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Liberal Learning and Human Nature

A new book claims that the liberal arts can be valuable for citizens and communities alike.

Stone Lagoon one-room school house Northern California off Route 101
Stone Lagoon one-room school house Northern California off Route 101. (Photo by: Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It by John Agresto (2022, Encounter Books), 256 pages.

Since Allan Bloom's bestselling classic Closing of the American Mind revealed the depths of the problems in American higher education, there have been numerous good books written on the decline of the liberal arts, the relentless ideological assault on the Western tradition, and the overwhelming power and appeal of scientific, vocational, and professional schooling. The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It argues for the reform and revival of American liberal arts education. The problem is that very few Americans today understand what the liberal arts once promised and delivered.

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John Agresto is well-placed to write a book on the topic. A student of Allan Bloom, he has devoted considerable parts of his career to administering the study of the liberal arts: guiding the National Endowment for the Humanities; leading America's foremost great books college, St. John's; serving as senior advisor for higher education in Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority, and founding an American university in the Middle East. His inquiring mind continues to shine through in this excellent book.

The book is a concise treatment that can and should be read by high school students and their parents thinking about the promise of higher education. It is primarily intended for an American audience and speaks to several particularly American concerns and ideas. The book has two parts. The first ten chapters analyze and dissect the various problems confronting those who teach the liberal arts. The last seven chapters show how the liberal arts might be revived to play a more substantial role in educating undergraduates. It concludes with a lengthy appendix consisting of various short pieces on specific topics, such as why to study Latin, why to study Greek, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and the disastrous elimination of the Western Civilization curriculum at Stanford University. Each piece stands on its own and is well worth reading.

Agresto begins Part 1, "Towards an American Liberal Education," by clarifying some common misconceptions about the liberal arts and liberal learning. Liberal education is not the purview of an elite. It can and should be open to all students. There is nothing essentially anti-democratic about liberal education. Moreover, to succeed in the American context, it cannot be perceived as elitist, for that goes against the nature of American democracy.

Elitism aside, there is little doubt that such education has declined for decades. One can only lose altitude for so long before the consequences are catastrophic, which is the situation the liberal arts now confront. Some of this decline is due to the orientation of colleges and universities toward the applied sciences, professions, and vocational training. Students and parents seek value for money, and that value is often understood primarily in terms of securing suitable employment. American society funds education primarily in terms of the contribution made by research and training. Society benefits by having students graduate from STEM programs. This utilitarian view provides intense external pressure on the liberal arts, pushing them to the side and creating the sense that in modern life, they are little more than a luxury, a cultural ornament for a privileged few.

Agresto goes to some pains to argue that the liberal arts, like the sciences and professional education, also serve a useful function and provide a real benefit to society. "Once [liberal education] promised to make knowledgeable and thoughtful individuals who would, in turn, be intelligent and thoughtful citizens. Once liberal education promised to support the two most important parts of American life—the growth of ourselves as individuals and the betterment of our country" (xiii). One need only consider the central role the liberal arts played in the education of America's most important political figures—the Founders and Lincoln, for example—to see the truth of this proposition.

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Agresto argues that the genuinely mortal causes of the decline of the liberal arts are internal to the way they are studied and taught today. While liberal education has always fought an uphill battle against the practical demands of the American democratic regime, it is now beset by internal factors that threaten to destroy the liberal arts at their core. Specialization, the debunking of Western Civilization courses as the oppression of minorities, politicization, the relentless attack on the ideas of beauty and nobility, and the stigmatization of the ordinary are five dimensions in which the liberal arts are now engaged in a process of ritual suicide.

We must recognize the problem's deceptive character at this point. Colleges and universities still teach courses in the liberal arts and have arts faculties. Students take these courses and are often required to take specific "core courses" and meet distribution requirements about the liberal arts. So, what is the problem? The opportunities to study the liberal arts remain, and the requirement to have some education in the liberal arts is often applied across the university. Or so one might think.

Appearances are deceiving, especially when it comes to higher education. Looking more carefully at courses and programs in the liberal arts, one finds that they typically do not serve the purpose of educating students in the sense of explaining our traditions or helping students to think for themselves rather than parroting the ideologies that dominate the universities.

As Agresto points out, “great books" education is more than learning about authors or books; it is learning from the authors of the Western tradition. Agresto writes, "the liberal arts are a way of understanding the most important questions of human concern through reason and reflection." As he puts it further, "Rather than read about the formation of the federal government, why not read some of the debates in the Philadelphia convention, some of The Federalist Papers, and a few of the writings of the Anti-Federalists?”

Liberal studies have a unity of purpose, into which contemporary arts courses often do not fit. But unlike many defenders of liberal education, Agresto abjures the idea that the liberal arts must be understood solely or primarily in terms of their intrinsic value, as opposed to their usefulness to us as individuals and citizens and to the general benefit of American society as a whole. In the book's final two chapters, Agresto makes a case for the private and public benefits derived from a liberal education. They speak to his case for a uniquely American liberal education.

In mounting his case for the liberal arts, Agresto thus turns his ship to run with the wind. America is a democracy. Each of us must make our way in life; hence, we must have an education that will afford us a living. While the liberal arts may have come into being and were perfected in aristocratic societies now centuries past, there must be a specifically democratic case made for them to demonstrate their constituting a desirable education in a democracy. They must prove their worth by showing how they are useful.

Insofar as universities are primarily about producing knowledge through research, it necessarily takes on a structure of incentives that reward research. It is funded based on this research. It trains students based on this research. Research necessarily requires specialization, which leads to a narrowing of focus. Vocational and professional education requires specialization. Students are attracted to and simultaneously pushed into specialization by their choice of discipline, program, department curriculum design, and course choice. Expertise has its charm.

But what has this to do with the liberal arts and with the arts faculties of contemporary universities? One finds that this same emphasis on research and specialization is also at work. A feature necessary to the sciences and vocational and professional education has become the leading characteristic of the humanities and social science disciplines that constitute an arts faculty. Why?

Here we confront several problems and some interesting unwarranted assumptions about education. First, there is no reason to assume that someone who is an expert on a subject is a good teacher of that subject. There is more reason to think that leading researchers are not good teachers. The reason is simple: the skill set and disposition of the specialized and committed researcher are different from that of a teacher. In his remarkable lecture "Science as a Vocation," Max Weber makes precisely this point. One may be an outstanding scholar and a terrible teacher.

In higher education, the Ph.D. has become the license to teach. But the Ph.D. is a research degree. Good research requires specialization and the narrowing of focus. One becomes an expert on one thing. As Agresto observes, "possessing such a degree is a poor indicator of excellent teaching.” Courses in the liberal arts thus typically reflect the research expertise and interests of the professor and take on the qualities of narrowness. They look to introduce students to the latest innovations in scholarship. And all too often, they come to reflect the shifting set of opinions that dominate the field. Students often find these courses boring and their professors uninterested in their education.

There is a profound disconnect between the liberal arts as they are now conceived and life as we usually live it. For one thing, there is “the almost unbelievable depth and breadth of the politicization of university life.” Most students and parents have little appreciation of the extent to which higher education now feels primarily obligated to bring about progressive social and political change. College and even high school students are being introduced to the radical critique of their previous education, their society's founding principles, and their history. They discover that, like the poor devils in Plato's Republic, they find themselves victims of a noble lie and realize their lives have merely been a waking dream.

In chapter 10, one of the book's most thought-provoking, Agresto describes this disconnect in terms of the "stigmatizing of the ordinary." The everyday values of ordinary Americans are found to be nothing more than rationalizations disguising the injustices perpetrated along the lines of gender, race, and class. The problem is that this type of "radical critique" education has become little more than indoctrination. Agresto thus advises students to look for liberal arts courses that are not simply expressions of the professor's research specialization or courses that seek to "convert rather than instruct."

The dire condition of liberal learning is still reversible. Reading this book is an excellent first step on the road to recovery. Part 2, "Redeeming and Reconstructing Liberal Education," is illuminating and inspiring. How can liberal education be, at least to some extent, restored? By not shying away from arguing for and explaining its virtues. It opens us to the possibility that perhaps a certain kind of wisdom can be gained from a good education; that each of us can make progress in achieving such an education; that liberal learning can restore a sense of wonder and speak to our deepest longings as human beings; that we can come to deeply appreciate both what is unique (both good and bad) about our own society and what is universal to all human societies; and we can begin to see how this kind of education is beneficial to our society as a whole.

There is no guarantee that liberal learning makes one a better person in the moral sense. But it does, at the very least, teach a student the virtue of moderation, which is in short supply these days. It also cultivates a kind of intellectual courage in the form of a "tough-mindedness" in the sense of becoming "more knowledgeable about things that matter". In doing so, the liberal arts "can keep us from being ruled over by slogans and the untutored opinions of those around us.” Finally, we can gain some insight into the human character. "[G]reat literature is great because it talks about great things.” Engaged in such studies, a student comes to realize they can learn much from (as opposed to merely about) the great authors of the past.

Agresto's short essay on Lincoln's self-education demonstrates the value of great books. Lincoln had only a year of formal schooling. Yet he read the Bible and Shakespeare, Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Byron, Poe, and Robert Burns. Lincoln "read deeply, slowly, and purposefully.” His first notion of literature was that it could enlighten and inform. As Lord Charnwood, his greatest biographer, said, young Lincoln read to find patterns of what a man's life should be. His self-education in literature gave him a mind that taught him "to distinguish and accept, criticize and reject" and inspire and elevate. Lincoln understood that in a democracy, "public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Throughout his years as a lawyer, congressman, Senate candidate, and Civil War president, the lessons in statesmanship he learned from reading Shakespeare's English history plays, and the tragedies of Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, inspired his greatest speeches. And those speeches inspirited the citizens of the nation.

Liberal education teaches us to take literature seriously as a way of coming to understand human nature. What could be more important than that, both for an individual and for society as a whole? As James Madison famously asked in Federalist 51, "what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?"

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