[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on July 8, 2013.]
One wishes Roger Kimball would tell us how he really feels. “The gassy, mephitic, overinflated travesty that is the higher education establishment cannot go on forever,” writes Mr. Kimball, “Therefore it won’t.” This, from a recent edition of New Criterion, in which Mr. Kimball surmises that elite liberal arts colleges no longer make a constructive contribution to our American heritage, instead offering students a four-year exercise in politically correct hysteria and intellectual conformity. “What Harold Rosenberg called ‘the herd of independent minds,’” writes Kimball, “has huddled together in bovine complacency, mooing ankle-deep in its own effluvia, safe within its gated enclosure.”
Kimball is not the first critic to have noted the effluvial nature of American higher education (though he is perhaps the wittiest). Entire rainforests in South America find themselves in danger because of the enormous spate of books and articles being published on the woes of higher education. Another of the most perceptive critics is Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, whose “Ave atque vale” is the article immediately following Kimball’s in this edition of New Criterion. The article, which is a revised version of Kagan’s farewell address delivered at Yale’s Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, traces the history of liberal arts education from the Romans up until the present day. I found it instructive enough that I’m publishing a summary of the article, along with a few thoughts in response to Kimball and Kagan.
A Brief History of the Liberal Arts
From the beginning, Kagan notes, liberal arts proponents aspired to four goals. The first was the pursuit of a contemplative life, the kind that “Aristotle thought was the greatest happiness.” The second was the shaping of the character, style, and taste of a person. The third was preparation for a useful career in the world. The fourth was “to contribute to the individual citizen’s freedom in ancient society.” Because society was divided into the free and servant classes, free men and women had the responsibility to know the world in general rather than merely knowing their own particular slice of it (p. 4). Thus from their inception the liberal arts offered an exercise in the shaping of the whole person for the sake of society. Although emphases varied, the liberal arts existed mostly for these purposes until fairly recently in history.
The Romans and the Middle Ages
For the Romans, a liberal education included a rigorous course of study in literature, history, philosophy, and rhetoric” (p. 4). Combining the Roman inheritance with a Judeo-Christian worldview, the medieval universities likewise offered studies in these subjects and in fact bequeathed to us the seven liberal arts which were divided into the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Aristotle was en vogue and, therefore, the medievals focused on logic and dialectic over the arts. Significantly, they were metaphysical and epistemological realists and as such held forth hope that the diligent scholar could attain “some semblance of knowledge.” (p. 5) Finally, the liberal arts education was expected to train students for specific professional careers.
The Renaissance witnessed a return to those same ideas and values. Christians placed emphasis on returning to the sources (ad fontes) themselves–study of the original languages of the Bible–not just reliance upon the church fathers. In this case, a liberal education included study of grammar and rhetoric, as well as study of the classical authors (e.g. Cicero), writing poetry, history, politics, and moral philosophy. As Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier made clear, a Renaissance man was one well versed in language, literature, history, and skilled in athletics, military affairs, music, and grounded in a good moral character. The liberal arts were the soil in which free and virtuous men flourished for the benefit of the society. The curriculum itself was suited to this goal.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century England
In eighteenth century England, however, liberal arts education existed more for proper social status than for useful social service. “It was not an education meant to prepare its recipients for a career or some specific function but an education for gentlemen,” Kagan writes. “The goal was to produce a well-rounded man who would feel comfortable and be accepted in the best circles of society and so get on in the world” (p. 6). A trail of correspondence exists in which fathers wrote their sons encouraging them not to study too hard lest they become socially awkward.
Nineteenth century England saw yet another shift in the liberal arts. England had endured long years of war with France, and had experienced a revival in religion that eschewed the easy-going way of the eighteenth century. Liberal arts educators took steps to fill positions “on the basis of competence instead of connections. The response of the university faculties was to revive a medieval device that had fallen into disuse–competitive examinations” (p. 6). Hard teaching and learning ensued. A defined curriculum arose. Some commissions investigating Oxford and Cambridge in the 1850s declared, “It is the sole business of the University to train the powers of the mind” (p. 7). And yet others protested that the liberal arts must also shape the whole person, not just train their intellect or prepare them for useful careers. Hence a tension remained in which some argued for the (civic) utility of the liberal arts and others for the pursuit of the liberal arts as an end in itself.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Germany
Things changed again, however, because of the influence of German universities, which served as “a great tidal wave from across the channel.” For in Germany academics began to overthrow the unifying principle of liberal arts up to this point: that knowledge existed already, it was outside oneself, and there was “little thought of discovering anything true that had not previously been known” (p. 7). German universities took the opposite tack. “At its core was the German idea of academic freedom, a freedom to investigate new questions and old in new ways, with a bold willingness to challenge accepted opinion . . . Originality and discovery became the prime values” (pp. 7–8). The university was now thought of as a place of dynamic thought, generating new knowledge rather than repeating ancient truths.
Under the new paradigm, specialization reigned and generalists fell out of favor. In addition, Judeo-Christian morality fell out of favor. Instead of an agreed-upon base of knowledge that could be learned in order to shape one’s character, now research “would provide a new basis for morality” (p. 8).
Kagan’s Diagnosis of the Liberal Arts Today
Kagan provides this historical survey as his basis for making some evaluations of the state of twenty-first century American liberal arts education. Kagan argues that today’s American liberal arts education parallels eighteenth century England’s. “ I submit that in America today the most important social distinction, one almost as significant as the old one between gentle and simple, is whether one has a college education” (p. 9). Liberal arts diplomas offer one a certain social status. Kagan supports his point with the claim that successful applicants and then graduates of the “better” (and thus more expensive) liberal arts institutions are most likely to marry a person with the preferred social status, and to achieve the best positions and promotion in their careers. Liberal arts education, especially at the highest levels (i.e. Ivy League), is as much about who one knows as it is what or how one knows. This education is secular and, rather than inculcating virtue, lends to its students a sort of production-line nihilism. Theirs is a world bereft of God, truth, and meaning.
Liberal arts colleges, in Kagan’s view, rarely cultivate in their students an inquisitive desire to know truth except, in the occasional “hard science” course. But our colleges’ greatest failure, Kagan thinks “is their failure to enhance the students’ understanding of their role as free citizens of a free society and the responsibilities it entails” (p. 10). This country’s Judeo-Christian moral tradition initially shaped our country, but is in sharp decline, and is not being replaced by a different one but by no tradition. He writes, “I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness, as though not only the students but also the world was born yesterday . . .” (p. 10). These tradition-less graduates possess no compass by which to make informed moral judgments. “They [students] are inclined to see other people’s values as mere prejudices, one no better than another, while viewing their own as entirely valid, for they see themselves as autonomous entities entitled to be free from interference by society and from obligation to it” (pp. 10-11). For Kagan, as for me, this is a sad state of affairs.
Kagan’s prescription is one of retrieval, in which “liberation can only come from a return to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past” (p. 11). We must create a common core of studies for all students in a given institution and at the same time affirm that some questions are fundamentally important for all students to ask. He proposes a core of literature, history, and philosophy that would ground students in a world that is different from their own proclivities or biases, namely the world of the past. The goal for such a core would be to show students how others have sought to live well for the benefit of society. Moreover, students would learn that “freedom is essential to the good and happy life of human beings but that freedom cannot exist without good laws and respect for them” (p. 11). Renewal is possible via ressourcement.
Two Cheers for Kagan
Kagan is one of the more perceptive critics of American higher education, and he is right that we are in trouble. He joins a chorus of other scholars and critics. George Marsden has shown how the once-pervasive influence of Christian theology on college campuses has virtually disappeared.” Allan Bloom famously argued that the American university has become a superficial self-esteem factory which specializes in self-affirmation rather than self-examination. James Piereson recently argued that education is now a “bottom-line” industry in which many colleges and universities, “have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives…” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveal how our colleges are producing graduates who read, write, and learn poorly. David Dockery warns that special interest groups threaten to hijack Christian education as they want us to conform on matters such as sexual identity and sexual freedom. In short, America’s culminating educational institution, the university, is characterized by a rejection of the Christian worldview upon which it was once founded, a disappearance of serious dialogue about the perennially “big” questions in life, a diminishing of essential skills such as reading and writing, and a capitulation to special interest groups and bottom-line financial interests.
Kagan is correct also that a renewal of American higher education will include ressourcement of the Western tradition and a retrieval of metaphysical and epistemological realism. And yet we must go beyond Kagan’s prescriptions to also ask, “How can Christians help to redirect the field of education towards its true end in Christ?” Christians are aware that public education often is framed by an Enlightenment worldview which removes “God” from the process. It provides alternatives to the biblical narrative, narratives which teach that human salvation comes through science and technology, or that human security and happiness come through consumerism and the economy. In opposition to these narratives, Christians follow a model of “faith seeking understanding,” allowing a Christian view of the world to frame our teaching and learning, and to provide fruitful avenues for research. “The purpose of Christian education,” writes T. S. Eliot, “would not be merely to make men and women pious Christians….A Christian education must primarily teach people to be able to think in Christian categories.” Therefore, Christian educators and learners must put in the hard work to discern exactly how their Christian beliefs should shape a particular field of learning. They should discern God’s creational design for that field, assess the current condition of that field, and then find ways to contribute to the field faithfully.
There was a day when Kimball’s and Kagan’s descriptions of elite American colleges did not apply. The founders of Harvard College published a pamphlet in 1643, containing their mission statement: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” Like Harvard’s founders, we affirm that Jesus Christ is the foundation of all learning. As Lesslie Newbigin put it, Christ is the clue to understanding the universe, and our ability to grasp deeply the implications of this insight determines the extent to which we can renew the liberal arts project.
 Roger Kimball, “Notes and Comments” in New Criterion (June 2013), 1-3.
 Ibid., 4-12.
 George Marsden, The Soul of the American University, ???
 James Piereson, “What’s wrong with our universities?” in The New Criterion 30:1 (September 2011), 17-25.
 Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press).
 Dockery, Renewing Minds, 2.
 T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1940), 22.
 “New England’s First Fruits,” quoted in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans (New York: American Book, 1938), 702.