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liberal education and politics tempestEverything is Political

Just as I began my college teaching career thirty years ago, the whole academy seemed to have accepted as axiomatic the assertion that “Everything is Political.” This self-evident universal truth (curiously, my relativistic colleagues have quite a few absolutes) came to be uttered frequently in response to complaints from a few recalcitrant professors who objected when other professors used their scholarly publications and their courses to promote their political views. The argument was that, since everything is political, all scholarship and all teaching inevitably promote political views. Those who pretended to be objective and apolitical in their writing and teaching were implicitly and unconsciously supporting a conservative position. It is preferable (the argument concludes) to make the political assumptions of one’s courses explicit, allowing the students to consider consciously the ultimate political consequences of the materials on which the professor has chosen to focus. Because this argument makes some sense, it deserves to be considered seriously, but if we think about it in the context of liberal education it becomes incoherent, as I hope to show.

In the early days of my time at Grand Valley State University, a proposal for a new general education core curriculum explicitly adopted the political assumption as one of its basic principles. The proposal spoke of “the inevitably political dimension of culture—the senses in which any cultural expression is also an expression of power relationships based on race, class, gender, religion, and nationality.” This is a dangerous half-truth which should not be adopted as the core idea of a core curriculum. As David Bromwich puts it at the beginning of his excellent book Politics by Other Means, “Politics is not education; the means make a difference to the end.”[1]

During that curricular debate, I felt some sympathy with the statement that everything is political. The political arena, after all, is a context that affects everything within a polity, including education. For that reason, political philosophy has long held an honored position in the academy. In fact, Aristotle calls politics “the master science.” However, when he says this he is considering education from a strictly practical point of view, for the science of politics, he says, “determines which sciences ought to exist in states, what kind of sciences each group of citizens must learn, and what degree of proficiency each must attain.”[2] When we deliberate about our curriculum, what we are doing is political in this way, for we are deciding what sciences (or disciplines) students should learn. Although Aristotle calls politics the master science in this sense, it would never have entered his mind to focus an educational program on current political issues. If politicians must determine the place of the other disciplines in the state, I believe he would agree, they must know those other disciplines in themselves, not merely as manifestations of power relations.

Similarly, Plato, in the Republic, sees the whole educational process leading toward just governance. Only the best philosophers will rule in his republic. But this does not mean for him that political issues are given pride of place in the fundamental course of studies his future Guardians pursue. On the contrary, the preparation for becoming wise rulers is an education in mathematics, music, and the rest of the liberal arts, culminating in the study of philosophy, dialectic. There is no course in politics. Thus in the views of these formative thinkers there is a double vision: Though politics will rule over the educational process, and though one of the highest aims of the educational process is to form wise politicians, particular political views are not included in the course of studies, and political philosophy itself is subordinated to other philosophical subjects—primarily to ethics. Professors today should try to hold these two thoughts in their minds at the same time: everything is political, but politics is not everything.

It is precisely because politics is an art which encompasses all others in practical life, that political issues of the moment must be distanced from a liberal education. In other words, wise rulers will be ones who have studied the academic disciplines in a relatively disinterested way (in an “academic” way), so that when they practice the art of politics they will be guided by a principled, philosophical understanding of human beings and their world, not by the hot doctrines of the moment.

An exaggerated emphasis on politics in the curriculum and in the classroom causes academic disciplines to cease functioning as they should. As the word implies, a “discipline” trains us to think in certain ways and with a certain control. Our disciplines may narrow our field of vision, but they also clarify our insights. They help keep us from making wild, unsubstantiated generalizations about our material. The disciplines try (with some success) to make our thinking more precise, reasonable, and objective. (I realize that the word “objective” will bring a sneer to the lips of some of my leftist colleagues, but that is just a mindless prejudice of their own.) It is a mistake to design courses and curricula to focus on political assumptions as the ultimate meaning of all academic inquiry. Our approach should remain liberal in the educational sense, the free search of the mind for truths about ourselves and the world.

The Liberal Arts

I derive this definition partly from Mark Van Doren’s fine book Liberal Education.[3] There he writes that Liberal Education is education in the liberal arts which are the thinking arts, as opposed to practical arts (such as engineering, farming, or carpentry) or the fine arts (such as music, sculpture, and dance). The medieval universities, following ancient tradition, designated seven liberal arts in two groups. The trivium (the three language arts) included grammar, rhetoric and logic. The quadrivium (the four mathematical arts) comprised mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. Today we have many more disciplines in the university, but all of them still make use of symbolic systems to study and represent the world. And the two fundamental symbolic systems in use are still language (the primary intellectual tool of the humanities and some of the social sciences) and mathematics (the prime intellectual tool of the sciences and some of the social sciences). We acknowledge the importance of students’ facility with these symbolic systems when we require (as nearly all universities do) that all students achieve a certain degree of competence in writing and mathematics as prerequisites to most other liberal arts courses.

In the medieval universities it was of course Latin grammar and rhetoric that were studied, but today the vernacular language, English, is the primary linguistic tool at use in the American university. Therefore, those of us who teach in English departments have an essential responsibility for helping students develop their ability to use English well in all their studies and endeavors. For a long time the collective belief in our field has been that the best way to do that is to introduce the students to the greatest writers—to what the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” (and of course the list of these fine works is not fixed forever but grows and changes as new thinkers emerge and older ones who were neglected are discovered). Arnold claimed that in studying those great works we are “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits. . . .”[4] The purpose of a liberal education is just this attempt to rethink important questions about the world and humanity and to do so in a “liberal” (meaning “free”) manner—releasing, as Arnold says, “fresh and free thought.” Liberal education is liberating to the mind.

A liberal education is free in the sense that it is free of practical goals. We study our language and our literature or biology and chemistry and psychology just because it is a human instinct to do so, and because it is enjoyable to do so. As Aristotle said at the beginning of the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.” We practice the liberal arts and seek a liberal education because we are driven by our very nature to do so. Even Cardinal Newman, when writing about the proper role of a liberal education in a Catholic university, says that a liberal education does not serve the purpose of producing morally upright people: it makes, he says, “not the Christian but the gentleman”—by which he means someone who has developed a “philosophical habit of mind.”[5] Our students do not take away knowledge and skills that have immediate applicability in the practical world. [In fact, I promise my students in the Honors College that they will never learn anything useful in my course.] Nevertheless, we know that people who possess the thinking, speaking, and writing abilities that are fostered in our courses are able to analyze problems and discover solutions in any practical circumstance and will therefore become leaders in all fields. But the profound usefulness of a liberal education is attained, paradoxically, by not aiming at utility. And this paradox is easily forgotten by well-intentioned people who want to use liberal education to make good citizens. They become what Prof. Bromwich calls “the new fundamentalists.”[6]

A Case Study

mirandaI would like to give an example of the kind of politicized teaching that has come to dominate literature courses. I was teaching Shakespeare’s Tempest recently, and I found that a significant group of students wanted to discuss the play in the context of post-colonial theory. It is perfectly legitimate to think of colonizing as one of the themes of the play: It has long been recognized that the name Caliban is an annagram of “cannibal,” and that Shakespeare had read Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals,” in which he argues that the native people of the New World are in some ways superior to their European conquerors. Shakespeare presents Caliban, the native of the island who has been enslaved by Prospero, in a somewhat sympathetic light, especially when he rhapsodizes about the noises of the isle, “Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” Caliban claims with some justice, “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,” accusing Prospero of having taken it from him. Still, there are some problems with the post-colonial interpretation of my students.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the students were not interested in other themes in the play: the post-colonial interpretation did not leave room for them. Why did they have such a narrow view of such a richly varied work? It turned out that they had taken World Literature (a subject that has largely displaced English Literature in our curriculum) from one of two professors who like to present Shakespeare’s play as an example of an early colonial text and to read it alongside a play by a Francophone writer from Martinique, Aimé Césaire. In his play, called A Tempest, Césaire presents Prospero explicitly as a colonial ruler who has enslaved a mulatto named Ariel and a black named Caliban. I found that my students had more-or-less been taught to read Césaire’s approach back into Shakespeare’s play, as if the modern writer had revealed the true (and only) meaning of the earlier drama.

This overlay is quite reductive, drastically simplifying one’s reading of The Tempest. There are problems with the approach: Sycorax was not exactly a native of the island but was banished there from Algiers. Caliban claims to have been “king” of the island, but he and Ariel were its sole occupants before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, who come not as colonizers but as people who have had everything taken from them and have been set adrift in a boat to die. At the end of the play, the Italians all leave, with no intent of claiming, controlling, or colonizing the island, which appears to have no commercial potential.

True, Prospero does treat Caliban as a slave. However, he says that he did not initially enslave Caliban, and the latter confirms it: “When thou cam’st first, / Thou strok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give me / Water with berries in’t; and teach me how / To name the bigger light, and how the less, / That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee. . .” What occasioned the change in their relationship? Prospero says angrily, “I . . . lodged thee / In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate / The honor of my child.” One of my students who had not been in one of the World Lit. classes pointed this out, argung that it was fairly reasonable for Prospero to excercise strict control over someone who had tried to rape his daughter. The novices of post-colonial theory were ready for this: one suggested that to “violate the honor” of a woman might not mean rape and then went on to describe a scenario in which Miranda was teaching Caliban and began to fall in love with him but then drew back from those feelings because of the prejudice she had learned from her father and accused him (falsely) of rape. In response, another student pointed out that Caliban himself confirms that it was attempted rape when he responds, “O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done! / Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans.” This textual evidence still had no effect on the post-colonialist students: one of them suggested that both Miranda and Caliban were mentally colonized by Prospero in such a way that they both imagined there had been an attempted rape. At this point, there isn’t much a teacher can do. These students had been so thoroughly indoctrinated, their own minds had been so completely colonized by my post-colonialist colleagues, that the textual evidence simply did not matter.

I did say one thing that took them aback a bit. I asked what would happen if a feminist critic had overheard this discussion. Would she not accuse the post-colonial theorists of “blaming the victim” when they suggested that Miranda brought Caliban’s behavior on herself by expressing romantic feelings for him? Here is one other problem with the politicized theories: they tend to contradict each other, as when Somalian feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited as commencement speaker by Brandeis University, where, apparently being pro-Islam trumps being pro-woman.

The problem is not so much including discussions of political issues in literature classes as inhibiting free discussion of such issues by making it clear there is only one correct answer on this multiple-choice test.

This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. David Bromwich, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), ix.

2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), 4. (1094a)

3. Mark Van Doren, Liberal Education (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959).

4. Matthew Arnold, Preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869), in Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 190.

5. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (New York: Holt, 1960), 91.

6. Bromwich, 3-52.

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1 reply to this post
  1. For some reason, in reading this essay, I am prompted to consider how the good old Marxist idea of “the internal contradictions” of Progressivism will inevitably lead to conflict between the classes of Progressivist faction, and to their self-destruction by their own hands.
    In a century of their Long March, the Progressives have achieved many of their goals, and must now pay the price of that victory. As they exhaust their previous victims, they will, or already have begun, to prey on each other. Besides breeding themselves out of existence by their hatred for children, they are cannibalizing their own.
    Meanwhile, those who have not forgotten the lessons of the Gods of the Copybook Headings wait, and smilingly bide their time.
    Lying in his mausoleum in London, he is now known to his neighbors as “Whirligig Karl”.

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