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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/

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Diversity, in All Its Forms: Conservative Society President Speaks on Claiming Williams Day

On February 1st, classes were cancelled for the tenth annual Claiming Williams Day celebration of topics related to diversity and inclusion.

Conservative Society President John DiGravio ’21 was invited by student organizers to give a speech at a Claiming Williams morning event. The presentation, titled “Diversity, in All Its Forms: Conservative Thought at Williams” was delivered to 130 students, faculty, and administrators assembled in Griffin Hall. After articulating the foundations of his personal commitment to diversity of perspective, John explained the extent to which the College is failing to ensure the intellectual diversity of the curriculum and campus community. He then described the Society’s efforts to address this issue and called upon members of the Williams community to uphold their commitment to diversity in all its forms.

John has spoken at a number of public engagements related to intellectual diversity and conservative thought at Williams. If you would like to continue the conversation initiated in this speech, or arrange for John to present at another event, please contact him at jjd6@williams.edu.

For the latest updates on the activities of the Williams College Society for Conservative Thought, please visit and bookmark our new website: https://www.wcsct.org/.
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Society for Conservative Thought Hosts Chris Gibson

On Wednesday, January 10th, the Society for Conservative Thought held its inaugural public event featuring Chris Gibson’s presentation,“What it Means to Be a Conservative.” Dr. Gibson previously served as a U.S. Army colonel and U.S. representative, and is currently Stanley Kaplan Distinguished Visiting Professor of American Foreign Policy in the Williams leadership studies program.

Addressing the audience of 45 students, administrators, and community locals, Dr. Gibson asserted the importance of the “conservation of the founding principles” and the recognition of their enduring value in the modern world. With many references to American history and European political philosophy, he described the miracle of the American political experiment and the critical need to maintain “the spirit of Philadelphia” which conceived of it. Students then stayed for over an hour to participate in a Q&A session in which Dr. Gibson outlined concrete legislative actions to improve the American political system, drawing upon his experiences from serving in Congress.

Following the discussion, the Society offered complimentary copies of Dr. Gibson’s most recent book, Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream, courtesy of the Society’s budget.

The invitation of distinguished guests to voice conservative principles on campus is essential to the mission of the Society for Conservative Thought. If you can refer such individuals who would be interested in contributing to a future event, please contact jjd6@williams.edu.

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A New Year, A New Era for Williams College

Alumni and Friends of Williams College,

I am pleased to announce that the student representatives of College Council have formally approved the incipient Society for Conservative Thought as a registered student organization. This milestone has been made possible through the tireless and earnest contributions of faculty members and many students, to all of whom I am deeply grateful.

Since my arrival at Williams as a freshman this fall, I have become increasingly alarmed by the extent of the liberal intellectual uniformity of the curriculum and campus community. Fellow students upholding all varieties of political and social beliefs have confided to me their concerns that the explicit liberal bias is inhibitive to the attainment of a well-rounded liberal arts education, and that alternative views are frequently neglected, misrepresented, and ridiculed without basis. This close-mindedness breeds a shallow and hegemonic intellectual environment in which students do not feel able to freely express non-conforming ideas. As asserted by the campus administration during the First Days presentations, it is a mission of the College to promote diversity “in all its forms.” Diversity, however, should not be restricted to classifications of racial, sexual, and socioeconomic identities—at an educational institution, it must include diversity of thought. Though the administration has openly acknowledged the problem of liberal homogeneity in the official 2005 Diversity Initiatives Self-Study, in which students described “a lack of tolerance of diversity of thought” regarding conservative philosophies (pg. 10), the College has taken no meaningful measure to improve the situation and there are no existing student organizations dedicated to the study of conservative beliefs.

The Society for Conservative Thought is the product of the current student movement to broaden the intellectual diversity of the College and establish an academic refuge where students can engage with the rich intellectual tradition of conservatism in the vein of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. As a non-partisan and non-activist organization, we invite students of all varieties of political and social beliefs to expand their academic horizons and study, discuss, and even challenge ideas that are underrepresented in the Williams curriculum. Unlike other student organizations which have attempted to prompt dialogue through spectacle and incendiary controversies, the Society will foster a genuine understanding and appreciation of conservative principles through group readings and discussions, debates, and invited speakers. The Society is sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a prestigious and well-endowed organization founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1953 for the promotion of conservative ideas on college campuses. Through ISI, the Society has access to educational resources, a bureau of distinguished speakers, and special off-campus events, all free of charge.

I understand that there is a strong contingent of alumni who are rightfully disaffected with the intellectual climate of the College. To alumni: may this message inspire you with the knowledge that there are many among the student body who share your concerns and are striving to right the situation. The Society will be a liaison between the student and alumni communities, and we look forward to hearing your advice as we forge lasting bonds of friendship in our joint effort to establish true diversity of thought at the College. Please contact me to learn more and become involved in our mission—Williams needs you.

At this moment the intellectual affairs of the College face a fateful crossroads of critical importance. By the end of this academic year, the two most prominent campus advocates for free thought will have retired and graduated, and a new president will be taking office. For over two centuries, Williams has formed the minds, hearts, and souls of generations of students who have effected incredible and outsized impacts on our nation and the world. Will the College endanger this legacy by continuing to stifle the holistic intellectual growth of its students? Perhaps, but I promise that the Society will do everything within its power to provide Williams students with a refuge for free thought and the unprejudiced study of the true, good, and beautiful.

Society activities will commence during the Winter Study period. We will read selections from William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale, Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism, and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, as well as host a number of speakers drawn from distinguished faculty members and alumni. Those with questions or interest in our efforts may contact me at jjd6@williams.edu.

Sincerely,

John J. DiGravio ‘21

President, Williams College Society for Conservative Thought

“Veritas Vos Liberabit”

 

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