THR Web Features   /   October 23, 2014

“What is Liberal Education For?”: A Conference Postmortem

B.D. McClay

Charles Dickens at a reading, Charles A. Barry (1867).

The liberal education conference has now come and gone. My own panel went well (Inside Higher Ed has a brief write-up here), though I think I left with the same question I had going in, namely: Are there any truthful instrumental arguments to be made for liberal education?

Inevitably, an event like this involves some preaching to the choir. When asked if he considered any arguments against liberal education worth taking seriously, for instance, Andrew Delbanco said: “No.” Well, that's a problem. Even if it were true—and I'm not sure it is—it plays well only in an audience full of people who have set aside three or four days to go to a liberal education conference. And in the repeated declarations that liberal education is every positive superlative—the most useful, and so on—the meaning of the term begins to become a little obscured.

This is why instrumental arguments continue to interest me. If I stand up and say, for instance, that no true instrumental arguments exist, and the Vice President of St. John’s College tells Inside Higher Ed that I am wrong (as she did), it’s clear that despite going through basically the same motions and reading the same materials in the same structured program of study, she and I have emerged with very different conceptions of what we’re doing and probably are talking about very different things.

In other words, if you’ve assembled the choir, it might be good to focus on the internal philosophical disagreements that are coming into play. There was never, so far as I could tell, a panel that meant to address head-on what a liberal education was at all. But someone who has a Straussian perspective on liberal education will disagree with someone who has a Catholic perspective, even if both of them are willing to quote Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University. The programs at St. John's College and Thomas Aquinas College are in many ways identical, but do the schools consider themselves to be doing the same thing?

Even within a single institution, people are going to disagree. To continue talking about what I know—St. John's—that college has always been home to certain fundamental debates about what liberal education is, and what the college is doing or aiming to do. These disagreements range from everything about the methodology of the school to the place of the natural sciences to why we read books at all. Are books necessary? Do the particular books read at St. John's matter?

In a 2011 lecture titled "Two Ideas of Liberal Education," St. John's College tutor Daniel Harrell discussed this last difference, looking at the arguments of Scott Buchanan, the first dean of St. John's College, and Jacob Klein, its third. While Klein viewed the books as foundational to the project of liberal education, Buchanan did not. For Klein, liberal education was not about self-cultivation but rather about entering into something greater than oneself. Thus the careful reading of great books was an essential part of this way of learning. But for Buchanan, it was almost the opposite:

We encounter [Buchanan thought] great books not as artifacts of thought to be studied, but rather as models of thought to be imitated. And the point of imitating them is not to clarify our minds, but rather to cultivate them. So the curriculum, under this idea, is where the reading of great books is only one exercise, even if the central exercise, among the many that develop the intellect. The study of language would have a place, as would the activity of conversation. But these would now, in a sense, be for their own sake, or at least for the sake of the intellect’s self-assertion, and perhaps its self-knowledge, in coming to know that it is indeed always free and never asleep. Or to put the contrast of this second idea with the first idea one final way: the curriculum as a whole would exist as if to help us write great books as best we can, read them as we will....

We might say that the college, in this case, is like a great book itself, which under one idea can be contemplated as if it were already written and ready to be read, yet under the other idea can be contemplated as if the writing were still to be done. We might well ask under which of these ideas our college is best understood.

As the situation at St. John's began to stabilize, Buchanan eventually tired of the institution and left. In later interviews, he expressed disappointment that the college had not continued to re-invent itself. This discontent continues at St. John's today, though radical re-invention is, of course, unlikely. But there are certainly people for whom reading, and the books read, are more arbitrary than essential.

This disagreement is healthy.  More importantly, these are necessary arguments to have. It would be very dangerous to presume that, in thinking about the future of an institution, people share the same goals and opinions. When we discuss how to argue for liberal education, these kinds of basic disagreements will change much of what we say.

It's not necessary for everybody to agree to act. And the conference was, certainly, a good idea. I attended several panels and at every one of them, I heard something worth my time. But my main impression from the conference was this: It's no good thinking about what liberal education is for unless we can say what it is.

B. D. McClay is the associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.