One More Defense of Liberal Learning

One More Defense of Liberal Learning

Universities have once again come under attack from not only those who claim that the costs outweigh the benefits, but from those who see the whole business of a university as Athens viewed Socrates: corrupting the youth and denying the gods of Objectivity, Truth, and Western Civilization. They see the university as little more than an engine of indoctrination. Countless op-eds insist that the current curriculum is impractical at best, silly and dangerous and worst. They speak of a free speech crisis on campus. They point out the pretentiousness and unintelligibility of certain articles in the humanities. They claim that all a liberal education gets us today are aggrieved and easily-offended adults who exchange reason, debate, and the cool-headed pursuit of knowledge for identity politics, shouting, and subjectivity. The humanities, in other words, are in crisis.

There have always been people who think the humanities are a waste of time. But many current critics affirm that the humanities are important. The complaint is rather that the practitioners of the humanities, the professors at the universities, have gone entirely adrift. To the critics, the situation is now bad enough to warrant blanket condemnations and even the defunding and dismantling of certain departments. 

In a useful contribution to a symposium in The Point on “bullshit,” recent Princeton graduate Whitney Sha asks: What exactly keeps the humanities—credibly charged as they are with being “frivolous, impractical, self-indulgent” and, eternally, “subjective”—grounded? “[I]f the humanities do not conform to scientific standards, what standards do they conform to? … Is it true that there is no hierarchy of expertise in the humanities at all?” Sha ultimately concludes that:

drawing the line between bullshit and work that is genuinely difficult is, at least for now, an exercise left up to the individual humanist. The fact remains that humanistic work does admit of its own kind of difficulty, which most humanists know well—and describing the nature of this difficulty is where, it seems to me, the most productive defense of the humanities can start.

A humanist can only expect so much understanding from those on the outside, or those who either have never stepped foot on a college campus or haven’t in the last twenty or so years. Imagine for a moment that car mechanics were constantly questioned and working on cars was a highly controversial practice—one that people criticized as having lost sight of what’s truly important. Mechanics would certainly turn around and say something like, “Look, I agree that there should be oversight and standards and whatnot, but most people just don’t understand what’s going on here. Most people upset about how we do things around here don’t really know how we do things around here.” The problem is near universal: If the same people who are aware of the intricacies of any given practice and are intimately familiar with its standards refuse to criticize their own practice, and refuse to take outside critics seriously, what hope to we have at progress and reform? 

But this worry is a mirage. Problems that appear to be towering and fundamental to the outsider all but disappear as one gets closer to the practice. Is it really the case that there exist clear and obvious examples of academic hegemony? I doubt it. Criticism springs from the practices themselves, almost as a natural byproduct. And if something refuses to be criticized, rest assured it is probably irrelevant. Few things, even in academia, are taken for granted the way its critics imagine. This isn’t to say that there aren’t dominant ways of thinking or generally accepted ways of doing things within any given field, but the fear that this is the case and, more, that we should be worried about it is almost always due to a hope that it wasn’t the case in the past. In other words, to fear hegemony and lack of intellectual diversity in the humanities is to assume there was at one point heterodoxy and intellectual diversity in the humanities. Perhaps there was, but almost never to the degree current critics of the humanities think. Even now, it’s often only from the perspectives of of “liberal” and “conservative” that one can see this supposed awful and unadulterated hegemony—there’s argument and conflict to be seen everywhere, once you leave the relatively unhelpful station of political-party affiliation. 

It might turn out that a more spirited defense of the university will be damning to both critics—because of their superficiality, confusion, and distance—and those more directly involved in university life; teachers, students, administrators—because they are mistaken themselves about the role and character of a university. In any event, we can certainly avail ourselves of a good amount of criticism by listening to Thomas Arnold: “no one ought to meddle with the universities, who does not know them well and love them well.” Michael Oakeshott knew the universities well and perhaps loved them even more. He was a “believer” not a “critical sceptic.” Amidst another wave of harsh attacks on the university, we would do well to remind ourselves of his thoughts on the matter of liberal education—what it is, what it isn’t, and what it ought to be.

For starters, Oakeshott thought the way we talk and think about universities was “unfortunate.” Critics and supporters both seem to premise their assaults and defenses on the same set of questions: “What is the university for? What is its mission? What is its function?” To which Oakeshott responded: 

A university is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result; it is a manner of human activity. And it would be necessary for a university to advertise itself as pursuing a particular purpose only if it were talking to people so ignorant that they had to be spoken to in baby-language, or if it were so little confident of its power to embrace those who came to it that it had to call attention to its incidental charms.

It’s difficult to pin down just what Oakeshott means by a “manner of human activity” or even how one is supposed to go about defending the university from an Oakeshottian perspective. One winces at the thought of a professor responding to questions about the curriculum relevancy from administration and parents with “Listen, it’s not a function or purpose you should be looking for, but a manner of activity.” Or, as he seems to suggest in the latter part of that quote, we address criticisms with a sanctimonious self-assurance: “Obviously you don’t know the first thing about what’s going on here so I’m just going to walk away.” Oakeshott seems to bemoan the fact that people even raise the question at all. 

One of the clearest statements of just what Oakeshott means when he talks about liberal learning is contained in the following passage:

The invitation of liberal learning … [is] the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves. 

There are a few recurring themes throughout all of Oakeshott’s writing on education. Oddly enough, as Rene Arcilla point out, almost all of those themes can be found in this small passage. Self-realization and self-cultivation stand together with something he refers to as our “cultural inheritance.” It’s easy to think of our inheritance as something like Western Civilization or simply as our culture, but this isn’t what Oakeshott has in mind. It’s much more fluid and open-ended. Rather than a box of ideas which contains static and lifeless facts, our inheritance is better understood as a “stock of emotions, beliefs, images, manners of thinking, languages, skills, practices, and manners of activity.” In other words, and perhaps more casually, our cultural inheritance is what certain people in certain places, from time to time, have said and thought about the world in which they lived. 

“A civilization,” Oakeshott says, “may be regarded as a conversation being carried on between a variety of human activities, each speaking with a voice, or in a language of its own.” One might better catch the point he’s making by describing the difference between a university education and our early years of schooling. In our early years civilization does seem to be an inert set of facts we learn about the world through rote memorization because we are told it’s important, and it is only in university that we come to explore and probe and converse with those images, meanings, and voices—of which we soon realize to be contingent and historical; not mere static facts. Our civilization, this conversation that began in “the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries” is

an historical achievement… it is contingent upon circumstances; it is miscellaneous and incoherent; it was what human beings have achieved, not by the impulsion of a final cause, but by exploiting the opportunities of fortune and by means of their own efforts… It does not deliver to us a clear and unambiguous message… It has been put together not by designers but by men who knew only dimly what they did.

Defenders of something called Western Civilization are defending an all too convenient abstraction, something they invent out of the “incoherent” and “miscellaneous” mess that is our inheritance. Oakeshott was in the rare position of valuing civilization, our past, those old racist white men and their old racist white ideas, while noting that this collection of “voices” doesn’t have any necessary authority over our lives; it was a contingent, historical, but not unimportant happening. As many moderates have been saying: saying something is a social construction or merely contingent is not itself a criticism. Oakeshott would undoubtedly agree.

And what of self-cultivation and self-understanding? The connection is clear. It is only through conversing with this inheritance that we come to know ourselves and the world in which we live. For Oakeshott, the supreme advantage bestowed upon us by a liberal education is “the advantage of being able to converse with oneself,” and that starts by learning to converse with those who came before. We inhabit a world of meanings always in need of interpretation and exploration. A liberal education is our induction into this world and the manner in which we conduct that interpretation and exploration. The only way to become human—the most important thing there is for us to do—is to learn, to enter into this “common human inheritance.” As Oakeshott is always so fond of saying, this manner of engagement is more like a conversation than an argument. 

At times Oakeshott’s views on liberal education seem not only old-fashioned, but elitist. Indeed, there are moments when Oakeshott’s bitterness and elitism are on full display. If Oakeshott walked this tenuous and uneasy line it’s because he sees a dangerous tendency in universities toward the practical and instrumental; the ever-present urge to bend to the whims and demands of the real world or to be relevant—another recurring theme throughout all of these debates. The outside world for Oakeshott was a “lunatic productivist society,” in which the only thing we learn is “how to be a more efficient cog in the social machine.” Our time at the university shouldn’t be about prepping one for adulthood or for a job or for the real world. University is, as one of Oakeshott’s most beautiful lines suggests, “the gift of the interval.”

Here was an opportunity to put aside the hot allegiances of youth without the necessity of acquiring new loyalties to take their place. Here was an interval in which a man might refuse to commit himself. Here was a break in the tyrannical course of irreparable events; a period in which to look round upon the world without the sense of an enemy at one’s back or the insistent pressure to make up one’s mind; a moment in which one was relieved of the necessity of “coming to terms with oneself” or of entering the fiercely trivial partisan struggles of the world outside; a moment in which to taste the mystery without the necessity of at once seeking a solution.

Defenders and critics of the humanities both believe some sort of version of the “knowledge is power” doctrine. From one side, call them the defenders of western civilization, knowledge is equated with objectivity, the cool pursuit of facts and reason; from the other, knowledge is an instruction guide, humanistically taught, of how to recognize, expose, criticize, tear down, and dismantle power structures. The humanities, either way, are an aid in this quest. 

This is the sort of overtly practical attitude that Oakeshott loathed. But then we might reasonably ask: is a liberal education a paradox? What’s the point if, strictly speaking, we aren’t getting anything out of it? Perhaps it’s not entirely paradoxical. If the value of a liberal education is found in self-cultivation and self-realization through conversation with our inheritance, then the result is nothing less than self-transformation and self-understanding. “Nobody could go down from such a university unmarked,” Oakeshott nervously admits. The only practical purpose, we might offer with some hesitation, is some knowledge about how to lead a better life.

Intellectually, he may be supposed to have acquired some knowledge, and, more important, a certain discipline of mind, a grasp of consequences,, a greater command over his own powers. He will know, perhaps, that it is not good enough to have a “point of view,” that what we need is thoughts …He will not go down in a possession of an armory of arguments to prove the truth of what he believes, but he will have acquired something that puts him beyond the reach of the intellectual hooligan, and whatever has been the subject of his study he may be expected to be able to look for some meaning in the things that have greatly moved mankind … In short, this period at a university may not have equipped him very effectively to earn a living, but he will have learned something to help him lead a more significant life. 

Both sides hope that a humanities education, a liberal education, will offer students an “armory of arguments” for whatever worldview they already take to be the best, be it the pursuit of reason and objectivity or the dismantling of power and the rooting out of oppression. Both, I’m afraid, are mistaken. It’s something far more important.  

Featured image is Clare Hall and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, from the Banks of the River Cam by J. M. W. Turner.