Why We Need the Liberal Arts | Eastern North Carolina Now

John Agresto’s new book reminds us of an essential truth.

    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of The James G. Martin Center. The author of this post is Wilfred McClay.

    John Agresto's splendid new book, The Death of Learning, is not nearly as depressing as its title might lead one to expect. On the contrary, it is an exhilarating read and, in the end, I find it to be hopeful. There is something refreshing about hearing the truth being told plainly, even when that truth is dismal and the diagnosis dire. At least you know what's wrong.

    And there is something clarifying in the book's utter frankness about all the things that have gone wrong, all that has been debased and lost, and the bitter irony that so much of the worst damage has been brought about by liberal education's putative high priests and exemplars.

    On the positive side, one cannot help but be moved by the book's directness and clarity in advocating for what is precious and irreplaceable about such an education, and why we need to recover it. Although he has had extensive experience as a college and university president, Agresto does not concern himself with the minutiae of academic administration, digital learning, tutti quanti. Instead, he spends his time thinking about the highest aims of education, how we have fallen short of them, and how we can see them restored. Bravo to that.

    Equally refreshing is a certain common-sense touch that runs through the book. Agresto is a learned man but also a thoroughgoing American democrat, born into a working-class immigrant family from Brooklyn, which did not place a high premium on reading and education. He had to acquire his learning by hard labor, a process that has left him immune to the snobbery and preciousness that sometimes undermine defenses of the liberal arts.

    It also has made him deaf to the specious argument that an education in the Great Books is only for the leisured elite class. There is an irrepressible directness that bespeaks a lifetime of reflection and a genuine love of books. "When we see a natural style," declared Blaise Pascal, writing in the latter part of the 17th century, "we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man." So, too, with The Death of Learning: We expect an educator, and we get a mensch.


    One of the things Agresto tries to clarify for us is the simple question of what is meant by "liberal education." It's something we too often get wrong. Instructing people in the liberal arts is not just a matter of imparting certain analytical techniques, even if universities do a good 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. The liberal arts 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 the qualities of mind and heart and spirit that are necessary for the exercise of freedom, in the fullest sense of that word. 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 self-rule: of rational self-government as a regimen of risks and rewards, an intellectual and moral freedom grounded in a healthy balance of reverence and criticism.

    It is an education that releases us from the unquestioned tutelage of our past-or as Agresto puts it, an education that aims "to raise us up from the world of simple belief," frees our minds and imaginations from "what 'everybody' believes" (including ourselves), and directs us to think for ourselves, free from ourselves.

    Such education can free us from the weight of our ascriptive status-race, sex, ethnicity, whatever marks we come into life bearing-and empower us to scrutinize each and every one of the world's givens, doing so in a way that enables us to draw sustenance from the past rather than making us choose between being imprisoned by it or alienated from it. That is what it means to experience the past as a heritage, an inheritance, something passed to us by others, but which we are required to make our own if it is to be a living thing.


    The best university, the one that teaches the liberal arts, is the one that does all of these things at the same time. The proper end of liberal education 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.

    Hence, our heritage is also what constitutes our life's task. It gives our world its defining contours, its horizons, and its specific problems and possibilities. But only if we know it and make it our own.

    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 as something inert and finished-thereby making it possible for us to have a free and full relationship with that heritage, like that of children who have fully grown up, 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 the freedom of liberal education is not a matter of throwing off the past and renouncing the conditions of our natality. We may still think of education as a bildungsroman, or narrative journey, 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.

    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, as well as more fully able to enhance it, beautify it, ennoble it, and sustain it.

    We learn to see the world with an attitude of wonder-the property of mind with which Aristotle tells us all philosophy begins and the cultivation of which Agresto sees as a chief goal of liberal education. "To discover what makes us human," he says, "is the highest and most philosophical aspect of wondering."


    But Agresto does not always have his head in the clouds. He also is attentive to the ways in which liberal education, when it is functioning successfully, is the foundation of democratic citizenship. It offers the formation of a particular kind of person, a particular kind of citizen, who is equipped for the truth-seeking deliberation and responsible action a republican form of government requires.

    Such a person has the 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.

    Hence Plato's great allegorical image of liberation, "The Allegory of the Cave," 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.

    The obsession with our identity is just such a cave. So are the wounds and prejudices of our childhood, the sirens of propaganda, and the enchantments of virtual experience, all of which we need to be liberated from before we can accomplish anything worthwhile.

    "This," writes Agresto, "is the great promise of liberal education-that thoughts and ideas and insights, far from being bound to this time or that place, can transcend time and place and can go from the dead to living teachers and their students." There is a kind of knowledge that soars far above the many caves of time and space, and the way one comes to that knowledge is not by liquidating the past, not by disdaining it and pulling down all its statues, but by working through it, especially by means of the study of old books-books that have come to have a life far beyond the lifespan of their authors.

    These books continue to speak, often in startlingly fresh ways, as the years pass. As T.S. Eliot said in "Little Gidding", "The communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." What Eliot describes is what happens again and again in a classroom where the liberal arts are being taught.

    The past is alive and gives us, the living, both wisdom and freedom-and wonder, if we know how to make use of it. John Agresto's book is a sustained tribute to that ideal of education. He deserves our thanks for having written it.

    Wilfred McClay is Professor of History at Hillsdale College.

With the Midterm Elections less than one week away: What do you consider the top issues that you will be voting on to be corrected by your better representation?
  Big Government getting Bigger
  Biden /Democrat controlled Spike in Energy Cost
  Inflation created by Legislation of Majority in Power
  Gender Reassignment
  Corrupted Bureaucratic /Service (DOJ, FBI, etc.) Institutions
  Discredited Legacy Media
  Ending the Corruption of Dishonest Politicians
  Corruptive Influence of Social Media
  Wide Open Southern Border
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