road that runs through Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. It requires an understanding of Athenian Democracy, the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, the Federalist Papers, and much more.

Twenty-five years ago, Thomas Cahill surprisingly landed on the best-seller lists with his How the Irish Saved Civilization. He argued that the Irish monasteries preserved the cultural inheritance of the West during the barbaric darkness of the early middle ages. If we are on the verge of a new kind of “dark age”—one that may be rich in technology and comfort,  and yet still darkened in its understanding—then one must wonder who will save civilization this time. It may just be our liberal arts colleges.

Benjamin Myers has written on education, literature, and culture for First Things, The Imaginative Conservative, The Gospel Coalition, and various other journals. He is also a former poet laureate of Oklahoma and the author of three books of poetry. His first book of non-fiction, A Poetics of Orthodoxy, is forthcoming from Cascade Books. He has a PhD in Renaissance literature from Washington University in St. Louis, and teaches in the Western Civilization sequence at Oklahoma Baptist University.

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