Debate about liberal education has long been central to the culture wars. Most of us are familiar (perhaps wearily familiar) with the main points of disagreement. Should colleges and universities to teach truth, merely sponsor the search for truth, or proclaim truth a delusion? Is it possible or desirable to identify a canon of “great books,” and what should it contain? Is it possible or desirable to practice neutrality among cultures, or neutrality among a chosen set of cultures? What (if any) restrictions on academic freedom are justifiable? To what (if any) religious or ethical standards may the opinions and behavior of students or faculty be held?
While the belligerents have been slinging heated tracts at one another, their mutual enemies have quietly gained possession of the field. Traditionalists and postmodernists alike generally agree that liberal education should be liberal (i.e. worth doing for it’s own sake), but the contemporary university is increasingly ordered toward creating and credentialing efficient producers for the market and effective managers for the state. Furthermore, the humanities, the most distinctively liberal disciplines, have well-earned reputations as refuges of indolence and fraud. Though our disagreements are far from trivial, all of us seriously concerned with liberal education should collaborate to promote its autonomy and rigor.
Let us begin with a notion glamorized (though not invented) during the Renaissance: Man (i.e. humankind) is worth studying. Man in all his aspects, but especially insofar as he appears to be distinctive, that is to say insofar as he is a cultural being, one who applies, historical, religious, philosophical, and ethical categories to his own experience and activity.
If that is granted, we must ask whether there are any disciplines universally fundamental to the intelligent, responsible, and productive study of human culture. I believe there are at least two such disciplines—language and history.
All committed humanists must study language, broadly construed to include semiotics in general, but with natural languages as the indispensable core. Culturally speaking, man lives by signs alone, so semiotics stands in much the same relationship to the diverse branches of the humanities that mathematics does to all departments of engineering. The humanities, especially at the undergraduate level, can increase their respectability and rigor by mandating, whatever the specific field of study, high competence in several natural languages and mastery of the fundamentals of syntax, semantics, and the general theory of signs.
Only slightly less important than language is history, which the great historian John Lukacs defines with lapidary exactness, as the “remembered past.” Through the study of the remembered past (which illuminates and is illuminated by study of the languages by which it is transmitted) humanists learn how human beings construe their experience; the categories, values, connections, and problems perceived in the natural and social world that condition human thought and action.
Except where a humanist’s specialty obviously requires a different emphasis, there are good reasons for Americans strongly to prefer the history of America and Europe. People are, generally speaking, best equipped to interpret and analyze the historical materials of their own culture. Still, it is not of decisive importance whose history is studied, so long as the habit of historical thinking is firmly ingrained. We obviously cannot agree on the proper content of a shared deposit of historical knowledge, but perhaps we can agree that an educated public should be acutely aware of the value of detailed understanding of history and eager to remedy historical ignorance. Furthermore, although there is little hope of consensus on any important aspect of history, the practice of scrutinizing and comparing the methods and materials used by different historians should create common criteria for identifying honest and intelligent interpretation.
The subjects generally classed among the humanities are usually studied most profitably when approached with the skill-set given by study of language, and are certainly seen most comprehensively within the context of history. For, in various historical circumstances and using various special modes of expression, man has asked and ventured answers to certain fundamental questions, “What is the world like, what has happened so far, and what should we do now?” and thence came philosophy (including the natural and formal sciences), religion, economics, poetry, etc.
The approach I have suggested would improve the general quality and reputation of liberal learning and, since studying language and history develop fungible skills, provide many other benefits. There’s even something in it for the utilitarians, since, as David Goldman of First Things once argued, one of the United States’ most troublesome liabilities in international relations is poor intelligence. For this, Goldman suggests, we must blame a culture that produces proportionately few people with significant knowledge of foreign languages and folkways. American colleges and universities are culturally powerful institutions. If the policies and ethos of the academy demanded, even at the undergraduate level, significant knowledge of foreign languages and the habit of historical thinking (which implies the habit of cultural analysis), the United States would have a much larger pool of qualified candidates for work in diplomacy and intelligence.