What about the humanities? Part I: The university is no place for a liberal education

Most reactionary intellectuals–and many non-reactionary intellectuals–agree that college education as it exists today is producing hordes of over-specialized barbarians with little in the way of humane culture, independence of mind, or appreciation for the treasures of Western civilization.  Here is a good recent example of this lament.  Let’s take its truth as given.  The cry goes out that we need a return to the “great books”, the classics of Greece, Rome, and Christendom that broaden the mind and refine the soul.  This is true as far as it goes; exposure to these works is a great treasure.  However, my readers know I have a perverse need to contradict everyone:  I argue that universities should remain soulless research factories, and that the proper setting for passing on Western culture would be something far different.  I assure any “great books” advocates among my readers that I share their goal and desire only a discussion of the means.  I am quite ready to revise my opinion.

Here is the model of humanistic education I would argue against.  First one gets an education in the great books–Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Pascal, etc.  This gives the student refined moral sentiments, a philosophic cast of mind, and broad sympathies.  Then this newly minted wise person goes out and lives his life–marriage, career, civic engagement, etc–drawing throughout on the spiritual formation given him.  The key point is education first, life second.

Many humanities professors would say that, of course, they don’t imagine a person’s reading and education should end with college.  College is just the end of the introduction.  The question then is how big a part of a person’s humane education college is supposed to be.  If one says it’s a small part, then one must agree with me that the bulk of one’s liberal education must come from some other setting and that it’s about time we gave some thought to this other setting.  If one says a large part, then one’s position has the difficulties of “education first, life second”.

I’m not sure the great books are meant to be learned this way.  There are many things that one can’t appreciate until one is thrown into the thick of life.  Sometimes one has to be confronted with a problem oneself before becoming really interested in how other people have tried to solve it.  Boys aren’t interested in love stories until their own hearts have been broken; then we become more sentimental than the ladies.  I’ve often thought that a major reason for the idiotic political and social beliefs of students–the thoughtless, reckless, irresponsible rebellion against order and custom–is that these are people who haven’t yet had the experience of maintaining a social order, not even on the small scale of parenthood.  Say to an adult “all is permitted” and it conjures in his mind spectres of meaninglessness and social chaos.  Say it to a student, and they think “Cool!  No bed times!”  Yes, I think student Leftism and atheism really is that juvenile.  The solution is not better arguments; they wouldn’t listen.  The solution is responsibility:  fatherhood, motherhood, neighborhood, work.

None of the great books was written for students:  not Hesiod’s Theogony, not Plato’s dialogues, not Augustine’s Confessions, none of them.  They were written for adults in the world.  To appreciate the great books, first become part of the audience to which they are addressed.

Another problem:  college is short.  Even with two years of nothing but great books gen-ed requirements, this would mean reading (or, out of necessity, skimming) lots of classics at a frantic pace, all the while thinking “Will this be on the test?  Will this be on the test?”  Even a great teacher can’t get around the time crunch.  And yet, is this the proper way to read these books?  Think of one of them that you love.  Wouldn’t you almost a student didn’t see it at all than that he be exposed to it–and have it ruined for him–in this way?  The issue may be summed up this way:  these books must be read in a spirit of leisure.  As Josef Pieper explained, “leisure” in its classical meaning doesn’t mean effortlessness or entertainment, but it does mean contemplation.  One retires from practical concerns to contemplate the Good.  I don’t say this never happens in college classes, but I do say that they are not an environment that naturally fosters such an attitude.  A good professor must battle against the inherent logic of the arrangement.

What is the university for?  People often complain that the university is supposed to be for education, but that it has been perverted, and now the primary activity is research (the triumph of the “German” model).  From the perspective of American history, this is roughly what happened.  Colleges founded by churches for the formation of clergy and gentlemen secularized themselves and changed their mission from passing on knowledge to generating new knowledge.  However, from the perspective of the larger history of the university, from the commission of the University of Bologna in the twelveth century to the present, this is more the university returning to type.  The original purpose of the university was not to provide a liberal education; its purpose was to perform research in scientific fields–law and theology above all–for the service of the Church.  This is why the fifteenth and sixteenth century humanists despised it so much.  Humanists like Erasmus were in many ways the precursors of today’s “great books” advocates.  They saw education as soulcraft.  Duns Scotus’ long proofs might be incrementally advancing humanity’s knowledge, but how much less do they develop a reader’s sensibilities than an oration of Cicero!

Universities are designed for research, that is for the progressive, scientific fields.  This is not to say they’re doing a wonderful job of that either.  In coming weeks, I’ll be reviewing books by Lee Smolin and Bruce Charlton arguing that the natural sciences are in deep trouble.  However, let us acknowledge that if the university does anything well, it’s science teaching and research.  When we ask the university to provide a liberal education, we are asking it to do something it’s not designed for.

What, then, should we do?

23 thoughts on “What about the humanities? Part I: The university is no place for a liberal education

  1. Good thoughts.

    I would add:

    Education should almost always happen at school, or at school-age – I mean before age 16-18. That is when humans are set-up to learn and remember for the rest of their lives what they have learned.

    Education is mostly about content, about knowledge. Teaching of skills should be done separately, one on one by prolonged personal contact – apprenticeship, including much repetition/ practice. (This is how people learn to play a musical instrument, to play in sports, to be a surgeon.)

    College is properly for a tiny minority, and as you say it is properly keyed to vocation. College is not for Liberal Arts, that should be prepared at school and then pursued as an amateur activity.

    Education has (in and of itself) zero intrinsic value – indeed it is probably net harmful – unless pursued *within* a Christian context. This is difficult to sustain, because there are short term advantages to dropping the Christianity and specializing on the education – but in the long term you get corruption: superficial bureaucratic fakery with nothing at all underneath, as at present.

    A sustainable higher education (i.e. sustainable over several generations) would probably need to be within a religious institution – a monastery, nunnery, cathedral/ large church, or something of that sort.

  2. Somewhere, Plato says that boys should not be taught philosophy until they are 30.

    When I was teaching at Union College (Schenectady), there was a polisci professor who told each class that they were not even human until they were 30.

    • He sure violated that rule with Glaucon and Adeimantus. Not to mention that Cephalus, the voice of age and experience, had to leave the scene in order for discussion to even commence.

  3. An element of Pre-Twentieth Century and early Twentieth Century autobiographies and memoirs is their revelation of just how little actual higher education in what we call the humanities depends on established institutions and educational bureaucracies. Much of pre-modern schooling was home schooling. What must Montaigne have read before he was sixteen years old? The equivalent of the Loeb Classical Library – and he read it at home largely under the tutelage of his father. I believe it is Casanova who describes being tutored by a learned priest in quite casual lessons now and then during his adolescence. In Experiment in Autobiography, H. G. Wells tells the story how during his fourteenth summer he ran away from his apprenticeship and stayed with his mother at Upp Park, an untenanted Eighteenth-Century manor where she was a kind of caretaker. There was a library, which Wells used abundantly, including ploughing through Plato’s Republic. None of the above entailed what we would recognize as a college or university.

    Here is another relevant fact: New York State is dotted with towns and cities whose names plunder the classical gazetteer: Troy, Ithaca, Utica, Carthage, Ulysses, Cicero – there is even a Plutarch, New York. Almost all of these towns were at first market towns for the vending of the harvest. The founders were not “college graduates”; they were farmers. They were also literate, and they commemorated the literate tradition in christening the polities that they established.

    Suppose, in 1850, someone had asked the Californians: Wouldn’t it be a great idea to build thirty or forty multi-billion-dollar “university campuses” all over the state, with housing for thousands of students, large faculties, and even larger bureaucracies to oversee each campus, and then to charge tens of thousands of dollars each year for each student who attends? What would the response have been? It would have been that that was a self-evidently crazy proposition, and that the proposer himself must be crazy.

    • Hello Thomas,

      Yes, I remember that about New York. Ithaca will always hold a place in my heart. Unlike Odysseus, I doubt I shall ever live there again.

      Your story about Montaigne is a good counterexample to my claim that literature is for grown-ups. I still think this is true for the majority, and Montaigne himself may have only “digested” later in life some of the things he read as a boy.

  4. Dear Bonald:

    My way of putting it would be this: For those who are destined to be literate and literary, Homer (letting him stand for much else) is necessary both in childhood and in adulthood, many times over. I have relevant experience. Not only have I taught college students for twenty-five years; I have also in recent years had experience tutoring middle-school-aged adolescents in fine literature. My sample of the latter is small, but it is telling. I suspect that modernity systematically underestimates the ability of fifteen-year-olds to respond to great stories and to consciously constructed literary language. Modernity is deleterious to the intellectual growth of young people, for all the obvious reasons, as tallied by Neil Postman in his trenchant books. Control the environment for those things and twenty per cent of adolescents of middle-school age can probably operate at the freshman level.



  5. >”Sometimes one has to be confronted with a problem oneself before becoming really interested in how other people have tried to solve it.”
    At which time it would be helpful to have already read about how others have tried to solve it.

    I’ll grant that “great books” don’t have to be read at university. Much should be done before that, and I do think that, in the short-term, those who want a liberal education will have to seek it on their own, or in small groups, similar to what you discuss in the next post.

    Ultimately, though, I do think there’s a lot to be said for the ideal of a liberal education in a university setting, something like what Cardinal Newman describes in The Idea of a University. The scale of such institutions, of course, would be far smaller, and the curriculum would be explicitly Christian, but I can’t imagine a better setting for such an education than having the help of competent instructors and the company of serious-minded fellow-students for a few years.

    Research is fine, and some relationship to a university may even be beneficial, but ultimately it’s a separate function from educating students, and thus belongs in a separate institution.

  6. Teaching Homer might prove to be a mistake. Perhaps for students of classical studies or for would-be poets his works would be appropriate. If our goal, however, is to build a Christian civilization, why make a point of glorifying the epics of a long dead pagan culture which revered bloodshed?

      • Tertullian asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Many others, like St. Basil the Great, answered that learning to understand grammar and rhetoric, to understand figures of speech and genres and the like, and in fact to study all the liberal arts, trains the mind to approach Scripture and theology. Here’s his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature.

        (And I gotta say he’s right. I’ve met some Christians who got bad schooling and thus really don’t understand _any_ figures of speech or poetry; so it’s not pretty when they study pretty much any Bible passage. I mean, even Psalms or the Gospels. If you struggle to understand jump rope rhymes, you’re not going to have fun with the Bible.)

        Furthermore, like St. Paul, most early Christians acknowledged that great pagan poets like Homer and Virgil had in fact received some partial inspiration from God (because God is the source of all beauty and the Word is obviously the King of all poets), and hence such pagans had foreshadowed the coming of Christ in certain famous lines, as well as bringing up certain moral topics. Some Christians were harsher about it; others were perfectly willing to collect “the spoils of the Egyptians” and use them for God’s glory.

  7. at a frantic pace, all the while thinking “Will this be on the test? Will this be on the test?”

    This is one of the biggest killers of learning. I minored in history, which I should have loved, but it’s hard to enjoy anything when you’re hyperfocused on getting those As.

    Great piece overall, but there seems to be a tension between these two sentiments:

    Education should almost always happen at school, or at school-age – I mean before age 16-18. That is when humans are set-up to learn and remember for the rest of their lives what they have learned.


    Somewhere, Plato says that boys should not be taught philosophy until they are 30.

    When I was teaching at Union College (Schenectady), there was a polisci professor who told each class that they were not even human until they were 30.

    I think this needs some more refinement. I know that between the ages of roughly 16-20 I “read” any number of Great Books that I would love to re-read as a more mature adult, because I didn’t really like or understand them at the time.

  8. Dr Bertonneau,

    In one of Donald Westlake’s comic novels, the hero is on a train in upstate New York, and the conductor keeps yelling, “20 miles to New McKinney” and 
    “next stop New McKinney”.

    Finally they round a bend and see a big sign:

    “Welcome to New Mycenae!”

    “I hate that man,” the hero moans.

  9. Student sentence from a final exam: “During the Roman empire times the pox ramona was greatly enjoyed by many of the people.”

  10. There’s also a clear lack of critical thinking and metacognition from a university education. Most of it is to teach people how to parrot back what they’ve already heard, except now as parrots they believe they learned “something new.” It’s not about knowledge or wisdom, but about the accumulation of knowing stuff. Most of which is useless anyway.

    Humanities are strongly associated with liberalism, and at a university the liberals are the actual conservatives. It’s just a giant political game at this point, where the students’ tuition goes to fund the nonsense.

  11. Humanities are strongly associated with liberalism

    Ironic, isn’t it? They’re meant to sharpen and broaden the mind, but they’ve been hijacked by the most muddled and close-minded people out there, who have the audacity to call themselves “liberals” when they’re actually some bizarre sort of anarchy-totalitarians. Sort of the way “progressives” are regressive, as their goal is to dismantle civilization and steer us back to mud huts.

    It’s all about branding.

  12. Students are paying for the branding, especially if they go to a “prestigious” school. You’re getting a liberal education alright– LIBED 1100: Introduction to Liberal Indoctrination.

    • That’s true of 99% of universities, but let’s not forget Catholic institutions like Thomas Aquinas College or the University of Dallas that are still upholding liberal education in the traditional sense.

  13. “None of the great books was written for students: not Hesiod’s Theogony, not Plato’s dialogues, not Augustine’s Confessions, none of them.”

    What about Aristotle?

  14. I’m confused by this post. A liberal education is an education in the seven liberal arts: the trivium (Latin grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, music, geometry). All seven of these are really the same subject: logical and formal reasoning disciplined to the understanding or explanation of something—music meant what we would call music theory, for e.g. A liberal education really is something you should get when you are young. If you don’t learn math or logic by age 21, you are never going to learn it. And it really is something that universities can be pretty good at. Modern universities don’t require you to get a liberal education, but you still can get one at one if you want.

    I’m also curious about the medieval university. What I thought I knew about it is that it was, from the beginning, a source of trained bureaucrats for the Church and for governments. That it suffered the same research/teaching tension as the modern university. That students mostly wanted their union cards at the lowest effort level possible so that they could get on with some middle management job or go on to become a lawyer. Is this false?

    • Hi Bill,

      In this post, I sometimes misuse the phrase “liberal education” to refer to an education in the humanities, meaning art and literature. I explain it better in part 2, where I specifically exclude math, science, social studies, and the like. This is part of a planned long series of mine on what’s wrong with academia. Next up is the social sciences. (I’m reserving my own field for the last and most detailed critique.)

  15. Pingback: Cartesian meditations on the social sciences | The Orthosphere

  16. @ Bonald,

    You and some of the commenters might benefit from a read of MacIntyre’s “God, Philosophy, Universities” which Ryan Anderson at First Things reviewed several years ago.

  17. Pingback: The folly of well-rounded students | Throne and Altar


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