Steven Frankel is Professor of Philosophy at Xavier University (Ohio), and received his Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He and his wife Rachel, Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cincinnati, are longtime members and generous supporters of the NAS. This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of IMPERFECTIOn, the print newsletter of the National Association of Scholars.
Teaching the Humanities in the contemporary university reminds me of the old Jewish joke about a pious gentleman who visits the butcher to buy a chicken. Hoping that the meat is kosher, he asks the butcher: “How do you prepare the chickens?” The butcher responds: “We tell them in advance they’re not going to make it.”
I don’t wish to compare the defenders of liberal education to those condemned chickens; nonetheless, there are indeed solid grounds for pessimism. Nor is this simply a new or recent phenomenon. As a graduate student, I read Tocqueville’s sober, not to say pessimistic, analysis of liberal education in Democracy in America (1835). There, he describes an irresistible tendency in democracies toward equality and utility, both qualities that tend to undermine liberal education. Tocqueville predicts continual hostility toward a curriculum devoted to the classics in America, but does not succumb to despair. To the contrary, he argues that the great books can check these tendencies by displaying “an admirable art and care in details; nothing in their works seems done in haste or by chance; everything is written for connoisseurs. And the search for ideal beauty is shown constantly.” Tocqueville prepared me as a teacher in the liberal arts by tempering my expectations and focusing my efforts on the books.
Soon after I started teaching, however, I began to wonder whether Tocqueville had not been overly sanguine about the prospects of liberal education. He could not have predicted, of course, the variety of contemporary movements, many of them offshoots of historicism, which squarely targeted the liberal arts by denying the very possibility of finding wisdom in classical literature. I was taken aback by various political fashions, such as political correctness, that aim at silencing the texts in the name of acceptable opinions. It was dispiriting that many of these attacks on the liberal arts came from within the university. Even here, however, I was warned about such things from my teacher Allan Bloom. At least, I have not (yet) been taken hostage and held at gunpoint by either students or administrators.
As I approached the middle of career in academe, I began to consider the facts: the university is governed by certain proclivities which are partly the product of democracy, and which are hostile to the liberal arts. Many of the faculty are not sympathetic to classical literature and their inclination to remove it from the curriculum is supported by the students and administration. This conviction is strengthened by growing numbers of administrators and non-academic overseers who have substantial federal funding. Perhaps the fate of the condemned chickens, mentioned above, may not be so bad after all.
If the great books teach anything, they teach us to face our situation squarely, without illusions. This provides a great advantage. For one thing, the efforts at the contemporary university to teach a doctrinaire view of justice appear futile. They are, to quote James Madison, a variation on an age-old effort to give “to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”
Still, proponents of liberal education should not underestimate the challenges. Madison’s assessment about factions, for example, is qualified by an important caveat: “[a]s long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” That it is entirely possible to eliminate freedom of thought is borne out by Tocqueville, who insists that freedom of thought in America is always under duress due to the omnipotence of the majority. Even our sentiments, according to Tocqueville, tend to become homogenous because Americans are “semblable,” all possessing the same mores.
What then can be done? The National Association of Scholars has hit upon a strategy which takes these facts into consideration. The primary goal is to restore liberal education by checking the dogmatic impulses that come from within the university. They do this by enlisting the support of folks outside the university through their lucid reports and essays, which expose the illiberal programs and stultifying conformity of the contemporary university. The strategy works because universities are afraid of appearing extreme and illiberal, particularly to parents and potential donors. I know of several cases where universities have changed their course thanks to NAS reports.
Recently, for instance, universities began to adopt the seemingly innocuous program of requiring summer reading for their students. The NAS released a detailed report that exposed the program as promulgating mediocre books wholly devoted to contemporary political themes, all expressing the same opinions. Peter Wood sent copies of the report to various NAS members in universities and they were passed along quietly to the Administration. As a result, many such programs were discontinued or defunded. This example shows how the same forces in a large, diverse commercial republic that view the liberal arts with suspicion can be made into an ally to fight the illiberal tendencies of the contemporary university.
Things then are dire but not yet hopeless. Although the Humanities are everywhere imperiled, they maintain their vitality among dedicated faculty and students who can see through the fog of popular anti-intellectualism. Let us therefore hope that this present generation is not the one to eulogize those books that have sustained and will continue to sustain the life of the West, if we but give them the chance.
Photo Credit: Steven Frankel