Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Essays

Escaping the Matrix

The Case for the Liberal Arts

Wilfred M. McClay

Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix: Reloaded (2003); Archive Photos/Warner Brothers/Getty Images.

It need hardly be said that the ideal of a liberal arts education, for so long regarded as the gold standard of American undergraduate education, now finds itself embattled and widely disdained. And not for the first time. Such an education has always been regarded by many Americans as impractical, disorienting, and self-indulgent, even wasteful. Its current struggles have a great deal to do with the insistent pressures of economics, particularly excessive costs and uncertain returns on students’ investment, and the effects of those pressures upon the institutions that provide it. Those problems will need to be addressed if liberal arts education is to enjoy a less precarious institutional future. Serving on the board of a small, venerable, liberal arts college, I know firsthand what immense challenges such institutions are facing, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession.

But we need to remember that saving institutions is not the same thing as saving the educational activities the institutions were created to house. We do not want to achieve the one at the expense of the other. And if we are to make any kind of case for the liberal arts, we must first have before us a reasonably coherent notion of what the liberal arts are, and what they are for, and why they are worth preserving. That means clearing away some persistent misconceptions.

First of all, we need to banish the notion that the term liberal arts is a synonym for the humanities, or for those “soft” disciplines that are offered as complements to the “hard” disciplines of science and mathematics. On the contrary, a liberal education must include both. Instructing people in the liberal arts is not just a matter of imparting certain analytical techniques, even if universities do an excellent job of imparting those skills—readily transferable to other areas of human endeavor—as a byproduct of their work. Nor, though, does liberal arts refer to a particular body of knowledge, although the proper exercise of the liberal arts may well involve the acquisition of such a body of knowledge. They are not reducible to a lengthy list of books that must be read, languages that must be mastered, theorems to be memorized, or concepts with which one must be demonstrably conversant—although all those things will contribute in indispensable ways to the pursuit of a liberal education.

Instead, what marks a genuinely liberal education is its success in instilling a set of qualities that are often quite fiercely at odds with one another. Those qualities can be grouped under two broad rubrics: the capacity for serious inquiry and the capacity for full membership. Let me explain with an anecdote.

A number of years ago, when I was still a fairly junior professor at Tulane, I went to an academic conference in San Francisco whose subject was the purpose of the modern university. It was well attended, and featured two outstanding plenary speakers, each of whom was received very warmly by his audience.

The first was the distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward, who was accepting an award for his long and illustrious career, particularly for his commitment to the ideals of free speech and free investigation. In his remarks, Woodward put forward a bold and uncompromising view of what the university’s appropriate work should consist. The university, he declared, was the place where the unthinkable could be thought, the unspeakable could be said, the inconceivable could be conceptualized, and the unfashionable could be entertained. The university, and it alone, offered the world a place consecrated to the most precious and most imperiled aspects of human freedom: our freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of expression. Without strong institutional protections for such freedoms against the forces that always seemed to spring up against them, we would lose the benefit of them, including the benefits that come of a culture that is bent upon seeking and finding the truth, without fear or favor. Visibly stirred by these words, the members of the audience, myself included, applauded loud and long.

Later in the conference came an address by a scholar of equal distinction, James Q. Wilson, also speaking on the theme of the university’s purpose. In his speech, the noted political scientist argued that the modern university was best understood as the chief conservator of the rich but fragile civilization of the Western world, the keeper of our chief intellectual, moral, and artistic treasures and our collective historical memory. That heritage had made us what, and who, we were, he said, but our dynamic commercial and intellectual cultures were all too likely to toss that heritage aside, in the pell-mell pursuit of The Next Big Thing. If the university did not take care to look after the older things, he asked, who else would? Without a strong institutional commitment to the conservation and propagation of that cultural inheritance, we would lose the benefit of it, including the benefits that come of sustaining a vital connection to the past, and to the best that has been thought and expressed in the human experience. For these words, too, the audience applauded loud and long, and again I joined in enthusiastically, though by now experiencing a bit of puzzlement at my fellow auditors, and at myself.

Puzzlement, because it struck me that we seemed to be applauding, with equal enthusiasm, two entirely different, and seemingly incompatible, ideals of the university. Woodward seemed to be holding up the university as a place of constant unsettlement, even creative destruction, in which everything that is taken for truth today is open at every moment to being rethought, reframed, and reconstituted, even discarded, a place in which no dogma is safe and no complacency is tolerated—a place in which ideas and ideals can have validity only so long as they can stand up to the intense and uninhibited refining fire of today’s most impertinent questions and searing criticisms.

Wilson, on the other hand, was pushing for an ideal of the university as a cultural institution standing precisely against the arrogant and self-absorbed tendency of the modern world to appoint itself the plenipotentiary judge of all things, to deny and disparage the authority of all that has come before it, and, in so doing, to ensure that those who come after us will accord us the same derisive treatment, in the fullness of time. Wilson’s university was, instead, a place of intergenerational comity, where the young would be educated to take up gladly the fullness of their cultural inheritance, to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to fully appropriate all that it had to offer them.

These are two very different-sounding ideas about the nature of higher education. Yet we applauded them both with roughly equal fervor. Were we, the audience, being mindless fools? Or might there be a logic linking them both, one that neither speaker sought to stress, but that we need to take to heart in our own attempt to understand the value of a university education, particularly one in the liberal arts, in the present day?

I think there is, in fact, a deeper sense in which these two different accounts of the university are merely different aspects of the same vision: a vision of education as a preparation for freedom, for liberty in the fullest sense of the term. This freedom is not mere license; nor is it the ability to live unfettered by all constraints or coercions or traditions, nor, for that matter, to live in the easygoing, conflict-free adjustment of one’s wants and expectations to the world as one finds it. It is, instead, freedom as a form of rational self-government, as a regimen of risks and rewards, an intellectual and moral freedom grounded in a healthy combination of membership and inquiry, of reverence and criticism. It is a freedom that releases us from the unquestioned tutelage of the past and empowers us to scrutinize each and every one of the world’s givens, but does so in a way that enables us to draw sustenance from the past rather than make us entirely disdainful of it, or worse, entirely alienated from it. Wilson’s university would bring to its charges the blessings of a more fully conscious and informed membership in the long historical stream of which they were already a part; Woodward’s university would give them ample space for inquiry, the ability to engage in the acts of radical questioning and criticism, including civilizational self-criticism, that represent one of the chief means by which that civilization has been induced not only to redress its deficiencies but to improve itself. The best university, the one that teaches the liberal arts, is the one that does all of these things at the same time.

We were right to applaud both speakers at that convention because we need both messages. Membership without inquiry is bland and unthinking traditionalism; inquiry without membership is little more than captiousness or kibitzing. The proper end in view is that of substituting informed loyalties for blind ones, and substituting conscious reasonableness, and un-coerced love, for fear and dependency and superstition and reflex action. It is a freedom that comes of seeing all that one has formerly known in a larger arena, within a larger frame, as a part of a larger reality—to see it all, as we say, in a new light.

That image, of seeing all things freshly when they have been freshly illuminated by the emergence of greater sources of light, makes many of us think of one of the most imperishable parables of education: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in the seventh book of The Republic. It is a strange, even weird, tale of benighted people who have been compelled since birth to view shadowy images projected upon a wall as if they were the only real things in existence, and of the revelations that come to them when they are released from their bondage and brought into the blinding light of day—brought to see things as they really are.

Something like the same parable has appeared in various forms all over the world, throughout human history: the various understandings of the veil of maya in Hinduism and Buddhism; the “evil demon” in Descartes’s Meditations, who so orders the world as to deceive him; the 1999 science-fiction movie The Matrix, in which most of humanity has been constrained to experience only a simulation of reality created by all-controlling, life-devouring computers; even something as familiar as the all-American movie The Wizard of Oz, in which the “great and powerful” title character is revealed in the end to be a manipulator and a fraud.

What all these narratives reinforce is a powerful and sometimes haunting apprehension that we may be living our lives under the spell of a complete illusion, whether imposed by others or by ourselves; that the process of freeing ourselves from that illusion is painful and unsettling; that it can involve a transformation of all that was familiar and a complete re-description of reality itself, in the name of the search for truth. And the stakes are very high. Those illuminati who return to the cave, Plato tells us, are likely to be killed by those who have never left it and prefer not to have their illusions disturbed. Education can be a risky business.

But reality is rarely so dramatic and extreme as that. Plato’s great allegory, and the other versions of this theme, are not the whole story about education, which is just as often a tale of delight and discovery as one of pain. I fear that Plato’s allegory may mislead us by emphasizing only one part of the effort of liberal education, the process of freeing us from our illusions, of weakening the hold of the present and the past on us so that we might better apprehend the possibilities that beckon from beyond.

An argument I find more helpful and reliable comes from a small book by the late historian Jaroslav Pelikan called The Vindication of Tradition. Drawing upon an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pelikan offers a distinction between “tradition” and “insight,” and then goes on to show how unsustainable that distinction actually is:

A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump, which begins at the line of where we are now; it is a running broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight—in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology—has not come through progressively sloughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work that way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. Of course we do not listen only to the dead, nor are we a tape recording of the tradition…. But we do acquire the insight for which Emerson was pleading when we learn to interact creatively with the tradition which he was denouncing.

Pelikan concludes his examination with a charge to the reader, taken from Goethe’s Faust:

What you have as heritage,
Take now as task;
For thus you will make it your own.

In this view, the point of studying “the tradition” is not to absolve us of the need to think for ourselves, or relieve us of the responsibility to build things of our own. On the contrary. Such study helps us to recognize the work we are meant to do. Our heritage is our task. It gives our world its defining contours, its horizons, and its specific problems and possibilities. We cannot know or undertake our task without the benefit of our heritage. But it is by doing our task that we can come into the full possession of that heritage—perpetuating it as something living, rather than something inert and finished—and thereby make it possible for us to have a free and full relationship with that heritage, like that of children who have fully grown up, and can at last see and embrace their forebears for the people they actually are, and can come into fully adult possession of their inheritance.

So Plato’s Allegory of the Cave may not be fully adequate to the task of describing education. But then neither is Woodward’s description of the university as a free-fire zone of relentless and unsparing critique, or Wilson’s of the university as an agency of cultural transmission. What might fit Pelikan’s description best is the idea of education as a bildungsroman, but only if one adds the qualification that it is an adventure culminating in a homecoming, the kind of story that our literary tradition has taught us to call an odyssey. “We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding,” “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Such is the task of a liberal education, rightly understood—to be a liberating exploration that results, not in our being rendered permanently uprooted and alienated, but in our becoming more fully at home in the world that we already inhabit, and more fully able to enhance it, beautify it, ennoble it, and sustain it. This involves being what the political theorist Michael Walzer has called a “connected critic,” one whose inquiry draws upon, challenges, but ultimately affirms and strengthens the sense of membership in that world, this inquiry being part and parcel of membership, like a reciprocating engine in which tradition and insight are partners, rather than foes. The wisest cosmopolitan knows what Dorothy famously told us: There’s no place like home.

The chief public benefit of liberal education, when it is functioning successfully, is the formation of a particular kind of person, a particular kind of citizen, who robustly embodies the virtues of both inquiry and membership, and therefore is equipped for the truth-seeking deliberation and responsible action a republican form of government requires. Such a person has an ability to draw back from the flow of events and reflect upon them, the ability to consult the voice of reason and the wise testimony of the past. Such a person has the cognitive and moral strength to see the world as it is, and not be fooled into mistaking a succession of images projected onto the walls of caves, or conjured on screens, for reality, no matter how large the images or how pervasive their presence. And no matter how many proximate others have been gulled or deceived into believing in those images.

Hence Plato’s great allegorical image of liberation remains at the core of education, even if it does not constitute the whole of it. Before we can do anything truly magnificent and lasting, in art or craft or love, we too must be drawn out of our various caves. In particular, we must be liberated from the sirens of propaganda, or the enchantments of virtual experience, before we can accomplish anything worthwhile. One doesn’t have to believe that we are inhabiting our own soft-core version of the Matrix to believe that an unhealthy proportion of our experience has come to be mediated and directed and channeled and simulated by the artificial instrumentalities we use to apprehend the world, and by what others instruct our imaginations to believe such a world might be. Such a tendency carries with it great dangers, both for our ability to think clearly and attentively and for our ability to use our imaginations with vividness and independence. It also threatens to undercut the patterns of restrained and civil public deliberation that a genuinely democratic society requires. This tendency toward immersion in mediated experience inhibits the flourishing both of our inner life and the mutuality of our common life. It can easily become a form of cognitive imprisonment.

In the years to come, it will be a greater and greater part of a genuine liberal education to counteract these confinements imposed upon us by our ghostly electronic cave and restore us to ourselves—restore our ability to hear and see and touch the earth for ourselves, to gaze at the night sky for ourselves, and to extend and explore together the real possibilities of our human freedom.