By Forrest Nabors, May 25, 2011 in Uncategorized
Perhaps like other junior faculty on this blog, I believe I am beginning to understand the general characteristics peculiar to this generation of undergraduate students. One rather shocking characteristic, which is not their fault, is that they don’t really understand the purpose of the education they are in my classroom to receive, and for which they have committed an enormous investment. So, to set the proper tone for a new term, I have discovered the usefulness of beginning most of my courses with an opening lecture and discussion on the liberal arts. I have done this so many times now, that their answers to my questions have become predictable, which has helped me refine my lines of questioning and lecturing.
Often I begin by asking them why they chose to take liberal arts courses like mine. Or sometimes I begin by flatly asking them, Why are you here? – and then I wait, to let the question’s ambiguity disturb them. When discussion gets going, usually, none of them can give an intellectually defensible explanation for the purpose of the liberal arts. Invariably, at least one of them confidently emphasizes some form of the word ‘diversity’ in his or her answer, beyond which, no further explanation is deemed necessary. We might view this answer with sympathy, since colleges and universities bombard students with the message that ‘diversity’ in the abstract is an unquestioned good end in itself. Naturally, students have trouble reasoning beyond diversity to identify what further good end diversity serves. I try to guide our discussion to an answer that helps them understand what the ultimate aim of my course is, what I expect of them, and what the priceless benefit of this kind of education is.
Why then is it good for students to take a smattering of French, sociology, math and so on? I remind my students that this kind of education was once reserved for the ruling classes in Europe. Queen Elizabeth I was a fairly accomplished classicist. So I challenge them to tell me what the relation is between an education in subjects like this and ruling. Pressing the point, I have asked them, for example, what advantage Queen Elizabeth’s mastery of ancient Greek gave to her nation in fighting the sea battle against the Spanish Armada. Should she have studied naval science instead?
Students can understand the value of skills transferable to ‘the race of life’ beyond formal studies, and can be easily lured into justifying education on these grounds. When they take this bait, I try to show them that if the point of education is to help students acquire white collar workforce-ready skills, they ought not to take liberal arts subjects, and might even be advised to commence working while attending night school. It’s far cheaper and takes less time away from gaining career experience and upwardly advancing. In fact, one does not need a liberal arts education to become fantastically successful at making money. Drawing from my life in business, I sometimes try to sketch a practical career plan for them on the spot. If this is possible, why incur the expense in time and money to gain a liberal arts education? What is stopping you? And I really am serious. Why waste time with a fuddy-duddy teacher like me who reveres the boring books you must read in my course, when you could already be making your way up the economic ladder?
My lesson teaches them that liberal arts education is not an intellectual smorgasbord for the sake of the smorgasbord, diversity for the sake of diversity. Omnivorous knowledge-feeding is indeed pleasant, and the highest pleasure according to Socrates and his friends in the Republic. But it is not for pleasure’s sake that the United States attempted to diffuse and ought to diffuse liberal education among the people. I explain that liberal arts education is endued with a political purpose – to boost students’ capacity for making good use of their liberty, in their dual roles as free individuals and as co-sovereign, co-ruling citizens.
In a monarchy, the people are subjects, not co-rulers. The goal of popular education in that kind of political regime is obedience, which is easy to teach and learn (sometimes I refer to Machiavelli's recitation of Borgia's ill-use of Remirro de Orco - an efficient method of teaching and learning obedience indeed). But in a republic, wherein all are co-sovereign and free, each needs to learn how to rule himself and to participate in ruling over their political society.
I tell my students, the purpose of some kinds of education is to impart skills in certain activities. The purpose of liberal arts education is to change you, to expand your soul. Skills are external things that are added to your person; a liberal arts education changes your person.
A republic needs liberal arts education because it needs citizens who can independently form intelligent, high-minded judgments. They must cultivate their minds, exercise their reason, and learn to trust in the operations of their reason with confidence. Like a monarch, they collectively preside over the court of highest appeal. Beyond themselves, there is no higher authority, and so they must strive to think and act like a sovereign authority. An American college instructor serves the function that the royal tutor served in the monarchies of the old world.
I often tell my students that the reason I amplify and criticize both sides of debates we examine, and do my best to conceal my partisan views, is to force them to exercise and improve their powers of judgment. That result is more important to me than that they parrot my opinions on contemporary political matters. Many issues hotly debated today will pass away tomorrow, and new, unforeseen political questions will inevitably arise. My goal is to assist their intellectual growth so that they reason like good rulers. We college instructors best serve the republic, I believe, if this end prominently guides our conduct. Then, when our former students later face new questions in their personal lives or in the life of the nation, they will be better prepared to distinguish the just from the unjust, the noble from the base, make better choices and live better lives. Then they will not only enjoy their liberty but will also prove that they and their country eminently deserve it.