On an Illiberal Education

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A Wall Street Journal editorial (April 20) commented on Reed College’s capitulation to student “bullies,” as it called them: “This (campus protest)) is about blocking the study of core texts of Western civilization. That Reed would agree to this, and, especially under political pressure, is an insult to the meaning of a liberal arts degree.”

The situation recalls Allan Bloom, Walter Berns, and others leaving Cornell in the 1960s for much the same reasons – administration/faculty fecklessness, intolerant students.

In universities today, a student can find more classes in Buddhism, Islam, or African tribal culture than he can find courses on Plato, Cicero, St. Paul, or Boethius – let alone Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine. It is not just that classic and Christian texts have a central place in a “liberal” education. No liberal education is possible without them.

The tired objection that the classical writers are not men of “color” implies the very illiberal principle that only men of one color can understand men of the same color. On these premises, all men are evidently not created equal. They are created so differently that they cannot understand each other.

In effect, we can talk to no one but our color-mates. The corollary of this view is that men of color, because of their color, cannot understand the classical writers. The classical writers, because of their color, supposedly had no clue about what the men of other colors were talking about.

Today’s protesting undergraduate students, even with a semester or two of classics classes, have really read little themselves either of the classics or of the philosophic literature of other lands.

Likewise, if a white man cannot understand a man of color, men of various other hues – yellow, brown, red – cannot understand each other either. The great intellectual enterprise of knowing what man is – and is about – collapses at the bar of color, which determines what we can think.


I was once in Kenya where I came across a paper that maintained that Plato and Aristotle were really Africans, or, at least, that they pirated their knowledge from African sources. If somehow it were proved that Plato and Aristotle were in fact Africans (like Augustine), would we stop reading them? Hardly. Logically, if Plato and Aristotle were themselves men of color, it would follow, on this hypothesis, that the Greeks back home could not understand them on account of their color.

The word “liberal” in “liberal education” refers the habits and self-discipline necessary to control our passions and prejudices in such a way that we can see the truth of something when we examine it. Of course, if our color – white, black, yellow, red – leads us to conclude that no truth can be found anywhere, then we are “free” to do whatever we want, whatever our color. But if we can do whatever we want, we do not need much of an education except a Machiavellian one that teaches us how to live among scoundrels.

Josef Pieper, in his many discussions about leisure, was bold enough to tell us that education for utility or pleasure, worthy occupations, was not what a liberal education was about. Newman made the same point in The Idea of a University. They both touched the perplexing question of whether everyone can handle a liberal education.

The protests at Reed sound more like the complaints of those who do not understand what it is all about. If we turn to Chinese or Indian culture, it becomes quickly evident that the intellectual classes, for better or worse, often separate themselves from the great mass of their citizens.

The American notion that anyone can be learned in any area, that everyone has a “right” to a doctoral degree or two, does not correspond to the reality. Some basic things everyone can and should know. But a liberal society will have places, once called universities, where the learned can spend their whole lives on issues well beyond the comprehension of most others. It is part of the common good that such scholars also exist and flourish. They are, we hope, also liberally educated specialists.

An illiberal education seems to be the kind of education that most graduates of most colleges, including now Reed, receive. And a “liberal” education does not mean merely reading the classic authors. The classic authors often contradict themselves. We must, then, have also an education that recognizes that we can know the truth of things.

We read Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, because they deal with truths necessary to become human beings who understand what our existence is for, whatever be our color or era. We can choose not to know what is, but it is not a virtue. It is indeed an illiberal education that closes us off from what we are. When we choose not to know, we end up, not surprisingly, not knowing.

*Image: The Seven Liberal Arts by Giovanni di Ser Giovanni (a.k.a., Lo Scheggia), c. 1460 [National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona]

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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