This April, the historian Donald Kagan gave a farewell lecture on liberal education, after 44 years of service at Yale. Kagan is the author of a marvelous four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and a National Humanities Medal recipient. The New Criterion has published a revised version of the lecture. People who care about the future of liberal education should read it.
Calls for liberal education can sound hollow when institutions that profess it offer a “chaotic cafeteria” to students, rather than a curriculum informed by an account of what liberal education is and what it is for. But it is hard to give such an account. The idea of liberal education has “suffered from vagueness, confusion, and contradiction.”
Liberal education is education for freedom. For Italian humanists that meant the study of grammar, rhetoric, and “a canon of classical authors,” with a view to “public service.” Freedom “meant putting aside concern for gain . . . for the sake of higher things.” But in 18th century England, liberal education was more easygoing. The well-born and well-to-do should also be well-rounded. A gentleman’s education required no “fixed canon of authors,” and “prized sociability above . . . study.” The goal of liberal education was not “active public service” but rather acceptance into the best circles.
After the rise of the research university, liberal education consists less in mastering an existing body of knowledge than in preparing to generate new knowledge. The liberally educated person is an adherent of the scientific method, trained to contribute to or at least accept the truths that method produces. Because scientific research demands specialization, and every field produces “new knowledge and truth,” there is no strong reason to insist that every student experience a common core. The “distinction between a liberal and a professional education becomes ever more vague.”
Kagan’s capsule history shows that what we mean by liberal education depends in part on what we mean by freedom. Here is one liberal democratic possibility: if the “special character” of our society is “to encourage doubt and questioning of its own values and assumptions,” then liberal education can mean education for reflective citizenship. While American civilization, like other civilizations, depends on certain “basic values,” those values, like the ones embodied in the Declaration, are in fruitful tension with “our tradition of free critical inquiry,” which prevents “received moral and civil teachings from becoming ethnocentric complacency.”
Kagan fears, however, that another possibility has won out. Here, he channels my teacher, Allan Bloom, in Closing of the American Mind. Our love of equality and freedom, which can attach us to “natural rights” and interest us in “the historical origins of our regime,” can cause us to deny even the “special claim of reason,” let alone the special claims of received moral and civic teachings. Kagan thinks that “today’s liberal arts students come to college . . . bearing a kind of relativism.” Their unexamined belief that reason cannot judge different claims concerning the best life “extinguishes,” in Bloom’s words, “the true motive of education.” Moreover, Kagan says, it immunizes students against rational scrutiny. If no one view is better than any other, their own beliefs are “entirely valid.”
Kagan argues that what’s left of liberal education resembles the 18th century English model. Elite students are expected to become well rounded, and the function of residential colleges is otherwise to ease a student’s way into adult elite society, to teach students the “style, manner, political opinions and prejudices” that will “make them comfortable in a similarly educated society.” Liberal education is a mere “social distinction.”
What can we do? Kagan thinks that liberal education in our time needs to “include a common core of studies for all its students,” thereby affirming that “some questions are of fundamental importance to everyone.” Kagan’s core would include “the study of the literature, philosophy, and history . . . of our culture from its origins.”
Interesting students in such a core requires superb teachers. Bloom half-joked in Closing that he tried to “teach [his] students prejudices.” I think he meant that when students come to school convinced that no belief can be true, the first step is to draw them, even at the cost of exaggeration, to powerful visions of the way things are or should be, the kinds of visions articulated in Kagan’s core.
The prospects for a robust common core are in many ways poor. But they are also better than they have been in some time. Colleges today are under great pressure to prove their worth amid doubts, pressed in books like Academically Adrift, that their students are learning anything. In this atmosphere, the demands of branding and the demands of liberal education may meet.