If you have been educated within a liberal arts tradition, you know the value of a liberal arts education; if you haven’t, we can’t explain it to you. So, in short, argued the literary scholar Andrew Delbanco at a conference hosted several years ago by St. John’s College at its campus in Santa Fe. As a liberal arts and sciences college dean at the time, I attended that conference for professional reasons. But as an alumna of St. John’s I was also there to ask a personal question: Why did some proponents of the great books education of my undergraduate years scoff at the kind of studies I chose to pursue in graduate school—a race-and-gender-focused doctorate in English at Indiana University—and that I continue to engage with to this day?
St. John’s is unique in American higher education not only for having dual campuses nearly 2,000 miles apart, in Santa Fe and Annapolis, but, more significantly, for its approach to liberal education through discussion of “great books”: The required curriculum for all students includes four years of seminars that focus on the canonical texts of Western philosophy and literature. Because of the academic culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, this mode of education made St. John’s a darling of the political right during and after the time I studied there.
But to me, a naive sixteen-year-old looking at colleges, the politics of some of its admirers weren’t part of the appeal of St. John’s; I was simply attracted to the study of great books and big thoughts. The college’s promotional materials claimed that “the following teachers will be returning to St. John’s,” and went on to name, among others, Homer, Sophocles, Euclid, and Galileo. I had heard of Galileo, but the thought that I could read his books on my own was something new.
I liked this focus on primary sources, and the absence of textbooks and classroom lectures. There were also no professors. Tutors, as all faculty are called, do not profess. At St. John’s, students know tutors, and tutors know students, by title and surname: Mr. or Ms. They are not commonly on a first-name basis because theirs is a formal relationship, defined by the learning they undertake together. In the classroom, students also address one another by title and surname, again delineating a space that is intended to be impersonal. Conversation, whether in seminar or the smaller math and languages tutorials, is always focused on the reading.
For a student like me, the structure of the great books program made it possible to contemplate an otherwise unimaginable sort of education. I wanted to have what the study of these books represented, not yet understanding that knowledge could only be pursued, never possessed.
As Delbanco suggested, though educators like us are supposed to be able to describe with great precision the knowledge we have acquired, we cannot adequately characterize for anyone but ourselves what we mean by the larger enterprise of “liberal” education. We hasten to tell legislators and other funders that liberal arts are not “liberal” in the political sense. But by avoiding the deepest political dimensions of such an education, we forego the opportunity to explain that the etymology of liberal (it derives from the Latin liber, “free”) suggests an education that is really about liberation as the practice of freedom.
This liberatory education, which I propose we claim as liberal education re-visioned for a truly inclusive, aspirational democracy, should enable students to understand concepts and see truth; to hold on to their own truths even when they are unpopular or contrary to the status quo; to see the times in which we live and what those times demand. But the aspect of liberation I want to emphasize presents itself through a specific emotion. When I look to the St. John’s books in the bookcases in my home office, they still evoke deep, soulful longing. Through these books I was able to experience both my thinking self and something larger than myself. Studying gave me the feeling of freedom and agency, in addition to reinforcing a heady idea of equality: I could sit with even the greatest of intellects and have something to say.
In the story “Life in the Iron Mills,” the early-twentieth-century American writer Rebecca Harding Davis evokes this kind of longing when a worker named Hugh describes a sculpture of a woman that he’s made from korl: “She be hungry.” Those words capture what Hugh is trying to convey about the subject of his sculpture: that she knows there’s something missing, feels it through the ache of lack, and that she needs this thing she cannot name in order to live. This is not hunger for food or drink, not hunger for happiness, even, but hunger for purpose and meaning, something more than the soul-deadening work the iron mills offer. In a similar vein, the nineteenth-century poet Emma Lazarus names such liberatory longing as the “yearning to breathe free” of exiles in a new land. At St. John’s we learned older and other ways to name this desire when we read Plato’s dialogues, including Phaedrus, first during freshman year and again as our last reading of the last seminar of senior year. Phaedrus and its speeches about love, its questions ultimately about philosophia, taught me that reading books means intertwining my longing with their wisdom, means reading and learning as a lover.
Here are some moments of learning I remember from college: reading the opening of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in Greek; analyzing the rhetorical power of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address; understanding the proof for Euclid’s proposition I.47, that “in right-angled triangles the square on the side subtending the right angle is equal to the squares on the sides containing the right angle”; contemplating Pascal’s pensée, “Le silence éternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie”; relearning calculus as “the” calculus of integration and differentiation; grasping the definition of estranged labor in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; thrilling to the overtone series in the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold; theorizing Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung as key to his dialectic.
I also remember that in the spring of my sophomore year I was abducted at gunpoint by a man who had hidden in the back seat of my car. He surprised me, pointed a gun at my head, made me drive to a secluded location, and raped me repeatedly. I escaped from him finally by jumping out of my moving car while being forced to drive, at gunpoint, to another location.