Liberal Education for the Twenty-First Century
So, my title is misleading. The basic content of and case for liberal education didn’t change when we moved from one century to another. I’m not big on century analysis and even less on decade analysis (the Sixties!).
Liberal education is under attack these days in pretty predictable ways. It’s irrelevant, unproductive, too expensive, excessively time-consuming, and even undermines the habits required to flourish in our high-tech society. All those criticisms have some merit but none of them is new. They all miss the point of liberal education.
Liberal education is certainly counter to our obsession with proving education is worth the time and money through measurable competencies and outcomes. If education is about the competencies required for today’s world of work, then most of the liberal stuff can be jettisoned. A college education could be achieved more quickly and a lot more cheaply. Most competencies can be delivered and demonstrated online. And the only rea- son college takes a whole four years is that students are required to do more than demonstrate their competence.
When liberal education is defended as indispensable or even very useful for the world of work, its defenders end up looking pathetic.
The “effective communication” required for the business world isn’t enhanced, it seems, by courses in literature. Professors of literature have gotten all theoretical, and nobody knows what they’re talking about. Their communication may be profound, but it’s hard to say it’s effective in a way any productive employer can use. The study of foreign language is more dispensable than ever, because everywhere the language of business is English. Knowing some Mandarin in the manner of John Huntsman might be a useful adornment, but the effort put in, truth to tell, is not worth the “value added.” Huntsman, a Mormon missionary, used the language to convert the Chinese.
But for almost all business purposes, there’s no need to think much about the souls of one’s partners in profit. Even former Harvard president Larry Summers, who you’d expect to have some interest in culture, says don’t waste your time on learning languages or working through tough texts from the past. Everything you need to know on the culture front can be Googled.
The same thing goes for “critical thinking” or “analytic reasoning.” Once you regard these skills or competencies as divorced from any particular content (or culture or civilization or permanent human questions), then they can be just as easily—or better—learned through solving problems that arise in the business or engineering worlds. Philosophy is (or used to be) less about a method of reasoning than joyful discovery of the truth we can hold in common.
The “Socratic method,” so to speak, was conversational, and its results hugely time-consuming and inconclusive. The conversation in the Republic takes fourteen hours, and when it’s over it’s unclear anyone knows what justice is. One thing the guys do end up agreeing on is that conversations of that importance deserve a whole lifetime. Who has that kind of time these days? (Well, things may change if the Singularity really comes.) But the truth remains that liberal education does deserve a whole lifetime, and anyone who doesn’t have it is missing out.
A good clue at what is missed is described by the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy. He contrasts the old method of conversational psychiatry (often Freudian), which involved a huge number of expensive, talky sessions and got unreliable results, with the new drug-based psychiatry, which often gets fast and reliable results. The alleviation of symptoms, however, isn’t the same as really knowing what’s wrong with you. That’s why Percy said you have a right to your anxiety as an indispensable clue to who you are. Anxiety, of course, can be prelude to wonder and the joy of shared discovery. You have the right not to be diverted in one way or another from knowing the truth about who you are. The old-fashioned doctor of the soul was far less about cure than about understanding.
Our competencies, unlike philosophy or theology or poetry, disconnect the method from the end, and that means they’re disconnected from liberal education. We also learn from the Republic that the rhetorical method—disconnected from the end—is characteristic of sophists or technicians for hire. Some of my best friends are sophists, and marketing, management, public relations, (even) law, and so forth are all education for sophistry. There’s nothing wrong with that! (One good criticism of Plato— made by many modern philosophers—is that he gave such useful, productive, and ambitious people an unfairly bad reputation.) But education for sophistry is not liberal education.
One way to defend liberal education is to distinguish properly between labor and leisure as two goods that should be characteristic of every human life. So, to bolster the case for the defense, I’ve uncovered—through Googling, of course—a classic essay by Mortimer Adler, “Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education.”
Liberal education is about nothing, Adler contends, but the thoughts and activities that fill up our leisure time. Liberal education is good for its own sake for the same reason that every human being—every person—is good for his or her own sake. I’ll say a lot more about the strengths and limits of Adler’s essay soon.
Let me close for now by dissing or at least qualifying another contemporary defense of liberal education: some claim liberal education should be about what’s required to be a productive citizen. I’ve already said that the case that liberal education makes us more productive is weak. The case that it can contribute to citizenship is stronger. To be a citizen is to be a part of a particular place in the world with its own traditions, customs, under- standing of justice, and both privileges and duties. A citizen needs to do a lot of untechnical reading unrelated to most work to experience himself or herself as properly at home. So, citizenship really does require “civic literacy,” as long as that phrase is understood broadly enough. That education might be called liberal education insofar as it’s required to be a free man and woman located in a particular, political place in the world.
Still, to be a citizen purely speaking is to be all about service to a country (or “city” in the Greek sense). Each of us knows that he or she is more than a productivity machine and more than a mere citizen. It’s finding out who we are when we’re not working for money or our country (or even our family) that liberal education is all about. In the pure sense, liberal education isn’t about citizenship—although it far from abolishes the duties of citizenship, just as it as far from abolishes the duty to work.
Liberal Education vs. Killing Time
So, I’ve gotten too many enthusiastic and too many critical emails about my recent “Liberal Education” for the wrong reasons.
It was critical, of course, with the general approach to education these days. But it wasn’t about “general education” in the sense of the courses any particular college requires for graduation. “Liberal education” could hardly be limited to general education. And general education necessarily addresses issues that have nothing to do with liberal education.
Socrates, remember, criticizes the sophists for taking money for teaching. It’s true he didn’t do that. I do that, although not nearly what my wisdom is worth.
The price of not taking money was certainly felt by Socrates’ wife and kids, not to mention a country (city) that could have used a lot more of his effort and advice. On the work/leisure issue, Socrates had a kind of joke: he had no leisure for his family and country, because he was all about doing his duty to the god. His mission from god, remember, was to spend all his time finding someone wiser than himself, thereby proving the god wrong in the observation that no Athenian is wiser than Socrates. It’s doubtful that the god meant that Socrates should spend all his time trying to refute a divine claim for wisdom.
And, of course, what Socrates called work, conversational inquiry in the marketplace—almost anyone else would call leisure—or shooting the bull. What Socrates called leisure was doing his financial, “quality time,” and other duties to his friends, family, and country. It was what we call work. When we’ve finished our work, then it’s time for leisure. But what we call leisure time Socrates viewed as for real work—a kind of work that’s almost indistinguishable from play.
For Socrates, what is generally called leisure is the real work of life, which is also the most enjoyable human activity, the one that makes life worth living. Philosophy isn’t restful or even exactly contemplative. It’s what the philosopher Hobbes called “the lust of the mind” that’s never fully satisfied, but is longer lasting and more satisfying than any lust of the body.
One meaning of Socrates calling himself a “gadfly” is acknowledging that he’s, from one view, a parasite, living off the blood and treasure of the Athenians (especially his rich friends) while offering them nothing certain that they can really use.
So, “liberal education” isn’t education for being Socrates, because Socrates showed us clearly the disaster that would befall us if we all tried to be like him. One criticism of liberal education as it’s often understood is that it creates a class of parasites who justify themselves with inconclusive claims about their singular wisdom and virtue. That criticism has always had a lot of merit, especially if liberal education is understood to be the whole of education.
From our view, what we might call the Socratic error was institutionalized for centuries into what Mortimer Adler called “the aristocratic error…, the error of dividing men into free men and slaves or workers, into a leisure class and a working class, instead of dividing the time of each human life into working time and leisure time” (from Adler’s essay” Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education”).
Socrates himself actually does make that kind of division at one point. He says that every human art—such as medicine—is selfless or directed toward the object of the art. That’s even true, in a way, of the philosopher or physicist, insofar as the thinker loses his or her puny self in the object of his thought or concern. But Socrates adds that everyone who practices a “selfless” art also practices the wage earner’s art, which is the same for all those who engage in the various selfless arts. Even doctors and philosophers, in real life, have bodies, and so are concerned about the size of their paychecks. Their concern here is no different from that of plumbers or police officers.
Socrates didn’t properly defend either the necessity or the nobility of the wage earner’s art by practicing it himself. And so, we don’t look to him for a true appreciation of the dignity of worthwhile work well done. We don’t even look to him for a proper appreciation of the freedom and dignity of most human lives.
That’s why, Adler explains, when we think about liberal education we have to think about the great advance of the last century or two. We think that everyone should work for a living, and that everyone should have some leisure time. Everyone, we can say more intentionally and truthfully, should have both the wage earner’s art and liberal education. High technology has, in our country, come fairly close to freeing all men and women from a life of nothing but drudgery. Almost no one need spend all his or her time earning a living.
To use Adler’s words, “industrialists”—we might say entrepreneurs— “interested solely in productivity” regard “the man of leisure … as either a playboy or dilettante.” That misunderstanding was useful when it was used to get those lazy aristocrats of old to work. But it degrades us all in a time when every man, to some extent, can be a man of leisure. Leisure time has to be more than free time. It’s the time to display and enjoy much of what human freedom is truly for.
That doesn’t mean, of course, being a playboy. Hugh Hefner has always impressed me as someone who has desperately but unsuccessfully—and all too seriously—spent his life trying to convince us that he’s happy.
But there’s a lot to be said for at least appearing to be a “dilettante”— or all about the joyful discovery of knowledge of all kinds. Maybe there’s a lot more to be said for the professor not who’s interdisciplinary (a tired, empty word) but who has no discipline at all. Well, that guy is no Socrates. But who is these days?
Let me close, for now, with Adler’s “final word” on “the most infallible sign of a liberally educated man”: “Aristotle said that the mark of a happy man is also the sure sign that he is liberally educated, namely, that you never find him trying to kill time.”
Well, one more point: A Christian must ask—what about the virtue of charity? Well, Socrates was pretty weak on that front too. But even St. Augustine says charity shouldn’t consume all our lives—open as we are to the strange and wonderful truth about who we are under God.
The Big Issues in Higher Education These Days
So, the final issue in my Public Policy class this semester is higher education. Here are some controversial propositions generated from papers I’ve just read from the class. I’m not saying they’re all true, but they all are worth thinking about:
Too many people “survive college” and are getting diplomas these days.
Graduating from college has become incredibly easy if you shop around for easy courses and easy majors. Even if in many cases it’s not so easy to get an A, it’s also really easy not to flunk.
1. Math and natural science are fairly hard everywhere, and it’s really possible to flunk. The answers in science and math are usually black-and-white or objectively true or false. So, it’s impossible to bluff your way through calculus and advanced statistics. You have to both be smart and study hard to do well.
2. So, math and science are all about the fact-value distinction. Facts are real, values are “emotive.” From their real view mathematicians and scientists look down on the self-indulgent BS (or more precisely, B.A.) artists.
3. Then there’s the humanities and social science as they’re usually taught. A student with a quite average ability in language and minimal effort can listen to lectures and know enough to write acceptable answers on exams.
4. But the truth is that students of such unexceptional ability—unless they’re driven to “overachieve”—don’t really understand the reading for the class. That’s true, for example, of the boring but dense history text-book; however, it’s even more true of, say, Plato, Faulkner, or Nietzsche.
5. Said students can usually get by without doing the reading. That means that they slide by with a superficial and confused understanding, and by basically being unmoved—much less improved—by the subject matter and purpose of the course.
6. One problem, of course, is that the “humanities,” even these days, too often buy into the fact-value distinction. That means they’re all about not the pursuit of truth but articulating value judgments that are basically relative. So, students in the humanities have a hard time understanding that their opinions are usually wrong or stupid without being educated. And professors too often facilitate their self-indulgence by speaking of the class as a community of equal learners, and by adding that what matters is less understanding than engagement or activism.
7. This problem can also be called a democratic problem: As Alexis de Tocqueville explains, democrats are skeptical of claims for knowledge that aren’t technical or scientific. If I defer to your personal judgment, then I’m letting you rule me. And so, the ideas of truth and virtue are transformed into the idea of the equality of all personal judgments. That way I get to rule myself, as you get to rule yourself.
8. As one of my students (Jacob Stubbs) astutely reminded me, students are too often taught that the various answers that have been given to the fundamental questions of the “humanities,” such as “Why is there being rather than nothing at all?” or “Who or what is God,” are little more than different values. But the truth is that those real questions can only be taken seriously by those who think that they might have real answers, and the way to those answers is rigorous investigation.
9. The humanities aren’t really less difficult than the sciences. Understanding what Plato actually meant, for example, is tougher than experimental physics. It might also be indispensable for theoretical physics. Certainly understanding the true connection between the precise and imaginative use of words and the way things really are is both tougher and rarer than excellence in engineering or genetics.
10. Maybe we just live in a time when the truth about who we are is less valued than ever, or maybe we live in a time when we seem to be able so easily to do without it.
11. It is really true that the negative sides of these propositions apply far less at my Berry College than most places. And so my students are making these judgments less from their personal college experience than from their reading.
12. It’s also true that Berry students are more likely to find a religious dimension to remedying what’s wrong with higher education today than BIG THINK readers. But none of these propositions are specifically religious at all.
This excerpt is from Allergic to Crazy: Quick Thoughts on Politics, Education, and Culture, Rightly Understood (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014). Please see our review of the book here.