The term “liberal” is one everyone is looking to claim as his own. Scrambling for advantage in some grand linguistic ruck, there are the classical-liberals, the neo-liberals, and, of course, the American liberals. In the United States, as Swarthmore students well know, “liberal” indicates political leftism, marching upward from the French Revolution and onward from FDR, to Johnson, and, now, President Obama. However, the “liberal” in liberal arts education has no resemblance to some hazy political dogma. At least, it shouldn’t.
I say this at the same time that many folks in conservative circles are sounding the “higher education bubble” alarm. Watching tuition missile four times faster than inflation, the fiscally prudent warn that college investment returns are stagnant, at best. I’ll agree that government needs to be disinvited from the student loan party. I’ll agree that many students really are happier and better served through vocational training, on-the-job experience, or professional school. Nonetheless, I’m a student who yawps about the merits of a good, old-fashioned liberal arts education. Maybe liberal arts are a consumer good. Certainly they are a gift. Furthermore, I suspect that the fruits of a liberal arts education are, interestingly, conservative in nature.
Last night I sat down and read Russell Kirk’s, “Decadence and Renewal in Education.” Kirk, along with William F. Buckley and T.S. Eliot, put modern conservatism on the map (of course, that map was burnt and beguiled in the aftermath of WWII) . Kirk writes that higher learning is the quest for academic curiosity, personhood, and the soul. This, I believe, is the crux of the liberal arts. If colleges and universities abandon these principles, they may be churning out decadent degrees and, perhaps, even good students. But they are not conserving the dignity that underlies the great human pursuits. We may joke that the unyielding question, “What does it mean to be human?” stutters on, semester after semester, like a broken record. But the question of essential humanity has been relevant long before and long after those now antique record players occupied coffee tables.
Kirk, I suspect, would be mostly happy with the Swarthmore credo. Say what you want about Swat, but we definitely resist careerism. If Swarthmore receded into the Crum woods tomorrow, the economy would chug along, or at least not proceed any slower than its present state. Even so, this concept of conserving the liberal arts, or, as I think of it, “the art of conserving” serves a usefulness more profound than dollars and cents (even when, as Ron Paul informs me, those dollars are backed by gold). The liberal arts fashions graduates with leadership, patience, insight and wisdom.
Bertrand Russell once proclaimed, “I have never called myself an intellectual, and nobody has ever dared to call me one in my presence.” I wonder then, what are we to call ourselves at Swarthmore? Intellectuals? Those pseudo-academics Woody Allen build a career out of mocking? What I do know is that we cannot act as some eerie Politburo of knowledge, nor can we entirely negate the past. Swarthmore may technically be a “closed” campus, yet what we learn—good or bad—spills on into Pennsylvania and the world. Aware of our task as leaders and thinkers, we cannot be complacent with a smattering of postmodern syllabi that focus less on constructing human history and more on dismantling it. Yes religion, policy, philosophy, gender theory, sociology, and literature are vast bodies that call out for dissection. As a lackluster science student, probing a poem or political treatise is the type of lab experiment I live for. Close-reading, scrutiny, discomfort, and doubt are all stepping stones of a thoroughly liberal education. And along this academic adventure, we must conserve the philosophical biggies: the soul, grace, morality, the good life. We should dive deeply into our studies, but not lose ourselves in analytical obscurity. This, I think, is Kirk’s imperative and the command of a liberal, free-thinking education.
Undoubtedly, there are those at Swarthmore who do not share my zeal for libertarian economics, Ronald Reagan, or sweater vests. But surely we can raise a common toast in the name of academic truth-seeking. Civilizations of old are not perfect, but when they are not models of truth, at least they are models of man. We can shrug the tablets of old in some Nietzschean frenzy, yet just because there is rarely anything new under the sun doesn’t mean we ought to curse the sky.
Progressivism, or the historical seed of progressivism that sprung up at the turn of the last century, hitches its hopes on progress. Progressives idealistically march forward, whether chasing “Change we can believe in” or some other bright new dawn. Yes, I consume current events. Yes, I orient myself in the present, for no other reason than because refreshing my Drudge Report tab is a handy procrastination method. What I really crave, though, isn’t all that new. Or maybe liberal learning is like a used car—new to me. The great books don’t have a clean, leathery aroma, but they’re functional and good if you know what you’re shopping for.
The late Allan Bloom, in his watershed 1980’s bestseller The Closing of the American Mind mourned the loss of his charmingly provincial American students before the 1960’s shakeup. Unlike their peers in Britain and France, American college freshmen were rather obtuse, rather unaware. American kids hadn’t yet encountered Shakespeare or Kant, and, hence, were an unsullied audience. Europeans made their peace with Plato’s dark cave. The American college cohort had never heard the world framed in such terms and were eager to stumble or grope their way into the sunlight.
As Bloom remarks, “The old was new for these American students, and in that they were right, for every important old insight is perennially fresh.” I raise a toast to what is freshly old and anciently fresh. I hope to situate myself in the grand, ongoing scheme of the liberal arts. That’s a definition of liberalism all Swarthmore students can embrace.