Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had university presidential candidates on campus. They’ve told us that one of the things we need to do is tell our story compellingly, making the contemporary case for liberal education in a traditional residential liberal arts college setting. I’ve been on something of a tear about this myself, co-leading an honors seminar on liberal education, offering a senior seminar on liberal education and political philosophy, and writing a couple of articles prompted by John Seery’s fine and fun America Goes to College. Seery, by the way, will be speaking at Berry College on March 31st and here at Oglethorpe on April 1st (no jokes please). I’m also gearing up to lead a faculty development seminar on liberal education this summer. So I’ve been thinking about how to tell our story.
In that connection, yesterday’s senior seminar was interesting. Our text was Alan Ryan’s Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education, which I find frustratingly diffuse in its argumentation. Ryan makes a distinction between liberal education as education for life in a liberal society and "liberal-education," understood as the classical education of gentlemen for leisure and leadership (what Bruce Kimball would call liberal education in the "oratorical" tradition). Ryan argues that while the latter has no necessary connection to the former (that is, traditional liberal education is just as consistent with life in a religiously-tinged aristocracy), it nevertheless is the case that some form of it--producing Benjamin Barber’s "aristocracy of everyone"--is appropriate for a pluralistic liberal society.
Here’s the argument in a nutshell. Liberal education (in Ryan’s sense) is supposed to teach "toleration, open-mindedness, and an ability to argue for [students’] own views without resorting to coercive measures," all of which are (arguably) attributes we’d like to see in our fellow citizens. This can be accomplished, it would seem, more by the manner of presenting a curriculum than by any particular curricular content. You need seminars, rather than lectures, and a relatively small collegiate community, so that students encounter one another on multiple occasions and in multiple settings, rather than being able to hide behind the anonymity of large classes and a large campus population. Seery, by the way, would probably assent to a large portion of this, adding an emphasis on the importance of understanding this community in a non-instrumental fashion and a recognition that there are also extracurricular settings in which these virtues are developed (his favorites seem to be intramural basketball teams and jazz bands).
But Ryan does offer this concession to the advocates of "liberal-education":
There is perhaps...a case for insisting that everyone should take a program of general studies focused on history, literature, philosophy, and science.... I have some doubt whether colleges and universities can do very much to instill virtues that parents have failed to instill, but it is possible that they can do something to get students to perceive the implications of the moral ideals they have acquired. It would at the very least do something to reduce the number of young people who appear to live wholly solipsistically, utterly unanchored in their own time and place.
What he seems to have in mind here is the feature of democratic life that Tocqueville called "individualism," the withdrawal of individuals into small domestic circles largely unconnected and unconcerned with the wider world around them. Our students display great cleverness, technical facility, and native intelligence. They can address or solve any task or problem we put before them, as Ross Douthat suggests was true of his fellow Harvard undergraduates. But there is no sense that they have a history, a tradition, a larger time and place to which they belong (and of which they are the unacknowledged and unself-conscious products). If they are not inducted into a tradition of compelling questions and compelling answers, if they are not helped to see the larger whole of which they are but a small part, they are only accidentally members of any particular community. Without this sort of education, they are not capable of giving what we call "informed consent" to their membership and hence they’re not really free.
So Ryan is right: "liberal-education" is particularly appropriate as a preparation for life in what he understands to be a liberal society, but there’s more. Genuine liberation, which is the intellectual result of this sort of education (when it "takes"), is possible at any time and in any place. (Consider, in this connection, Reading Lolita in Tehran.)