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[The following are responses by Brad Birzer, Robert Woods, Lou Markos and Andrew Seeley to a New York Times op-ed by David Brooks. Mr. Brooks offered a heartfelt quasi-eulogy for the liberal arts. The original essay may be found here.]

Brad Birzer liberal arts

Brad Birzer

For those of us who have been blessed to be a part of Winston Elliott’s The Imaginative Conservative community, none of this comes as a huge surprise. Not to state “we told you so,” but for three years, we’ve praised the liberal arts while also noting that their decline progresses precipitously throughout much of the mainstream West. Collectively, the readers and writers of The Imaginative Conservative could with all legitimacy, if also a bit of smugness, proclaim to the world “we told you so.”

But, who are we to claim this? At least, who are we alone to claim this?

Anyone who has studied the larger history of the West finds it hard to forget that the defining aspect of a “dark age” is the loss of liberal education. T.S. Eliot dated the beginning of our current dark age to roughly 1898.

It would be hard to argue with Eliot’s claim. At the turn of the last century, America began to embrace a public education that emphasized the nation as a whole (soon to be called 100% Americanism) over the world at large and over any subgroup or culture. Grant, perhaps more than any president before him, pushed for nationalism uber alles: in his economic policies, his savage warfare against the Indians, and in his near maniacal dislike of parochial schooling. In Europe, the German model of higher education walked tall, and American adopted the Germanic system rather than the Oxbridge model. As with almost everything, modernity dissected education into subject and professional categories, thus diminishing the whole picture of the human person. In more direct words, much of the western world embraced illiberalism, professionalization, and bureaucratization.

Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Albert Jay Nock, B.I. Bell, Christopher Dawson, C.S. Lewis, Russell Kirk, and almost every important and great figure of the last century lamented the loss of liberal education. One could legitimately claim that the entire movement of the “right” in interwar America and in much of Europe centered not only on the growth of the state, but also on the decline of liberal education.

These two things, of course, are related. For a nation-state to thrive, it needs at least three components, all in good working order, allowing the political sphere to predict with some certainty the stability of the years to come: a bureaucracy to collect taxes on a regular schedule, a police/military to collect such taxes, and an education system to convince the population that it should support the first two things.

For five hundred years, nation-states have done exceedingly well at collecting taxes and waging wars. They have, in relative terms, only very, very slowly learned how to homogenize populations with educational systems.

A proper response to Brooks might be twofold. First, by almost any measure, it is stunning that the liberal arts have survived in America as long as they have. No nation-state would ever defend liberal education, as liberal education liberates one from the concerns of this world. A liberal education would be the exact thing a nation-state and a nationalist (neocon or liberal) would hate. Liberal education connects us to the past, the present, and the future, and it asks us to join a Country (or, best, a republic of letters) that transcends the ephemeral nation and moment. Those truly liberal love what is always and everywhere true, not what is particularly true. They love love, not power.

Second, Brooks ignores the many successes of the liberal arts in the face of a culture that despises or ignores the dignity of the human person in favor of efficiency and commodification of all things (including, sadly, even conservatism).

Back to the second point. In higher education, entire schools and powerful programs within schools have done much to promote liberal education. Often, they have proven very popular and successful as well. The University of Dallas, both St. Johns, Wyoming Catholic, Thomas Aquinas College, and a few others have maintained the highest of standards. The Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul), the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and other programs have done well.

Equally important, over the last twenty years, non-public schools (in particular private classical schools and home schools) have realized, often just by osmosis, the permanent truths of liberal education.

The job of the conservative, in every era, is to decide, through the seven virtues, what needs removing, what needs reforming, and what needs to be left alone. Whatever the Harvards and Yales or the various Independent School Districts write or claim will never diminish the truths presented by Socrates, St. Augustine, or Thomas More.

Our job, as members of The Imaginative Conservative community, is to remember, proclaim, and, if need be, enshrine. The truths might not be remembered tomorrow or 20 years from now. But, at some point in the future, just as in the past, the great voices of our history will speak loudly to entire civilizations.

Socrates, Augustine, and More remain.

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by Robert M. Woods

I’d like to add a quantitative element to Brad’s keen observations. Beyond the handful of solid academic institutions still honoring the liberal arts, what about the thousands of “communities of character” living the truths of a liberal arts education? The little platoons of home school associations, Classical Christian schools, and insignificant, marginalized liberal arts colleges, all acting as loving resistance fighters by teaching the liberal arts?

Here I am reminded of the anonymous monks who toiled in obscurity and yet, proved harbingers of western civilization. Many of us have seen the bumper sticker that affirms: “If You Can Read This: Thank A Teacher.” I’ve often thought we should have a bumper sticker that states: “If the Western World Can Read At All: Thank a Medieval Monk!” It was during the “Dark Ages” that countless monks copied by hand both scripture and other ancient writings, hoping to keep these important writings alive for future generations. They believed that they owed it to God and their fellow-men to preserve the best of human culture. It was thus a small band of people with deep religious convictions and solid religious institutions who preserved literacy for the rest of us during a time of extraordinarily widespread social and cultural decline. It is them that we have to thank for our opportunity to now read some of the best books ever written. Throughout western civilization, the big questions were not hidden or ignored as they are often in our age. Traditional truth, goodness, and beauty were believed in, argued for, and lived out. One of the lasting questions that people ask is “what is the good life”? We could make the case that what much of the modern world defines as “the good life,” Ecclesiastes would declare “vanity of vanities” and the Great Tradition has proven its folly. When the term “good life” is used correctly it is descriptive of that life which is in line with and informed by “the good.” The key here though is knowing “the good.” The good news is that humane learning is alive and well; we just have to look beyond the walls where it used to be treasured.

Robert M. Woods is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Director of the Great Books Honors College at Faulkner University. He writes for Musings of a Christian Humanist.

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Louis A. Markos liberal arts

Louis A. Markos

by Louis A. Markos

I heartily agree not only with David Brooks’s article but with the responses from Brad Birzer and Robert Woods. I would only add one thing. Brooks is correct to see the decline in liberal arts majors as stemming in great part from the abandonment of the canon in so many humanities’ departments. But there is another cause for the decline that is more subtle. Even in schools that do teach the Great Books, those books are more often than not studied as artifacts rather than sources of goodness, truth, and beauty. As always, C. S. Lewis saw the problem as it was happening.

According to Screwtape’s 27th letter, the ever-wakeful propaganda departments of hell have found a way to counter the influence of even the greatest of the Great Books:

Only the learned read old books, and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View.  The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But, thanks be to Our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”

I wish I could dismiss the above paragraph as a gross exaggeration, but I cannot. Lewis is dead on in his satirical exposé of the academy. Read almost any modern scholarly critique of the classics and you will find that the issue of whether the truth claims made in the work are in fact true will never be raised. This is just as much the case when the work being considered is philosophical or theological, as when it is lyrical or dramatic. That the scholar, or those who read his work, might actually learn something from the classic under discussion (or, God forbid, modify their beliefs or actions on the basis of that learning) is not just irrelevant; it is beneath consideration.

Students pick up quickly on the attitude their professor holds to what he is teaching. Why should humanities professors be shocked that students have lost interest in the liberal arts when they themselves have ceased to believe that we can learn anything of lasting value from reading them!

Louis Markos, Professor in English & Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; he is the author of Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. LewisApologetics for the 21st Century, and From Achilles to Christ. His latest book is On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.

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by Andrew Seeley

I found this portion of David Brook’s essay moving:

Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region. The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground—imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

The reference to eulogies brings Polybius to mind. Can our nation be moved by implicit exhortations like this?  Or are the “humanities” to be the privileged province of those whose families care enough to educate them in Truth or whom Chance has brought to a teacher who cares as Weintraub did?

But Brad’s analysis rings so true—how can a nation committed to keeping its nose to the grindstone ever embrace a truly freeing education? Sixty years ago, Ma Bell experimented with the economic advantages of liberal education, but found that success meant failure:

But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

It will be up to the Christian educators—parents, independent schools and, God willing, the still prominent Catholic educational structure—to witness to the power, in time and eternity, of a truly liberating education.

Andrew Seeley is Executive Director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He is also a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in California, where his love has been teaching and learning with his fellow faculty and students from the greatest minds of Western Civilization. Get the renewal started! Invite a Catholic teacher, administrator or board member to ICLE’s Academic Retreat for Teachers!

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Birzer may be found hereEssays by Dr. Woods may be found hereEssays by Dr. Markos may be found here. Essays by Dr. Seeley may be found here.

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3 replies to this post
  1. I would add, as a practical matter, that while many kingdoms, empires, tyrannies and other illiberal forms of government have endured without citizens liberally educated, no democratic republic ever has. I do not expect this to change. If liberal education really is dead, then it is little wonder that its’ death comes at the same moment that western social, political and economic institutions crumble. The former is the lifeblood of the latter.

  2. Great observations all. As pure an amateur as I am, who continues to piece together his own sort of liberal education AFTER formal education (for that is what one must do when not blessed with the kinds of teachers whose writings appear at TIC), I am immensely grateful for the work TIC does to promote a true liberal arts, Christian humanist education.

  3. And this is why John Adams insisted on liberal education for all, “especially … the lower class.” (John Adams, “In His Own Words”, 62)

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