Are the Liberal Arts Liberal?

Ian Betteridge’s “law of headlines” states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no,” and my headline does not differ. As a firm proponent of the Liberal Arts, with over a decade of experience of higher education experience in the field, I am baffled as to how anyone could pose the question let alone argue the point. The Liberal Arts are the very essence of Classical Education, and Classical Education is the foundation of Conservatism. Because positing a truth is not enough, an in-depth analysis is necessary to make the point.

A traditional understanding of the “Liberal Arts,” known as a “Classical Education,” is defined as either one of two things: first, it is the study of Ancient Greek and Latin language and texts; or second, it is the study of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, music, and geometry). The “Great Books” programs consist of both: they combine the Greek and Roman classics with Medieval and Modern Classics to form a canon that spans history. Often, “Liberal Arts” takes a more modern approach and is just a mixture of courses that span the fields of art, history, literature, math, philosophy, science, and theology.

To summarize, the “Liberal Arts” are a study of knowledge itself, with no discipline ignored or left behind. The field represents the the truth in its most complete sense and, as such, is constantly being fought over because those who control the truth can control the people.

In a piece titled “How Austerity Killed the Humanities,” Andrew Hartman claims, “Yet all sides in these culture wars believed a humanities education—history, literature, languages, philosophy—was inherently important in a democratic society. In short, the humanities were taken for granted. In our current age of austerity, this is no longer the case. Many Americans no longer think the humanities worthy of public support. This is especially true of conservatives, who in their quest to cut off state support to higher education have abandoned the humanities entirely.”

The evidence? Governor Scott Walker decreased funding for public schools and Governor Rick Scott wanted tuition to be increased. This symbolized “anti-intellectualism” with a “strong animus against the idea that learning about humanity is a worthy pursuit regardless of its lack of obvious labor market applicability.”

A similar article for Salon by Katie Billotte declared in its title “Conservatives Killed the Liberal Arts” before arguing, “They have done so through a combination of decreasing access to education and demonizing academic culture and academics. Make no mistake about it: The death of the humanities is an ideologically motivated murder, more like a massacre.”

She goes on to claim, “This war on the liberal arts is born from the same desire that produces voter ID laws: a desire to limit democratic participation. The goal of a liberal arts education was never primarily direct economic benefit for the recipient or even the sort of personal/spiritual development about which many like to wax lyrically. The purpose of a liberal arts education was always meant to be a political education… Thus, history, rhetoric and literature were seen as the skills a citizen needed for his job: governing. This was just like metal working was the skill required of a blacksmith for his profession. This is why 19th century reformers eager to expand political participation concentrated so much attention on expanding access to the liberal arts.”

At first glance, it is odd, with the Liberal Arts’s focus on citizenship and tradition that Conservatives are being blamed. However, it is easiest to mislead when your arguments appear sound. By saying what was the Liberal Arts, then arguing that the current “Liberal Arts” are under assault, it is easy to claim that Conservatives killed the Liberal Arts. However, the current corpse is an impostor that should have never existed.

Allan Bloom, in his seminal work The Closing of the American Mind, argued that the march of relativism and deconstructionism led to the destruction of the Liberal Arts. Instead of creating citizens with a strong background in their cultural heritage, higher education became a tool to challenge the social establishment. Morals and ethics were replaced by ideas cloaked in terms of freedom and progress. To Bloom, “The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration. Although it is foolish to believe that book learning is anything like the whole of education, it is always necessary, particularly in ages when there is a poverty of living examples of the possible high human types” (21).

At the heart of his book, Bloom points out how the lack of reading leads to the disappearance of the individual’s quest for knowledge: “The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency–the belief that the here and now is all there is. The only way to counteract this tendency is to intervene most vigorously in the education of those few who come to the university with a strong urge for un je ne sais quoi, who fear that they may fail to discover it, and that the cultivation of their mind is required for the success of their quest…. Teachers of writing in state universities, among the noblest and most despised laborers in the academy, have told me that they cannot teach writing to students who do not read, and that it is practically impossible to get them to read, let alone like it. This is where high schools have failed most, filled with teachers who are products of the sixties and reflecting the pallor of university-level humanities. The old teachers who loved Shakespeare or Austen or Donne, and whose only reward for teaching was the perpetuation of their taste, have all but disappeared” (65).

Why did reading disappear? There were many causes, but one was the assault on what were traditionally considered essentials of the Western Canon. Radical politics led to a purging of studies that forever scarred the field: “The latest enemy of the vitality of classic text is feminism. The struggle against elitism and racism in the sixties and seventies had little direct effect on students’ relations to books. The democratization of the universities helped dismantle its structure and caused it to lose its focus… So activism has been directed against the content of books. The latest translations of Biblical text… suppresses gender references to God, so that future generations will not have to grapple with the fact that God was once a sexist. But this technique has only limited applicability. Another tactic is to expunge the most offensive authors–for example, Rousseau–from the education of the young or to include feminist responses in college courses, pointing out the distorting prejudices, and using the books only as evidence of the misunderstanding of woman’s nature and the history of injustice to it” (65-66).

Even with a radical alteration of the Western canon, it is still possible that individuals were able to read and thus develop their soul and consciousness. However, the increase of relativism imposed to destroy the traditional hierarchical sources of power (the “patriarchy,” the “church,” the “rich,” the “conservative”) made it impossible for individuals to ever truly develop a system of virtue grounded in tradition: “Liberation from the heroic means that they have no resources whatsoever against conformity to the current ‘role models.’ They are constantly thinking of themselves in terms of fixed standards that they did not make. Instead of being overwhelmed by Cyrus, Theseus, Moses or Romulus, they unconsciously act out the roles of the doctors, lawyers, businessmen or TV personalities around them. One can only pity young people without admirations they can respect or avow, who are artificially restrained from the enthusiasm for great virtue” (66-67).

Bloom goes further into the ramifications of moral relativism imposed as a means to support political radicalism, and he shows how some conservative viewpoints contributed to the problem: “In encouraging this deformity, democratic relativism joins a branch of conservatism that is impressed by the dangerous political consequences of idealism. These conservatives want young people to know that this tawdry old world cannot respond to their demands for perfection… To attempt to suppress this most natural of all inclinations because of possible abuses is, almost literally, to throw out the baby with the bath. Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are. We need to criticize false understandings of Utopia, but the easy way out provided by realism is deadly. As it now stands, students have power images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing” (67).

The Conservatives afraid of an idealistic population because of how it can spur radical movements (Beats, Hippies, etc.) were quick to support any system that destroyed ideals. Unfortunately, that same minority failed to realize how ideals were essential to conservative thought and grounded in tradition. By disassociating morality and ideals with tradition, they only further the Liberal desire to completely redefine the Liberal Arts. Thus, the fearful Conservatives create a system that ignores tradition and traditional morality, thus leading to what they fear most.

Bloom then describes his own experience of trying to understand the moral compass of his students: “Who do you think is evil? To this one there is an immediate response: Hitler. (Stalin is hardly mentioned.) After him, who else?… They have no idea of evil; they doubt its existence. Hitler is just another abstraction, an item to fill up an empty category. Although they live in a world in which the most terrible deeds are being performed and they see brutal crime in the streets, they turn aside. Perhaps they believe that evil deeds are performed by person who, if they got the proper therapy, would not do them again–that there are evil deeds, not evil people. There is no Inferno in this comedy. Thus, the most common student view lacks an awareness of the depths as well as the heights, and hence lacks gravity” (67).

By ignore the Great Books and the Western Canon, students are unable to understand their cultural traditions, understand American morality, or how to think for themselves. Thus, the academics are able to substitute their own thoughts and plans. History is replaced by anti-colonialist thought. Economics is replaced by vague notions of Socialism. Art is replaced by deconstructed nonsense that cares more about offending than embracing the sublime. Politics is replaced by radical political correctness. At no time is the student able to recognize these changes; they were denied their cultural heritage that would make the disconnect more obvious.

We, as Conservatives, are the champions of history and tradition. Conservatism implies that we are cautious in adopting new things, and we avoid the traps of change for change’s sake. We are tradition focused because we recognize there is plenty of good to be found in our heritage.

The myth being expounded now is that the Liberal Arts are Liberal and Conservatives are trying to destroy it. By blaming us, pundits gain either an attack against their enemy or secured funding for their programs of indoctrination. Neither will develop the soul of the citizen or preserve the essence of American liberty.

Joseph Epstein, in an article for The Weekly Standard titled “Who Killed the Liberal Arts,” followed in Bloom’s path: “Universities had long before opened themselves up to teaching books and entire subjects that had no real place in higher education. Take journalism schools. Everyone who has ever worked on a newspaper knows that what one learns in four years in journalism school can be acquired in less than two months working on a newspaper… Then there is the business school, especially in its MBA version. Business schools are not about education at all, but about so-called networking and establishing, for future employers, a credential demonstrating that one will do anything to work for them—even give up two years of income and pay high tuition fees for an MBA to do so.”

He then describes how the liberal academic spell the end of the Liberal Arts: “Soon, the guys in the next room, in their hunger for relevance and their penchant for self-indulgence, began teaching books for reasons external to their intrinsic beauty or importance, and attempted to explain history before discovering what actually happened. They politicized psychology and sociology, and allowed African-American studies an even higher standing than Greek and Roman classics. They decided that the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture. They put popular culture on the same intellectual footing as high culture (Conrad or graphic novels, three hours credit either way). And, finally, they determined that race, gender, and social class were at the heart of all humanities and most social science subjects. With that finishing touch, the game was up for the liberal arts.”

Should we continue to promote or fund the public schools that support the “Liberal Arts” but have no clue about the term? No, no one should in their right mind ever attempt to defend such a debasement of education. Instead, we should devote our efforts to promote the real proponents of Liberal Arts. Locally in Maryland, we have St. John’s College, of which I was fortunate to graduate.

There are Great Books programs at Gutenberg College (OR), Hillsdale College (MI), and Shimer College (IL). Also, there are many Catholic and Protestant colleges that promote the Great Books as essential to understanding faith, such as: Grove City College (PA), Thomas More College (NH), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and programs at St. Mary’s College (CA) and University of Dallas (TX). Beyond the college level, there are many home school programs and private schools that embrace the Classical Education and promote the Liberal Arts. They are great programs that place more importance on tradition than political and cultural fads.

You can also further your own studies of the Great Books and the Western Canon. All of the works are available in the Public Domain and are free to access. Many Conservative groups and Conservative writers, such as myself, incorporate these traditional works into our writing to show that Conservatism is grounded in a beautiful intellectual tradition.

Conservatives are the proponents of truth and of tradition. Our tradition is rich and intellectual, and our greatest defense is to promote our heritage with like-minded individuals. Those who attack Conservatives will condemn us as ignorant and anti-intellectual because they want to undermine what makes our society so great.

Whether you are a business professional or a blue collar worker, studying these works strengthens your relationship with your community and informs all aspects of your decisions. By studying the great minds, you can never lose out.

* Bloom, Allan. Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007

By Jeffrey Peters, Political consultant based in Annapolis, MD 
and a resident of Manchester, MD.
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