“To restore the liberal arts, those of us who teach should begin by thinking about students. Almost all of them have serious questions about major issues, and all of them are looking for answers. What is right? What is love? What do I owe others? What do others owe me? In too many places these are not questions for examination but issues for indoctrination…
…Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, we’d rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen. But why would any student spend tens of thousands of dollars and, rather than see the world in all its aspects, instead spend his/her time being indoctrinated and immersed in the prejudices of the current culture and the opinions of his/her tendentious professors? The job of teachers is to liberate minds, not capture them”, John Agresto, “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts”, The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2015
The Suicide of the Liberal Arts
Indoctrinating students isn’t the same as teaching them. Homer and Shakespeare have much to tell us about how to think and how to live.
‘Achilles Slays Hector,’ by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1630. Photo: Art Resource
By John Agresto
I was a few minutes early for class. Father Alexander, my high-school sophomore-homeroom teacher, was standing outside the room, cigarette in his mouth, leaning on the doorjamb. “Morning, Father.”
His response was to put his arm across the door. “Agresto,” he said, “I have a question I’ve been thinking about and maybe you can help me.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Do you think a person in this day and age can be called well educated who’s never read the ‘Iliad’?” I hadn’t read the “Iliad,” and am not even sure I had heard of it. “Hmmm. Maybe, I don’t see why not. Maybe if he knows other really good stuff . . .” His response was swift. “OK, Agresto, that proves it. You’re even a bigger damn fool than I thought you were.”
I grew up in a fairly poor Brooklyn family that didn’t think that much about education. My father was a day laborer in construction—pouring cement, mostly. He thought I should work on the docks. Start by running sandwiches for the guys, he told me. Join the union. Work your way up. There’s good money on the docks. And you’ll always have a job. He had nothing against school, except that if bad times came, working the docks was safer.
I also grew up in a house almost without books. All I remember is an encyclopedia we got from coupons at the grocery store and a set of the “Book of Knowledge” from my cousin Judy. Once in a while I’d head over to the public library and borrow something—a book on tropical fish, a stamp catalog, a book by someone called Levi on pigeons. It never dawned on me to look at what else there was. Who read that stuff anyway?
So now I’m a professor and former university president who grew up without much real childhood reading until eighth grade, two or three years before the “Iliad” question. Sister Mary Gerald asked me one day if I read outside of class. I told her about the pigeon book and the stamp catalog. No, she asked, had I ever read any literature?
Whereupon she pulled out something called “Penrod and Sam,” by a guy named Booth Tarkington. She said I should read it. I did. I can’t say that “Penrod and Sam” is great literature, but it changed a small bit of my neighborhood. Penrod had a club. So my friends and I put together a club. Penrod’s club had a flag; we had a flag. Penrod would climb trees and spy on the surroundings. We had to be content with climbing on cyclone fences.
Who would have thought there was a new way of having adventures, learned from a book? A book, by the way, of things that had never happened. Something had pierced the predictable regularity of everyday street life. And that something was a work of someone’s imagination.
So I started to read, and with the appetite of a man who finally realized he was hungry. I became a reader of fairly passionate likes and dislikes. Dickens was fine, though he could have gotten to the point sooner. O. Henry, Stevenson and later Tolkien, Lewis, Swift.
Even though I thought it was in a terribly sappy poem, when Emily Dickinson said there was “no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away,” I knew she was telling the truth.
I didn’t go to the docks but wound up at the Jesuit prep school Sister Mary Gerald told my father I had to attend. Yes, fathers are nearly all-powerful in Italian-American families. But in my 1950s Brooklyn neighborhood, nuns trumped fathers.
Nonetheless, this tension between getting an education—specifically a liberal arts education—and studying something practical or simply going off to work was hardly unique to me. Yes, this “liberal education” is worth something. But so is making, doing, building and working—so is knowing other good stuff. And that tension—between the practical and productive on one hand, and the intellectual and more academic or cultural on the other—has been and still is at the heart of America’s historical ambivalence toward liberal education.
Parents often still ask, “But what exactly does one do with a major in philosophy, classics, lyric poetry, women’s studies, or the literature of oppression and rebellion?” With jobs so scarce, students ask themselves the same questions.
Still, it’s not simply the high cost of higher education, or their supposed uselessness, that has buried today’s liberal arts. More important, professors in the liberal arts have over-promised, or promised wrongly. We have these lovely phrases, like making our students “well-rounded,” that are more or less just words. Are those who study medicine or nursing not “well-rounded”? Are those who major in film studies or contemporary “lit crit” more intellectually worthy than those who study economics and finance?
Often enough over the years I’ve heard my humanities confreres say that a liberal education makes us finer people, more sensitive, more concerned, more humane, even more human. Pretentious shibboleths such as these, expressed in our egalitarian age, are an excellent way to lose one’s audience. And that’s exactly where the liberal arts are today.
Liberal arts has not been killed by parental or student philistinism, or the cupidity of today’s educational institutions whose excessive costs have made the liberal arts into an unattainable luxury. In too many ways the liberal arts have died not by murder but by suicide.
To restore the liberal arts, those of us who teach should begin by thinking about students. Almost all of them have serious questions about major issues, and all of them are looking for answers. What is right? What is love? What do I owe others? What do others owe me? In too many places these are not questions for examination but issues for indoctrination. Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, we’d rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen.
But why would any student spend tens of thousands of dollars and, rather than see the world in all its aspects, instead spend his time being indoctrinated and immersed in the prejudices of the current culture and the opinions of his tendentious professors? The job of teachers is to liberate minds, not capture them.
Reform at the university level will require brave work by deans and presidents. A hundred-course set of “distribution requirements” with minimally guided choice fosters intellectual randomness. Instead, the best faculty should put together a coherent program of core studies to introduce students to the finest books, to alternative answers to the most compelling questions, to great literature and art and pivotal historical events. Contemporary political issues of race, class and gender do not define what’s truly important. That’s the greatest fallacy of higher education today.
Second, find ways to increase interaction with departments of business, engineering, pre-med and the like. Most students will properly go on to work in various vocational, professional or technical fields. They should be offered our civilization’s best work and its broadest vision—but humanities teachers should not begin with the notion that business and law will be “improved” by the humanities. The benefits flow both ways.
Finally, a word to secondary schools and their teachers: You may be the last hope many of your students will have to think broadly and seriously about literature, science, math and history. If they don’t read Homer or Shakespeare, or marvel at the working of the universe, or read and understand the Constitution, they never will. The hope of liberal learning rests on your shoulders. Please don’t shrug.
When properly conceived and taught, the liberal arts do not by themselves make us “better people” or (God knows) more “human.” They don’t exist to make us more “liberal,” at least in the contemporary political sense. But the liberal arts can do something no less wonderful: They can open our eyes.
They show us how to look at the world and the works of civilization in serious and important and even delightful ways. They hold out the possibility that we will know better the truth about many of the most important things. They are the vehicle that carries the amazing things that mankind has made—and the memory of the horrors that mankind has perpetrated—from one age to the next. They teach us how to marvel.
I wasn’t completely wrong when I told Father Alexander that it was fine for people to know “other really good stuff.” Still, he had the better argument. Some literature, even “Penrod and Sam,” might “take us Lands away.” But some of it, perhaps the greater part of it, takes us back to ourselves.
Some of it holds up mirrors labeled “courage” or “friendship” or “smallness of soul,” to see if we can see ourselves in there. It tells stories of Lear’s daughter loving Lear, though her father is a fool. It has us walk with Virgil through the dismal rings of hell and ask at which circle Virgil might turn ’round on us, then walk away and leave us.
While books might not make us more humane, they can surely show us and lead us to examine creativity and desire, love and treachery, giddiness and joy, hope and fear, and facing death alone. They can have us ponder law and justice, the nature of innocence and causes of moral culpability, forms of government and the ordering of societies that can preserve and refine our civilization.
Literary, philosophical and historical studies may not teach us the final and absolute truth about these matters, but they can help us see the great alternatives, and the reasons the best minds have given. None of this is trivial.
I know I would have learned much by working on the Brooklyn docks. Vinnie the butcher and his brother Angel would have opened my eyes to things I’m still clueless about. The pay and job security might have been better than life in academia and government. And, yes, I might have encountered a modern-day Achilles or Hector or Agamemnon. But I think that, at least for me, it was better to meet them first in the “Iliad.”
Mr. Agresto is the former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe., N.M., and the American University of Iraq.