- EphBlog - http://ephblog.com -

What’s the Point of Getting a Liberal Arts Education?

The following passage is excerpted from Russell Kirk’s Redeeming the Time and was recently published in this format in the Intercollegiate Review (original article).

Our term “liberal education” is far older than the use of the word “liberal” as a term of politics. What we now call “liberal studies” go back to classical times; while political liberalism commences only in the first decade of the nineteenth century. By “liberal education” we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called “career education.”

The idea of a liberal education is suggested by two passages I am about to quote to you. The first of these is extracted from Sir William Hamilton’s Metaphysics:

“Now the perfection of man as an end and the perfection of man as a mean or instrument are not only not the same, they are in reality generally opposed. And as these two perfections are different, so the training requisite for their acquisition is not identical, and has accordingly been distinguished by different names. The one is styled liberal, the other professional education—the branches of knowledge cultivated for these purposese being called respectively liberal and professional, or liberal and lucrative, sciences.”

Hamilton, you will observe, informs us that one must not expect to make money out of proficiency in the liberal arts. The higher aim of “man as an end,” he tells us, is the object of liberal learning. This is a salutary admonition in our time, when more and more parents fondly thrust their offspring, male and female, into schools of business administration. What did Sir William Hamilton mean by “man as an end”? Why, to put the matter another way, he meant that the function of liberal learning is to order the human soul.

Now for my second quotation, which I take from James Russell Lowell. The study of the classics, Lowell writes, “is fitly called a liberal education, because it emancipates the mind from every narrow provincialism, whether of egoism or tradition, and is the apprenticeship that everyone must serve before becoming a free brother of the guild which passes the torch of life from age to age.”

To put this truth after another fashion, Lowell tells us that a liberal education is intended to free us from captivity to time and place: to enable us to take long views, to understand what it is to be fully human—and to be able to pass on to generations yet unborn our common patrimony of culture. T. S. Eliot, in his lectures on “The Aims of Education” and elsewhere, made the same argument not many years ago. Neither Lowell nor Eliot labored under the illusion that the liberal discipline of the intellect would open the way to affluence.

So you will perceive that when I speak of the “conservative purpose” of liberal education, I do not mean that such a schooling is intended to be a prop somehow to business, industry, and established material interests. Neither, on the other hand, is a liberal education supposed to be a means for pulling down the economy and the state itself. No, liberal education goes about its work of conservation in a different fashion.

I mean that liberal education is conservative in this way: it defends order against disorder. In its practical effects, liberal education works for order in the soul, and order in the republic. Liberal learning enables those who benefit from its discipline to achieve some degree of harmony within themselves. As John Henry Newman put it, in Discourse V of his Idea of a University, by a liberal intellectual discipline, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; of what…I have ventured to call the philosophical habit of mind.”

The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all in all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy. True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state. In all our talk about “serving national goals” and “citizenship education”—phrases that originated with John Dewey and his disciples—we tend to ignore the fact that schooling was not originated by the modern nation-state. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.

Yet a system of liberal education has a social purpose, or at least a social result, as well. It helps to provide a society with a body of people who become leaders in many walks of life, on a large scale or a small. It was the expectation of the founders of the early American colleges that there would be graduated from those little institutions young men, soundly schooled in old intellectual disciplines, who would nurture in the New World the intellectual and moral patrimony received from the Old World. And for generation upon generation, the American liberal-arts colleges (peculiar to North America) and later the liberal-arts schools and programs of American universities, did graduate young men and women who leavened the lump of the rough expanding nation, having acquired some degree of a philosophical habit of mind.

You will have gathered already that I do not believe it to be the primary function of formal schooling to “prepare boys and girls for jobs.” If all schools, colleges, and universities were abolished tomorrow, still most young people would find lucrative employment, and means would exist, or would be developed, for training them for their particular types of work. Rather, I believe it to be the conservative mission of liberal learning to develop right reason among young people.

Not a few members of the staffs of liberal-arts colleges, it is true, resent being told that theirs is a conservative mission of any sort. When once I was invited to give a series of lectures on conservative thought at a long-established college, a certain professor objected indignantly, “Why, we can’t have that sort of thing here: this is a liberal arts college!” He thought, doubtless sincerely, that the word “liberal” implied allegiance to some dim political orthodoxy, related somehow to the New Deal and its succeeding programs. Such was the extent of his liberal education. Nevertheless, whatever the private political prejudices of professors, the function of liberal education is to conserve a body of received knowledge and to impart an apprehension of order to the rising generation.

END

The Williams College Society for Conservative Thought is a non-partisan student organization dedicated to providing an academic space where students can freely engage with conservative scholarship in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. Students of all varieties of political and social beliefs are invited to study, discuss, and challenge these ideas that are neglected in the College curriculum. We pledge to uphold the besieged principles of academic freedom and diversity of thought at Williams College. Website: https://www.wcsct.org/

Facebooktwitter
Comments Disabled (Open | Close)

Comments Disabled To "What’s the Point of Getting a Liberal Arts Education?"

#1 Comment By ZSD On June 2, 2018 @ 9:46 am

Hear, Hear!

#2 Comment By abl On June 2, 2018 @ 11:15 am

I feel like I’m missing something: what’s “conservative,” in the political ideology sense of that word, about Kirk’s description of liberal arts? This feels mostly like it’s railing against a straw man. I’ve never heard someone familiar with the concept of “liberal arts” imply that “liberal” means politically liberal. Rather, Kirk’s description of a “liberal arts” education, other than its unnecessarily limited conception of what is helpful for “emancipat[ing] the mind from every narrow provincialism” (via Lowell and Elliot), seems to me to be the definition likely to be most broadly accepted at a school like Williams.

#3 Comment By DDF On June 2, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

> what’s “conservative,” in the political ideology sense of that word, about Kirk’s description of liberal arts?

Well, I agree with you that the mapping is not a clean one (and I suspect that the original poster would agree).

Both Williams College and Russell Kirk believe that we should change the hearts/minds/characters of the students. Both agree that topics like, say, accounting, should not be offered.

But they have very different conceptions of how best to shape the character of a student, or perhaps even of what shape should be targeted.

Kirk wants to “conserve a body of received knowledge and to impart an apprehension of order to the rising generation.” I read that as meaning, at least, that every English major should read Shakespeare. (Perhaps Kirk would go farther and argue that every student should read Shakespeare.) The (now disappeared?) connection of conservatism to higher education policy was The Great Books.

Williams (now) disagrees. Not only does it no longer require every student to read Shakespeare (which it did in the 50s), it does not require every English major to read Shakespeare (which it did in the 80s).

Instead, Williams shapes character with, for example, DPE requirements and the like.

Note: I have not read Kirk for years, so this could be all wrong.

#4 Comment By ZSD On June 2, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

I don’t mean this as a ‘troll’, but don’t know where to put this separate but related and oft-Ephblog-item from Rex Parkers discussion of the NYT Crossword this Sat am:

(5D: They’re high in the Ivy League). IQs

First, it’s factually wrong, in the sense that no one takes a ****ing IQ test to get into Harvard or Yale. You are assuming they have high IQS, and maybe you’re right, but IQ has zero direct correlation to Ivy League admission.

It’s also just a gross system of measuring human beings, highly racialized and disgusting. Anyone who talks about their high IQ or believes in its meaningfulness is not to be trusted. Or is deeply, sadly insecure.

If you go to an Ivy League school, you may be a brilliant, beautiful person. But if you want high correlation between student attribute and student admission, check where the parents went to school, or how much money they make. Come on, man.

#5 Comment By DDF On June 2, 2018 @ 4:03 pm

For ZSD’s comment, here is the link.

Rex is a fool. SAT (math and verbal and subject) tests are highly correlated with standard IQ exams. If you scored 1480 (math + verbal, which is the average at Harvard), I guarantee that you will do well on any IQ test.

By the way, SAT scores are as “highly racialized” as IQ scores. Does Rex think that the presidents of Yale and Harvard are moral monsters for requiring them?

#6 Comment By abl On June 2, 2018 @ 5:49 pm

Kirk wants to “conserve a body of received knowledge and to impart an apprehension of order to the rising generation.” I read that as meaning, at least, that every English major should read Shakespeare. (Perhaps Kirk would go farther and argue that every student should read Shakespeare.) The (now disappeared?) connection of conservatism to higher education policy was The Great Books.

I would totally believe that there is some coded meaning to Kirk that I’m missing, but nothing about the above quote implies Shakespeare specifically or a Great Books-esque curriculum more generally. Regardless, the difference in “liberal” and “conservative” conceptions of an ideal curriculum is in how broad the “body of received knowledge” should be, and not whether there should be some “body of received knowledge.” Williams is, for the most part, an anti-curriculum school. But if Williams required a curriculum (it does not) and if that curriculum reflected the priorities of the contemporary mainstream left, Shakespeare would absolutely be required reading (as would much of the Western European Cannon). The difference in a liberal and conservative curriculum is that a liberal curriculum would include more great authors/thinkers who are not part of that Cannon — some more contemporary and many from other parts of the world — than a conservative curriculum (at the cost of some of the lesser Cannon works). My bet, though, is that there is far less disagreement on who/what to include in a curriculum between the mainstream left and the mainstream right than there is agreement. This has become a whipping boy for the right, not because it’s a particularly valid concern, but because it’s an easy and relatively uncontroversial rallying cry: who’s going to argue against wanting more Shakespeare?

Williams shapes character through classroom (and extra-curricular) culture. What makes Williams graduates Williams graduates is not that we’ve all read Burke and Locke (although many of us have), but that we are all adept at a certain type of critical thinking and discussion that is facilitated in small classes and tutorials led by thoughtful professors. The very few requirements that Williams has — distribution requirements, basic English and Math requirements, the DPE requirement, the writing requirement — are designed to ensure a minimal level of critical understanding and ability in certain foundational subjects and skills. It’s not that Williams has different political priorities than a Great Books school like St. Johns — it’s that Williams’ approach to education is different. Put in ideological terms, the Williams’ educational approach is far more libertarian than a place like St. Johns or Chicago. E.g., Williams is not doing a liberal version of the Great Books curriculum, as your post perhaps implies, but something else, something far more laissez-faire (that still usually entails reading much of the Western European Cannon).

#7 Comment By ZSD On June 2, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

@abl:

A very nice description of the Williams approach that has resonance even with the olden days.

The more conservative aspects lived in the olden days also helped form character … coat and tie for sit-down dinners, required chapel, no-cuts, and eight o’clock classes up the Goodrich hill through snow and ice.

#8 Comment By 89’er On June 2, 2018 @ 9:21 pm

Conservativism needs more Burke and less Trump, both for the sake of conservativism and the republic.

#9 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 3, 2018 @ 12:18 am

But if Williams required a curriculum (it does not) and if that curriculum reflected the priorities of the contemporary mainstream left, Shakespeare would absolutely be required reading (as would much of the Western European Cannon).

This is wrong. Williams does not have a full scale “curriculum” but it does have specific requirements, the most ideological if which is DPE. Surely you would agree that DPE reflects “the priorities of the contemporary mainstream left?”

There are dozens or more members of the contemporary mainstream left on the Williams faculty who agree with the DPE requirement, which is why it exists. I have never heard of such a faculty member being in favor of a Shakespeare requirement. Have you? Indeed, it was precisely such faculty who got rid of the Shakespeare requirements we used to have!

#10 Comment By frank uible On June 4, 2018 @ 7:57 am

With the passage of time my comfort with any answer to the question has slowly evaporated – down now to nearly nothing.

#11 Comment By abl On June 4, 2018 @ 11:54 am

David —

Yes, Williams does not have a curriculum, full scale or otherwise. I would agree that DPE generally reflects the priorities of the contemporary mainstream left, but given, as you yourself acknowledge, it is not part of a curriculum, that is immaterial to my point. I am sure that you would find that if Williams were moving to a curriculum, there would be dozens or more members of the contemporary mainstream left on the Williams faculty who would agree with or even call for a Shakespeare requirement. But Williams is not moving to a curriculum and so the faculty’s silence re Shakespeare is probative of a grand total of nothing.

#12 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 4, 2018 @ 12:24 pm

> Williams does not have a curriculum

The focus on “curriculum” is not very helpful in this context.

1) By your definition, 99% of elite schools do not have curricula, so the fact that Williams also does not is uninteresting.

2) We began this debate with you asking “what’s “conservative,” in the political ideology sense of that word, about Kirk’s description of liberal arts?” I think the best way to answer this question, while still keeping some connection to reality, is to look at the practices at Williams (past and current) and at other schools, and then connect these specifics to Kirk’s views.

Kirk would agree with the policy of Williams in 1950 that every student read Shakespeare. (I don’t see Williams as having a “curriculum” in 1950, although it had a much more series set of requirements.)

Kirk would agree with the policy of the English Department in 1980 that every English major read Shakespeare.

Kirk would disagree with the current Williams DPE requirement.

Summary: The “conservative” view is that *if* Williams is going to have requirements it should require students read works of lasting value and importance. And the best (only) way to judge value/importance involves a consideration over 100+ years. Shakespeare makes the cut. None of the books in, say, Williams Reads, does.

#13 Comment By Abl On June 4, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

First, Williams doesn’t have requirements that are categorically similar to a Shakespeare requirement. Second, I don’t see what’s conservative about Shakespeare. See my second post.