An illiberal education

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.