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Liberty and Liberal Education

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Greek Philosophers

Free citizens are necessarily invited to follow the Delphic injunction, “know thyself,” that is addressed to all mankind; and their success or failure in responding to this invitation is crucial for the preservation or loss of their liberty…

Liberal education is the distinctive educational tradition of the West; so, too, is liberty our distinctive political tradition. As Christopher Dawson observed, every society works to “enculturate” the next generation, and every civilized society is aided in this process by its literary inheritance.[1] Though the Western tradition is distinctive for its multiple roots, especially in classical antiquity and Biblical revelation, we can rightly trace the origins of both our educational and political traditions to ancient Greece. The liberal arts, which stand at the wellspring of our educational and political traditions, were first discovered in the free Greek polis, which due to its political form and independence had both the need for such arts in its citizens and the resources to develop them. The liberal arts, with rhetoric at their head, were originally the civic arts of liberty, the preparation for citizenship in a free city.

But civic education for a free society cannot remain wholly political and pre-philosophical for long; because free societies are the exception rather than the rule, and because they are frequently tempted to abandon their freedom for the despot’s promise of comfort and ease, their citizens must learn to distinguish between liberty and slavery and to recognize the conditions of freedom. Free citizens are necessarily invited to follow the Delphic injunction, “know thyself,” that is addressed to all mankind; and their success or failure in responding to this invitation is crucial for the preservation or loss of their liberty. Whereas the rulers and administrators of an empire are forced only to learn how to manage and satisfy the immediate needs and wants of its population, citizens must learn whether and why liberty is superior to slavery.[2] Free citizens need not be philosophers, but they must be prepared to defend and live out their free way of life in speech and deed. This defense spurs them to philosophize, for to say that liberty is superior to slavery is to say that it is more in accord with human nature. The liberal arts themselves—fully developed in the medieval period as the trivial arts of language and the quadrivial arts of number—serve to disclose nature, and nature in all its forms is the proper theme of philosophy. And so in the same Greek cities that developed the liberal arts of civic freedom, Plato and Aristotle developed a new understanding of the liberal arts as preparation for a truly liberal education, an education in philosophy.

This dual nature of liberal education in its earliest form reflects Aristotle’s understanding of the human person: that we are naturally rational, and for this reason both naturally political and by our nature destined to be more than merely political animals.[3] There is a tension between the civic and philosophic purposes of a liberal education, which derives from the tension between our political nature and our transpolitical destiny.[4] But this tension need not be a contradiction between alternatives. Rather, it is the very condition for political liberty. If we were not naturally political beings, our ties to our nation and our care for the common good would erode when the going gets tough and collapse entirely during those crises when our community most needs our service and sacrifice. But, on the other hand, were we merely or totally political animals, we would lose our ability to judge positive law by a higher and natural standard, and we would lose that preference for restraint in political controversies that is necessary for the preservation of a society ruled by law. Civically-responsible education would degenerate into propaganda, and partisanship would degenerate into warfare. Liberty relies upon both devotion to the public life and common good of one’s nation as well as the recognition of the limits of the political realm, the consequent limits that must be placed on political power, and the fundamental dignity of the human person. It relies, in other words, on the very anthropology discovered by the Greek philosophers and developed by the Western theological tradition, and on the cultivation of human beings in accordance with this anthropology. This cultivation is a liberal arts education.

The history of the West demonstrates that liberty can exist under a variety of social and political conditions, as Tocqueville knew when he compared the age of aristocratic inequality to the dawning age of democratic equality. Similarly liberal education, which in different times and different places has more or less perfectly prepared men for citizenship and preserved societies in their freedom. When we turn to colonial and early republican America, we find this mode of education thriving in our liberal arts colleges. There, the tradition of political liberty and limited government that had developed for centuries, endangered by the absolutism sweeping early modern Europe, was reborn in a new and more perfect form. Indeed it may have been above all in the American republic that the liberal arts reached their fullest civic potential. Though severed from the medieval university, the liberal arts were embedded within a biblically educated culture, and though in dialogue with philosophical and scientific societies, they were not yet subordinate to the brave new world created by the modern research university. The early American colleges “made men out of children,” formed citizens who might otherwise have been mere subjects, and prepared a people and their statesmen for the achievement and preservation of liberty.[5]

America’s denominationally diverse colleges inducted their students into the culture of the West, educated them in the liberal arts and sciences, and prepared them for a vocation useful to themselves, their families, and their communities (religious, commercial, social, and political). These colleges prepared men to be free individuals by nourishing their freedom of conscience, and to be citizens of a free society by underwriting the “manly firmness” necessary to preserve personal and political liberty. Liberal education, rooted in classical wisdom and biblical religion, set the tone for colonial society as a whole, shaping the habits and actions of the educated and uneducated alike. Likewise colonial politics: the American patriots, having been liberally educated at colleges up and down the Atlantic coast, had studied the principles of law and government and were practiced in the arts of rhetoric and political deliberation when the moment of crisis arrived. They drew on Christian and Western notions of liberty and the dignity of man, and defended the common law of England and the natural law of God when they courageously pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to reassert self-government in service of natural rights against the encroachments of a tyrannical Parliament and King. The Founders’ knowledge of logic, grammar, and rhetoric—and their higher educations in philosophy, theology, and law—is a testament to the political or civic utility of a non-utilitarian, liberal education. The best defense of liberty can be made by those taught to speak and in speaking lead others to the truth, and will be made only by those who have learned to recognize and to love justice. American society and statesmanship in the colonial, revolutionary, and republican periods are a historical testament to the dependence of political liberty on a liberal education, both the liberal arts that are necessary for civic life and the account of human nature developed by the Western tradition—classical, Christian, medieval, and modern.

The purpose of this historical account of liberal education and political liberty is not dwell in the past, but to grasp our present situation. Let us consider the change in American higher education in the last century and the parallel change in our political culture. In both fields, genuine progress of a certain sort has been made, but there has also been a substitution of license for liberty, of power for virtue. The twentieth century witnessed both the global prominence of the United States as the world’s preeminent free society and the global dominance of American educational institutions. But it has become increasingly clear that the power and glory of the American century was a destiny fraught with danger, not least for American liberty and the liberal education upon which it depends. Our robust republic has become an imperial superpower, and our lively patchwork of regional colleges has been supplanted by global research multiversities—the great hubs of a global network that is now dedicated to untutored scientific progress, corrosive cultural transformation, and the training of a deracinated and ideologically postnational cultural, political, and economic elite. Meanwhile, our liberties at home (subject to the whims of administrators and bureaucrats) have grown more tenuous, our adventures abroad (subject to the dreams of utopians, left and right) more misguided, and our public notions of education (subject to the interference of an illiberally education elite) more divorced from its natural, cultural, and liberal ends. Across the political spectrum, freedom is mistaken for lack of self-restraint, and the rule of law is thought passé. The corruption of our educational institutions has fed and been fed by the corruption of our republic. As the administrative state and the unchecked executive increasingly supplant political deliberation and self-government in the public sphere, so the arts of liberty and the domains of knowledge essential for citizenship have been eclipsed by performative posturing, political protesting, and pre-professional training.[6]

The lines of causation between the decline of liberty and decline of education are not always clear. But it is clear that a liberal education sustains a free society by educating its citizens in the arts of liberty—and by teaching them that they ought to be citizens rather than subjects, because they are endowed with a nature that is free and rational, and thus suited to a dignified political existence. Indeed, it has been observed that a college may be a small republic within the larger nation. “A true school is in the happy position of being able to discharge a moral function through its own intellectual life,” for a college education dedicated to reflective inquiry in conversation with the Western tradition will cultivate precisely those virtues needed for citizenship in a republic.[7] Studying the great books and the broader heritage of the West is not only a way to “enculturate” students into their tradition; such an education also teaches students the meaning of liberty, fosters in them a love for it, and prepares them in the classroom for the public practice of the liberal arts.

Such colleges still exist, and such an education is still available in some of the nooks and crannies (“institutes” and “honors programs”) of our sprawling, research-obsessed multiversities. Friends of liberty and teachers of the liberal arts, though, find themselves in a peculiar situation. Our own tradition teaches us that human nature is universal, essentially constant in space and time. But it also teaches us that the liberal arts education that cultivates our humanity grew up in the Western tradition, nourishing and nourished by specific political forms, not to mention specific religious belief and cultural patterns. Republics seem to rely on liberal education for their liberty, and our republic has in many respects taken on the form of an empire in its domestic and foreign affairs, its politics and its broader culture. Thus a liberal arts education, generating and generated by free political life, appears today as a deeply countercultural education. Its proponents seem to be in the awkward position of preparing students to be citizens of a republic in a political context that no longer respects or desires republicanism. The civically useful liberal arts arose and flourished under conditions of political liberty. If our conditions are less free, is liberal education today doomed to irrelevance or failure?

On the contrary, liberty is always endangered. Recognizing the particular challenges of our time should inspire resolve rather than despair. Indeed, this recognition will help us seek out our time’s peculiar potentials. When I consider the state of liberty and learning in today’s America, what gives me the greatest hope is the renaissance of classical and liberal arts education at small colleges and in the charter school movement. This is as important, perhaps more important, than the tenured radicals still among us. Such schools need teachers who are properly educated in the liberal arts. And we are educating them. The transformation of the American liberal arts college into the technocratic and progressive research university was never complete, inspiring as it did a revival of liberal education in the middle of the twentieth century that continues in our own. If we are to preserve, protect, and restore genuine liberty in America, it will be in and through our renewed tradition of liberal education.

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1 Here and below I follow the historical outline given by Christopher Dawson in the first chapter of The Crisis of Western Education (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), especially 4–6; cf. 17, 23. The specific connections with philosophy and political liberty are my own.

2 I am emphasizing the Greek political and philosophical aspect of the Western heritage, but this and other points have strong parallels in Scripture. Here, the Scriptural parallel to the difference between a free Greek city and an empire lacking liberty such as Persia is the distinction between the Israelites who follow God’s Law (enjoining them to self-restraint) and recognize His ultimate sovereignty, and the nations that follow their kings, pharaohs, and emperors (who satisfy their own and in some cases their peoples’ desires without restraint). I do not mean to reduce the Biblical Law to a morality of self-restraint, only to note that this is one key sense in which its moral and therefore political injunctions are in essential agreement with the reasoned conclusions of the Greek philosophers.

3 Aristotle argues that we are naturally political because we possess logos (reason); whereas bees and herd animals are political “in a sense,” logos reveals the advantageous and the disadvantageous, the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, and “partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.” Some animals possess “voice,” which indicates pain and pleasure, but not logos (, I.1 1253a2–18). Drawing out this analogy, we might say that an utterly unfree political order—a society governed wholly by pain and pleasure rather than the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, totally lacking in citizenship, and thus not even deserving the name “political order”—would tend to dehumanize its subjects to level of animal existence, depriving them of the exercise of logos and preventing them from pursuing and even perceiving the good and the just. Such a society would still have “voices” aplenty, though it would lack the specifically political and philosophic uses of logos.

4 Christianity would later reveal this tension as being between our dual citizenship in the city of man and the city of God (as described by St. Augustine in his ) or our natural telos of happiness found in life in accord with virtue and our supernatural telos found in the beatitude of Heaven (as described by St. Thomas Aquinas in his “treatise on beatitude,” , I–II, qq. 1–5).

5 The phrase is a reference to the seal of St. John’s College, Annapolis: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque, “I make free men out of children by means of books and a balance.” Though St. John’s existed as just such a college in the colonial and early republican periods, counting Francis Scott Key among its alumni, my reference to this motto is anachronistic, as it dates to the college’s curricular re-founding in 1937.

6 See Ross Douthat, “A Crisis Our Universities Deserve,” The New York Times Sunday Review, November 14, 2015. Many American universities are now divided between apolitical technical, scientific, and pre-professional schools and a distortingly politicized version of the humanities. Patrick Deneen argues for the essential coherence between these two wings of the contemporary university, as both serve to deracinate the student and make him fit for our progressive, globalized economic order: “Learning to Be Free: The Connection Between Liberal and Civic Education,” in , edited by Bradley C.S. Watson (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), 65–76. Robert C. Koons makes a similar argument in the same volume (“Can Virtue be Taught? Western Civilization and Moral Formation,” 77–94) and elsewhere (“The Modest College and the Imperial University,” in , edited by Michael Federici, Mark Mitchell, and Richard Gamble, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013: 169–183).

7 Eva Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 145, 148.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a picture of busts of Socrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippus, and Epicurus, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. 

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