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In our time
In his talk at Boston College, a noted political theorist praises the liberal arts for compelling discipline and discomfort, experience and a certain kindness
We live in hard, or hardish, times for the liberal arts. In Britain, higher education faces incipient misery and chaos thanks to the government’s new policy of shifting the burden of funding onto student tuition fees. Higher education in the United States may be in a less dire situation but it has been suffering—and will no doubt go on suffering—the side-effects of the recession.
An old saying has it that we all know we’re going to die, but you can only live by thinking you’re immortal. So what I’d like to do is close my eyes to reality and produce a conservative, indeed extravagant, defense of liberal education. Not a defense of the arts and humanities alone, but of a concept bigger and a lot more critical.
First, however, a little autobiography to back up my sermon.
I was born in London during an air raid, on the day the German armies invaded the Low Countries in 1940. I started school on more or less the day peace broke out in 1945. One of my grandfathers drove a truck, and the other was a coal miner. Both my parents left school at the age of 13. My father went to work as a boy clerk, my mother as a housemaid. They were highly intelligent. They both knew that their lives had been cramped by not having a better education, and they were determined I was going to get one.
I was part of a social project growing out of the Labour government in 1945, whose underlying doctrine was that only the very best is good enough for the working classes—that we hadn’t all pulled together in the Second World War only for the possessing classes to lock away the riches of human culture the moment the war ended.
My elementary class went to art galleries and museums. We heard Malcolm Sargent and the London Symphony Orchestra play Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. We were taken to Kenwood House to look at Gainsboroughs. What the school didn’t provide, the local public library did, or my parents, who took me around the British Museum on weekends.
But I was not merely a working-class child. I was also, in the English jargon, a scholarship boy. It’s an important distinction in England. I got my education at Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school that gave poor, working-class kids, or non-working-class kids who had lost their fathers in the war, a very high-quality academic education for free.
Christ’s Hospital is funded by its endowment, which comes from its alumni. Because the school still only takes poor children, the students who go on to prosper in their careers can’t send their offspring there; instead, they give money. I suspect that those of us who are deeply conscious of the riches we were offered for nothing have a stronger sense than most that we should pass on something equivalent to what we received. I’m tempted to contrast that with the attitude of England’s present leaders, coming from Eton and Westminster.
I found liberation in my education. And what is “liberation”? My view is that its meaning emerges in the familiar words of the Book of Common Prayer, where we address the Almighty God “whose service is perfect freedom.” Which is to say, liberation is the freedom one gets from discipline. In education, discipline is the subordination of oneself to the intellectual demands of a subject that one tries to take seriously. A liberal education involves the pursuit of a subject for its own sake, for seeing where knowledge will lead.
Incidentally, as a devout atheist, I nevertheless do not see how it is possible to make anything of one’s life without knowing how to use the language and intellectual apparatus inherited from people who held religious beliefs, people who were moved by the same human concerns as we are, whether we share their beliefs or not. Their language seems to me to make the right kind of sense, and indeed reflects the sort of seriousness that we must bring to education.
So this is my definition: A liberal education is one that is structured in its content, intention, and mode of delivery by the dictates of the discipline, and by the demands of enabling students to master it insofar as time and their capacities allow.
This is not to exclude hands-on education. It is necessary to think our way into most things through our fingertips. One of the great fake contrasts is between liberal education and vocational training. Liberal education is vocational in the sense that it equips us to deal with anybody, to deal with colleagues and the world at large, to express what we are about, to understand what others—our clients, customers, competitors—are about.
Practical skills come in all shapes. One of the best ways to learn anything is to try to do it yourself. I remain convinced, for instance, that the only way to get your mind around Corneille and Racine is to get your hands around composing half a dozen lines too. I write this even as I admit, unhappily, that I have bitter memories of my own effort to write alexandrines in French at age 16. I haven’t revisited the scene of the disaster since, which is to say that a certain amount of kindness towards the frailties of the mind should always be exercised. I still find, reading Homer, that I can’t get the beat of the Greek. We shouldn’t assume we can do it all. Nonetheless, we should try to see what it would be like to get good enough at something to liberate ourselves.
Unfortunately, the British experience with true liberal education is not very inspiring. There was a welcome break with tradition in the 1960s, when the so-called plate-glass universities were created (the term comes from the architectural style many of them adopted). These institutions were novel in having more curricular autonomy than British higher education had in the past, as well as in their greenfield locations outside generally attractive towns such as Brighton and Canterbury. They were avowedly modeled on the American liberal arts college, but only one actually emulated the American curricular style with its emphasis on general education; this was the place where I cut my teeth.
Keele University had been set up deliberately to introduce liberal arts education of an American kind to England. Founded in the late 1940s, it always struggled financially, however, and the Korean War led to its government funding being halved. Keele never really recovered.
The program was very expensive to run—it took four years to earn a degree there that other universities conferred in three. Keele featured a common first year, a foundation year that started with a lecture by an astronomy professor, who said, essentially: This is the Universe. Then the geology department: Here is the world. The geographers: Here is Europe. The classicists: Here is ancient Greece. Unlike students at other British universities, who conventionally earn their degree in a subject chosen before they arrive, half of Keele’s students changed their minds in the first year and took up something else. Interestingly, more students graduated from Keele with joint honors in philosophy than in any other subject.
Because this was a terrific way to educate people and cost a lot, it was, of course, stopped. After 1992, Keele became much like the rest, and is now simply a small, rather hard-up university, sitting on a damp field outside Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. It is one of the great English missed opportunities, and speaking as a loyal former teacher, whenever I think of it I become enraged.
I say this fiercely: It is essential to recognize, and practice, real intellectual inquiry. Social, psychological, and intellectual liberation hunt together.
Liberal education’s function is to kick us out of habitual modes of belief, out of our comfort zones. And the first element in liberation is to appreciate the truth that we might have lived elsewhere, and at a different time, and that, if we had, the world would have seemed very different, morally, intellectually, and politically. This is to say that we need to appreciate the full extent of our capacity for being astute and our capacity for being obtuse.
Consider, for example, the Athenians. I believe devoutly that Athenian democracy was vastly superior to anything we practice in America or Britain in the 21st century. I think that choosing a legislative body by lottery is preferable to elections, and that the modern world was sold by the Romans on the idea that the people must be controlled and managed, and we never should have accepted it.
Nonetheless, devoted as I am to the Athenians, I do not think they behaved well when they massacred the inhabitants of the island of Melos. They didn’t do it in a fit of rage. They didn’t do it because they were terrified out of their skins. They did it—well, why did they do it? It is unclear what might have been going on in their minds. Can the people who killed every adult Melian male and sold the rest into slavery be the same people who watched the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus? How can they have internalized (as they did) dramatic depictions of the horrors of war and widowhood, and then go out and inflict them? So one asks, who are these people? Do they belong to the same race as ourselves? What’s going on?
At this instant, the strangeness of the Greek moral world comes home to us powerfully. What I want to say is, don’t step away. Don’t give up. Don’t sigh, “Perhaps there is no justice after all,” or “Perhaps one way of behaving isn’t any better or worse than another, then.” Take ownership of your capacity for contradiction.
Gaining this capacity is an important part of what education, a liberal education, has to offer. But one shouldn’t conclude, therefore, that an academic discipline cannot produce value judgments. (There was a big craze in academe for this position not long ago.) One does not need to lose the power of judgment, but rather to understand how judgments are made by other people, how their behavior is driven. I don’t doubt that after the Melian massacre even the Athenians thought the action was disgusting.
There is a tendency to view liberal education as having a therapeutic function, as leading a person to be readily accepting of opposing standpoints, to embrace otherness. My view is the reverse. It is the key to learning to suspend judgment sufficiently so that a person can start asking the questions that are unnerving.
In fact, one of the great difficulties of contemporary teaching is that there is too much talk about respect—of cultures, and so on—which has resulted in restrictions on what can be said in the classroom. To be sure, free-fire insults swiftly become diseducative. But in the classroom everyone has got to feel safe enough that no matter what is said, it is possible for all to step back the necessary few feet to start a dispassionate inquiry. Without that environment, learning is almost impossible.
One great good that liberal education can achieve is to anchor us—or perhaps to re-anchor us—in this world. The question remains how are we to be “at home” here without becoming the unreflective creatures of habit that liberal education is meant to keep us from being. In this regard, I can’t help allowing some areas of study priority over others, especially those that enable us to achieve a certain ownership of human culture. In the end, however—and I say this strongly—it is the disciplined approach that carries the day.
Alan Ryan is a visiting scholar at Princeton University and the author of Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education (1998). From 1996 to 2009 he served as warden (head) of New College, Oxford University, and is a past director of Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute. His essay is drawn from a talk he gave in the Heights Room on November 13, part of a daylong symposium sponsored by Boston College’s Institute for the Liberal Arts titled “Old and New Territories: Remapping the Liberal Arts for the 21st Century,” which also featured presentations by John O’Malley, SJ, of Georgetown University, Catharine Stimpson of New York University, Louis Menand of Harvard University, and Stanley Fish of Florida International University.