Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Essays

Liberatory Education

Education in the service of reparation can heal and make whole both individual persons and all of us.

Leslie W. Lewis

The Lamp (detail), 1984, by Romare Bearden (1911–1988); © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

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.

After Such Knowledge

As hard as it may be to fathom in today’s climate, in 1980 I put aside that devastating experience as quickly as possible and got back to my studies. I had nowhere else to go: I was not close to my family and quickly decided not to tell my parents what had happened. I had one conversation with a St. John’s tutor after a police officer sought me out in the middle of one of my classes. The college offered counseling, which I rejected. I tried to keep my part-time job at the Evening Capital, Annapolis’s daily newspaper, and called in sick for a short while, but I had told my boss enough of what had happened that he fired me after a few days back on the job, having deemed that I was too emotionally unstable to take phone calls from customers.

Psychically, I was a wreck. I lived with posttraumatic terror and struggled to retain the will to live; I couldn’t eat and came to look anorexic. Nevertheless, during that spring I made up the class work I had missed and found focus in my studies. In the summer between sophomore and junior years, I worked as a Manpower and Kelly Services temporary secretary, earned the money I needed to stay in school, and recommitted myself to my education. During my first two years of college, I had been a very quiet student. In my junior and senior years, I found my voice: I excelled. I spoke up in my classes and had smart things to say. I still could not address what had happened to me, and reading the great books made it possible, at least for a while, not to.

On the night I was raped, after I jumped out of the car and found help, I called the police and my roommate. I was interviewed, taken to the hospital, then to the police station, and interviewed some more. So began my relationship with the Annapolis police, the rape crisis volunteers, the criminal justice system, and the structures of power that mediate everything about the responses to rape when the victim is young, white, and female and the perpetrator is young, black, and male. In the local newspaper’s “crime log” entry on the incident, neither my race nor the race of my rapist was reported. I was identified only as a St. John’s student, and he as a gun-wielding man.

Yet race was a factor in almost all of the aspects of the aftermath of my rape, not least in my own newly created terror. After escaping from my rapist, I sought refuge in what turned out to be the home of an older African American couple. The woman stayed with me, while the man I presume was her husband immediately left the room. When the police officers arrived, one of them, an African American male, withdrew when I went into the details of what had happened. I thought at the time that the officer was trying to alleviate my fears. I wonder now if he was also trying to get out of the way so that I wouldn’t mistakenly identify him as my rapist. Later, working with the police to try to identify my assailant, I was asked to observe a lineup of black men who were instructed to say a key phrase: “I just want some pussy.” This was intended to help me recognize my assailant’s voice. I did end up recognizing one of the men in the lineup, not as my rapist but as a man I regularly saw walking the local streets. His embarrassment at saying these words was painfully visible.

I also drove with the police into subsidized housing developments as they pointed out various possible suspects. Riding in a detective’s unmarked police car through the neighborhoods of strangers seemed absurd, even more so once I realized that everyone who saw us knew that we were in a police car. None of these efforts led to the identification of my rapist, but I began to learn about poverty and race in Annapolis in ways I never had as a St. John’s student.

Annapolis, I subsequently learned, has a poignant history involving both. By the mid-eighteenth century, the small port city was a hub of the Atlantic slave trade, and by 1783 the enslaved population outnumbered the free white population of Anne Arundel, Annapolis’s home county. By 1850, with nearly half the African American population of Annapolis consisting of free blacks, white citizens began taking steps to ensure their own continuing dominance. By 1908, the Annapolis municipal government had enacted a law effectively depriving most African Americans of the right to vote. Just two years earlier, in 1906, a black man named Henry Davis had become the last person to be lynched in the city. Accused of assaulting a white woman, he was pulled out of the county jail and dragged through the streets of an African American neighborhood and hanged on the banks of College Creek, on the St. John’s campus. His body was “riddled with bullets,” according to the story in the Evening Capital. A member of the mob took pictures of his mutilated corpse, which were circulated as postcards. St. John’s students were observers, if not participants, in the incident, again according to the Evening Capital. No one was ever charged with this crime.

As the history of lynchings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shows, white women have been complicit in the lynching of innocent black men. White men have also lynched in response to black economic or social success, even while pretending they were acting to protect their women. For every white woman who has been raped by a black man, there are hundreds of black men who have been tortured and mutilated—not just killed, but annihilated—because of the possibility or suggestion of the rape of a white woman that never happened.

I come from a small town in a county in West Virginia that was well over 90 percent white when I was growing up. As a child, I lived with my family in other small, predominantly white Appalachian towns, places where racism went hand in hand with hopelessness, despair, and inadequate education. Given that background, I was afraid to tell my family about the rape, afraid that my father’s reaction would be explosive and uncontainable. This fear was confirmed five years later, when I did tell my parents what had happened. My father claimed my pain as his own. “You’re my seed!” he cried, and he demanded I tell him everything I knew about the person who had raped me. He wanted to call his brothers, grab guns, go to Annapolis, and organize a lynch mob. That it was too late for this response—that there was nothing he could do to exact racial vengeance—deeply and irrevocably disturbed him.

Working through my own rape, I found this context crucial to reaching the understanding of race that I needed to save my life. I needed knowledge that I did not have about racism in the United States, needed to understand African American culture, needed to learn of white resistance to white supremacist thought, needed to think through my experiences or die a psychic, if not literal, death.

The Learning Experiences We Need

How do we recommit liberal education to liberation? In Aristotelian terms, if liberation is education’s final cause—the “that for the sake of which” such an education exists—then we must first insist that all people with the capacity for thought are the people whom liberal education is for. What sort of education would have best served me, as a college student? What sort of education would have best served the black man who raped me? Picture us, as I do often, in the same college classroom prior to his act of violence, and then create the learning experiences we both would have needed. Imagine other students in that classroom, including my brothers and his sisters.

To say that our identity markers don’t matter is to continue, consciously or not, to center the needs of the paradigmatic boy of privilege, even as the makeup of the classroom resembles him less and less. All students come into the classroom with backgrounds and experiences, and the education we teachers offer must take these experiences into account. If group identities have seemed absent from the classroom communities of the past, this is because our students’ identities matched our own in ways that rendered identity itself invisible.

The argument for liberal education is often an individualistic one—education as a private good rather than a public good, even when the distinction is drawn between liberal education and professional or career education, education for utility. Liberal education, we say, must be for its own sake in order to be liberal education, that is, education that provides unfettered access to thought. But liberal education as liberatory education should be as much about the freedom of a people as the freedom of a person. Living the examined life is crucial, but it is just as crucial that I live among people who also have access to the examined life and so also have the means to be free. Liberal education does not guarantee a good society, but Elizabeth Minnich is right to argue in her 2016 book The Evil of Banality that thoughtlessness is the most dangerous state of our dangerous species. Learning to study for the love of it is learning to love thinking, the essence of our species, which is no more but no less than putting our humanity into practice. And we do so only in community—never alone.

After college, I kept reading: contemporary novels by women, American women’s history, feminist theory. I went to graduate school, at the University of Virginia, to pursue critical theory, but continued to choose to study women’s writing. At Virginia I took a class in twentieth-century African American novels offered by visiting professor Charles Rowell—the class that changed the direction of my life. We read Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, David Bradley, Ernest Gaines, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, among other writers. I had not known that any of this literature existed. Assigned Song of Solomon, Morrison’s fourth novel, I read her first three as well. When I finished The Color Purple, I remember wanting to read it again as if I hadn’t already read it—wanted the experience fresh, over and over, because I learned more about myself and my world with each re-reading.

I was now learning to read not only with my intellect but also with my emotions, including emotions long buried and deeply associative. When I participated in a workshop with antiracism activist Peggy McIntosh as she shared an early version of her 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” I learned how to name as privilege what I understood about my own experience. When I heard a talk by Alice Walker that included discussion of her white great-great-grandfather, also a rapist, I understood that bloodlines are not destiny and asked myself, carefully, what white guilt really means. I began developing a new set of questions about race and racism, always complicated by my own trauma, and determined that I would pursue studies in which I might find answers. And when female graduate students and untenured assistant professors formed an extracurricular feminist theory group at Virginia, in order to study Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Monique Wittig, and others—theorists another theory group run by male graduate students had refused to include—I enthusiastically joined. Informally auditing undergraduate women’s studies classes, I read Abigail Adams’s letter “Remember the Ladies,” and was dismayed that I hadn’t known about this correspondence when I read The Federalist.

I thought not only about the absence of these works from my undergraduate reading, but about other holes in the St. John’s curriculum, trying to put my experience of rape together with my college education, and wondered what might have directly helped in all those great books I had studied. Was my best exemplar really Helen of Troy? I was now grappling with the politics of representation. The same longing—the hunger for knowledge, the desire to breathe free—that had propelled me to college also guided the choices I made in my graduate studies. And while it should not have been difficult to find that next set of books to study, it was.

It is dishonest to insist, as one side of the culture wars proclaimed, that multicultural education is antithetical to liberal education. Such an argument presumes that students do not come to the study of African American literature by women with the same yearning for answers that propels students pursuing other studies within the liberal arts. Many of us see the gap between what college offers and what it needs to offer. We must now closely examine that gap so as to imagine how liberal education might become liberatory education for us all.

The momentous truth about what I needed to learn next is this: The same books I studied to understand my rape are the very books an angry and thoughtless young black man could read to find his own path to freedom. Liberatory education needs a starting point, and, for those who are not the paradigmatic boy of privilege, the best starting point may not be Homer. This is because lived experience does and often must inform the questions, and the paths of pursuit of the answers, that liberation requires. Those of us who are educators must take all of these potential students and their needs from lived experience into account as we create community even for learners who believe they have good reason never to need to talk with one another.

The Stolen Truth of History

Black reparations are being taken seriously in the political sphere for perhaps the first time since Reconstruction. As Ta-Nehisi Coates detailed in his 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations,” racial disparities in material wealth become a compelling argument for reparations as repayment for what has been stolen. Part of what has been stolen, though, is the truth of history, and so reparations also require honest teaching and inclusive learning. “How in the world could I not know that?” Chris Rock exclaims to Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the PBS series Finding Your Roots when he learns that his great-great grandfather served in the US Colored Troops during the Civil War and was then elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives during Reconstruction. We owe young people of all backgrounds an education that offers knowledge of the past and the ways we’ve hidden the past, that offers ways to make meaning of the past and how we’ve hidden it, and that does so in order to free rather than imprison.

If early education—the compulsory learning Americans receive from kindergarten to, in most states, age eighteen—has the purpose of making the young ready for life, then college is the quintessentially reparative time of life when we are made ready again. (Reparation is derived from the Latin, parare, “to make ready,” and re-, “again.” Repairing is, itself, to re-prepare or again make ready.) Thought of in this way, college education that is reparative implies some kind of do-over of what we have learned through our families and community schools in our early education. Particularly if that early education was deficient, if it was untruthful by omission, college can provide a way to make up those deficiencies.

College education could and should be thought of as a part of black reparations that is meant to repair damage done to African Americans through the institution of slavery and the postbellum years of terrorism and Jim Crow segregation and beyond, damage more extensive than stolen wealth. In a psychic context, racial reparations may be less obviously needed, but needed nonetheless, for those of us from white families and communities that practice racial thoughtlessness. We, too, need to study race and racism in order to understand ourselves, because the implicit attitudes about race that we have consciously and unconsciously created and accepted are poisoning us and have imprisoned our minds. We are literally dying from our inability to break free of our prejudice, our unexamined opinions. There are direct correlations to be made between white attitudes about race, lack and fear of education, hopelessness and despair, and addiction. It is just not possible to think freely when you are also desperate to cling to your biases.

Studying eternal truths does not give us license to ignore present realities when those realities also have histories that can help us understand them. Annapolis teems with histories of racial injustice not yet reconciled. Sometimes these histories create material conditions or circumstances that become part of our own lived experience in ways impossible to ignore, as with my own rape. I did not learn of the lynching on the St. John’s campus until long after I had graduated. When we learn this kind of history, we realize that something has been left out, and that brings forward the desire to learn what we wish we had already known. And this is a defining element of education as reparation: re-learning for re-pairing, for re-storing our full humanity.

In one of the more striking passages about education in his 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois tells us that he sits “with Shakespeare and he winces not,” that he moves “arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas,” and summons “Aristotle and Aurelius…and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” Across the color line, I want my white brothers to sit with Du Bois as I have done and see that he winces not. I also want my rapist’s black sisters to go to the mountaintop and be heard when they tell everyone what they have seen.

Education in the service of reparation can heal and make whole both individual persons and all of us, in our humanity. James Baldwin, who teaches so much, wrote more than fifty years ago in the closing lines to The Fire Next Time that those of us who are “relatively conscious,” white and black, can change the history of the world by ending the racial nightmare. Through our dedication to liberatory education we must continue to hold to this hope, to join Baldwin and “dare everything,” to insist, as lovers do, on consciousness raised by learning our way to freedom.