Why We Need Liberal Arts Education

Our publisher Plough’s tagline is “another life is possible.” We genuinely hope that readers of this book walk away with the conviction that liberal arts education remains possible today despite the many threats arrayed against it.

We all know that the news coming out of educational institutions in America is pretty dire. Every month another college like West Virginia University is slashing humanities and science programs and shifting toward narrow professional credentialing. Every month another small liberal arts college—like King’s College right here in New York City—announces drastic reductions or even closes. I was laid off from my tenured faculty job at one of those small liberal arts colleges just as this book project was getting under way.

So we’re not ignoring these realities. But we hope nonetheless to convince readers that a liberal arts education remains not only desperately needed but also as accessible and viable today as it has ever been. All you need is a mentor, some friends, and a few good books.

I’m deeply grateful for traditional educational institutions like the one where I work. Despite the economic and cultural pressures that pull them in many directions, they create invaluable opportunities for liberating education. And many of them do recognize the treasures found in the traditions they steward and seek to form their students to excel in the liberating arts. My own institution, Grove City College, is doubling down on its core curriculum and actually expanding its sequence of humanities courses.

Yet such formation often happens these days along the margins of large institutions. If, to borrow, Chad Wellmon’s distinction, The University is an institution and a business, it is a business that nonetheless hosts members of The Academy, which is “for all who love knowledge, seek the truth, and are committed to the communities that sustain these desires.” The Academy is present wherever students linger over dinner in the dining hall debating a point of contention raised in class that afternoon. The Academy is present wherever students track down a mentor and engage in honest, rigorous discussion. The Academy is present wherever students and faculty gather for leisurely conversation about a poem, which happened just this past week on my campus. The Academy is present wherever a teenager picks up a copy of Plato from a library shelf—or even from a garbage can in a Queens neighborhood—and sits down to read it.

Davey Henreckson describes one manifestation of The Academy at his former college when a group of faculty and students read through Marilynne Robinson’s novels and then took a road trip to hear her speak. As Davey reflects on this experience, he suggests “that the freewheeling book discussions, in which my faculty colleagues and I often disagreed about aspects of the novels, invited the students into a space where they saw how friends could share common objects of love and argue about them simultaneously.” Students were invited to taste and see how free people might pursue questions of ultimate concern with their friends.

As many traditional institutions of learning have strayed from this basic mission, new models are cropping up to meet the enduring human longing to seek the truth alongside others. Zena Hitz’s Catherine Project can’t keep up with the demand for opportunities to read good books in the company of a mentor and some other committed students. Programs like the Clemente Course in the Humanities or the Odyssey Project testify to the desire for such formation among people who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t have the opportunity to enroll in a traditional liberal arts college.

The Lyceum Project hosts local talks and conversations in a growing number of American cities, and many local libraries or historical societies organize similar events. Even in a digital culture awash in streaming videos and endless amusement, small magazines like Plough or The Point or Local Culture or Comment find readers who hunger for slow, substantive engagement with perennial human questions.

When we look at the systemic social and economic and political and material challenges to liberal arts education, its prospects can seem grim. But working on this book project gave me opportunities to discover and learn from people doing vital work among the shadows, and it is their faithful, liberating work that sustains hope. They are making do along the margins of our frenetic, bottom-line-driven society. They are making time for leisure rather than amusement by seriously pursuing ultimate questions about how we ought to order our lives and our loves. And, crucially, they are inviting others into these activities.

For the ultimate measure of a person who has become adept at the liberal arts is that they proceed to liberate others. Such generous lives are the fruit of the slow, mundane labor that frees people from ideology and distraction and superficiality and frees them to pursue a good life. Such people develop the imagination and character and skills necessary to recognize the wounds in their communities and then set to work healing these wounds.

There are no shortcuts or easy fixes to accomplish this ongoing work. This is the long game, and it’s the only one worth playing. May this book and the conversations it sparks bless all of those who are faithfully, patiently laboring in The Academy. And may the liberating arts flourish anew in our generation.

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