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The Liberality of Liberal Education

Jennifer Frey

There used to be a distinction that signaled the difference between study for the sake of acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary for some specific line of work or trade and a higher form of study that was undertaken because it was thought worthy in itself. I am speaking, of course, of the traditional division between the servile and the liberal arts. For example, Aquinas, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, calls liberal or free those arts which are concerned with knowledge for its own sake, and servile those arts which are concerned with utility, where the knowledge sought is for the sake of some already pre-determined, practical end.

This traditional distinction has been all but lost to contemporary discourse. At a recent talk that I gave on liberal learning, an alarming number of members of the audience thought it must mean the teaching of progressive doctrine to impressionable young minds. This assumption is not completely off-base. It is a fact that professors have too often treated the classroom as a space of left-wing activism rather than a space of searching inquiry into the truth. In reaction to this, some conservatives have pushed back by using liberal education for explicitly conservative political ends. And it is a fact that young conservatives are too often silenced, bullied, or in more subtle forms ostracized on our campuses.

But in its original sense, the distinction has nothing to do with partisan politics. That we cannot grasp this is part of the situation we find ourselves in. We are in a strange state where we retain the language of higher and liberal education, but we no longer recognize that its true meaning presumes a distinction between two different states of mind: work and leisure.

The servile arts—what today we would call professional schools and majors—dominate today’s academy. In spite of all the hysteria around gender studies or critical race theory, very few students are pursuing these or other humanistic modes of inquiry—including traditional liberal arts, such as mathematics, music, and philosophy. Even natural sciences like physics and chemistry seem increasingly pointless.

The reason has nothing to do with politics: it is simply not obvious what the practical goal of such study might be. Unless there is an answer to the question of utility, study seems vain or empty. But this has things exactly backward. If all one’s study is for the sake of making oneself useful and productive, what gets lost is the most essential task: the formation of the person who must grasp the ends their productivity serves. A person who has not been trained to do this will exhaust themselves on a hamster wheel; they will realize, at some point, that they never bothered to ask where they are going or what their efforts are ultimately for.

No one denies that the servile arts are necessary and important for human society, or that they have a place in the higher education landscape. We need bright young people who can design and build bridges, run successful businesses, and write code for our computers. But surely we also want these people to have some sense of the good of these endeavors beyond the works themselves. Where is the bridge taking people? What product is the business making and are its effects on those who consume it good or bad? How does the algorithm change how we think and live, and are these changes desirable? The technical arts are not aimed at asking or answering these latter questions, but we dismiss or retreat at the cost of our deepest human needs and aspirations.

As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that utility as a measure of value piggybacks on something higher than it. Money is perhaps the most useful good in our market economy, but if we are rational, we pursue it only insofar as it helps us get other things we want. What is useful and instrumentally valuable in human life and society—at least in a society that is well-ordered—is always for the sake of what is highest or ultimately choice-worthy in human life or society. I want money for a car, and I want a car for transportation, but where do I want to go and why? This final question does not ask for means but for an end or goal—it asks what the means is for. If there is no vision of what is ultimately valuable and choice-worthy for individuals and societies—then something is deeply amiss.

It follows that an education that is primarily directed towards preparation for work is lacking something essential for human fulfillment. For it is obvious that no matter what career you choose in life, you still have to know what your work is for, what your money is for, and what you are living for. If our minds are only trained to reason instrumentally, then we will only be able to carve out for ourselves an empty and vain existence—one in which we work, for the sake of making money, so that we have the things we need in life and can have a modicum of rest, so that we can get back to work, for the sake of making money, and so on until we die, thus breaking the unending cycle of being useful for someone else. If we are never trained to ask and answer the question of what our work is for, because we have only ever been slaves to the purposes of others, then we are not truly free. And our so-called free time is nothing more than a brief restorative period that allows us to work more efficiently for someone else.

For our highest achieving students, those who are most likely to be the next generation of leaders, the most important question they face concerns ends rather than means. Liberal learning is designed to prepare students to face such questions and to have the sort of cultivated mind that has a fighting chance of answering them with clarity and depth of vision. The university used to be the place where liberal learning was honored, valued, and thrived. As Allan Bloom so aptly put it, “a great university presented another kind of atmosphere, announcing that there are questions that ought to be addressed by everyone but are not asked in the ordinary life of work and are not expected to be answered there.”

Bloom was right. Every university student faces these questions of ultimate value, meaning, and purpose, because all equally suffer from the human condition. Every student will experience anger, rage, grief, and yes, death. Every student will want loving friendships, encounters with awe and beauty, and experience the thirst for knowledge and understanding. In short, every student will need to be equipped to face their own humanity and to help others face it.

But we are no longer investing in this project. It is no surprise that as serious liberal learning has been eclipsed on our campuses, the mental health of our students has deteriorated. Students today, even those who are materially quite well off, who study on beautiful campus grounds that offer every luxury and distraction, are full of anxiety and lacking in purpose. While there is no single cause of the mental health crisis in young people today, universities are weirdly unable to see that the more existential needs of their students are going unmet. Another student life professional is not going to redress these needs.

I remember well my own freshman year in college, because it was the first time in my life that my fundamental convictions were genuinely held up for careful and systematic reflection. I realized, to both my horror and excitement, that none of my most deeply held beliefs were truly mine, because I could give no account of why I held them. Upon reflection, it turned out that I was politically liberal because my parents and friends were politically liberal. It was the atmosphere I lived and breathed in, rather than a political point of view whose principles I understood or could defend against honest and careful objections. This recognition of how little I understood about what matters spurred me to study philosophy, history, literature, and a variety of old languages so that I could read the tradition in a serious way. I began to realize that just because something is repeated by people in power and isn’t questioned does not mean that it is true. I learned that the search for truth is far more complicated and demanding because it requires not only the desire to know but a certain kind of training and habituation, that, in the end, leads to a deep change in the kind of person one is. This process is rightfully characterized as a kind of liberation—from ignorance and confusion about who and what one is, to some modicum of knowledge and clarity of vision.

Even humanists have lost, or stopped believing, the value of liberal learning as an education in freedom. Consider, for example, a recent piece by Louis Menand, distinguished professor of English at Harvard and staff writer for The New Yorker, in which he disparages the idea that liberal education has anything to do with discovering a vision of what is true, good, and beautiful. In his review of Roosevelt Montas’s book, Rescuing Socrates: How Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Menand argues that a liberal education should have nothing to do with “ruminations on the state of souls” or “the nature of the good life”. A liberal education, he writes, is just the “free and disinterested” pursuit of some form of expertise—no more and no less. Menand only cares that students are free to produce “scholarship” that is value neutral and he seems to think that the only proper guides to classic texts are those who have produced such scholarship themselves, at the appropriate critical distance. That students might want to read Shakespeare or Dante (or learn from the past generally) in order to grow in self-knowledge and wisdom appears to him to be fundamentally misguided, if not faintly embarrassing.

Menand’s condescending takedown of Montas’s passionate and deeply personal defense of liberal learning shows the need to be clear about the sense of “liberality” we invoke when we do (or do not) commit ourselves to liberal learning. Menand clearly means to champion a liberty of indifference—a mere license to pursue expertise in any of its forms and towards any end, so long as it is done in a way that meets the formal standards of the academy. With Montas, I take a different view. Liberal learning is a genuinely higher form of learning in that it meets our highest aspirations as human beings: our desire to know what is true, seek what is good, and to appreciate what is beautiful. This is a freedom that is cultivated to the end of human flourishing; it is not an unfettered, value neutral freedom to pursue scholarship as a mode of intellectual work. Our universities are not first and foremost knowledge production or scholarship factories. Their essential task is not to produce any kind of works but to form young people so that they are more free. Universities are institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth, yes, but they are essentially places dedicated to learning and teaching.

It is notable that Menand casts such a critical eye on any attempt to suggest that a university education should be deeply formative—that he is so wedded to the model that a university is a factory of “knowledge production” rather than the one institution in our society that is dedicated to leisure: to the cultivation of minds and hearts so that, once we graduate, we are more free to carve out meaningful and fulfilling lives and to contribute more creatively to the common good. While it is heartwarming that poor, enslaved, or otherwise alienated people have been genuinely liberated over the centuries through the study of classic texts—it seems to Menand somehow beneath the seriousness of purpose of the university to encourage this.

Menand seems most worried that humanists might claim the mantel of freedom over any other discipline, like chemical engineering or computer science. He does not take seriously the idea that there are different modes of study—that one can be undertaken for the sake of its utility, while the other is conducted in the mode of leisure. For Menand, it is all about the works produced, which are all the same and can be equally measured when it comes to the serious business of tenure and promotion. Teaching is an afterthought and mentorship of students doesn’t even rise to the level of discussion.

Yet only 8% of incoming freshman at Harvard express any desire to major in a discipline that we would call liberal or humanistic. If our young elites yearn to be free , it seems not to be in Menand’s constricted sense. By contrast to Harvard, though, liberal learning is thriving in places where students are actively encouraged to understand their studies as aimed at cultivating an interior, spiritual freedom. Many of them, such as Baylor’s Honors College, or the University Honors Program at Villanova, are general education programs that offer students an integrated liberal arts education as the proper foundation for more specialized forms of study. Their success suggests that the dichotomy between research and liberal learning is a false one, and we should try to avoid it. It is possible to do both.

As the inaugural Dean of a new Honors College that focuses on liberal learning through the study of classic texts, my own view is that the path forward for higher education is not to force students to choose between liberal learning and the more practical arts, but to help them understand why a liberal arts education is the necessary foundation for any major or concentration—whether this be in liberal arts such as philosophy or mathematics, or the more practical arts of mechanical engineering, international business, or finance. In the Honors College at the University of Tulsa, we offer students an excellent and accelerated liberal arts education, focused on the study of classic texts, with an eye on cultivating wisdom, virtue, and friendship among in our students. These are our ends because we recognize that liberal education is personal formation, that growth in wisdom and self-knowledge is not achieved as a lonely or competitive endeavor, and that our ability to enter into serious and sustained conversation with the mighty dead and one another takes certain traits of mind and character that we will need to work to develop and that will serve us well beyond the classroom and our university years.

While we do not believe that education is value neutral, we also do not want to ban certain ideas or programs of study. Rather, we want to train students to think more deeply together and to help them enter conversation with one another across deep difference of experience and perspective. We recognize that this takes humility, patience, generosity, civility, and a shared purpose.

It’s worth the effort, though. What good is a journalist who doesn’t understand history or literature? What good is a robotics engineer who has not thought deeply about what good or evil ends a robot might be used for? Liberal education is a serious endeavor because it takes seriously the task of the university as providing a genuinely higher education. Meeting the highest needs and aspirations of our students starts with the recognition that they are made for more than a life of work.

Jennifer Frey is Inaugural Dean of the Honors College at the University of Tulsa. She has written widely on topics in moral philosophy.


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