Academics are telling students that our traditions are oppressive. In fact, it’s the academics we should be worried about.
When the flower children and anti-war activists of the 1960s came to power in the universities, they did not overthrow the idea of liberal arts education. In a great many cases, they proclaimed themselves true partisans of liberal arts ideals. True, many influential representatives of that generation believe that universities should be producing left- wing social activists, with more than a few eager to transform university education into a species of vocational training for aspiring ACLU lawyers, Planned Parenthood volunteers, and Barack H. Obama-style “community organizers.” There are even colleges and universities that offer academic credit for social activism. Others, however, resist the idea that learning should be instrumentalized in this way. They profess allegiance to the traditional (or, in any event, traditional-sounding) idea that the point of liberal education is to enrich and liberate the student. That is what is supposed to be “liberal” about liberal arts learning—that it conveys the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that carry with them a certain profound form of freedom.
However traditional this may sound, there is nevertheless an unbridgeable chasm between the idea of liberal arts education as classically conceived, and the conception sponsored and promoted by some (though, mercifully, not all) in authority in the academy today. Many academic humanists and social scientists propose liberation as the goal of liberal arts learning, to be sure. But the question is, liberation from what?
In their conception (what I shall call the revi- sionist conception), it is liberation from traditional social constraints and norms of morality—from the beliefs, principles, and structures by which earlier generations had been taught to govern their conduct for the sake of personal virtue and the common good. Why do they regard this form of “liberation” as desir- able? Because it has become a matter of dogma that the traditional norms and structures are irrational— vestiges of superstition and phobia that impede the free development of personalities by restricting people’s capacities to act on their desires.
In this dogmatic context, the purpose of liberal arts learning is to undermine whatever is left of the old norms and structures. To accomplish the task, teaching, and scholarship are meant either (1) to expose the texts and traditions once regarded as the intellectual treasures of our civilization—the Bible, Plato, Dante, Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Locke, Gibbon, the authors of The Federalist, etc.—as mere works of propaganda on behalf of unjust (racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, etc.) social orders, or yet more insidiously (2) to show how the old texts and traditions can be “reappropriated” and used as tools to subvert the modern forms of social injustice.
And beyond this, liberal arts learning is meant to enable students to become truly “authentic” individuals—people who are true to themselves. But what is the “self” to which the authentic person is true? For those in the grip of the new liberationist ideology, to be true to one’s self is to act on one’s desires. Indeed people are defined by their desires. Authenticity consists in doing what you really want to do, in defiance, if necessary, of expectations based on putatively outmoded moral ideas and social norms.
ACCORDING TO THIS conception, whatever impedes you from doing what you truly want to do (unless, that is, what you want to do is in violation of some norm of political correctness) is a mere hang-up—something that holds you back from being the person you truly are. Such impediments, be they religious convictions, moral ideals, or what have you, are to be transcended for the sake of the free and full development of your personality. The essence of liberation is transcending such hang-ups, for example, by “coming out” as a homosexual, trans- vestite, polyamorist, or as a member of some other “sexual minority,” and acting on sexual desires that might have been “repressed” as a result of religious and moral convictions.
Nowhere is this clearer than in freshman orien- tation programs that feature compulsory events calculated to undermine any lingering traditional beliefs about sexual morality. These events are advertised by university officials as efforts to dis- courage date rape, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, bullying, and so forth. Because they are designed precisely to establish and reinforce campus orthodoxies, however, they are invariably exercises in liberationist propaganda. Dissenting views, such as the view that sodomy and promiscuity are immoral and affronts to human dignity, are never aired. The manifest point is to send the clearest pos- sible message to students who may dissent from the liberationist orthodoxy that they are outsiders who had better conform or keep their mouths shut.
A young friend of mine who attended prestigious Williams College tells a story that could be told by students and recent alumni of similar institutions from Bates to Pomona. Shortly after arriving at the college, the new students were divided into small groups to discuss campus life. Each group was led by an official moderator. Attendance was manditory. The moderator informed the students that it was important for each of them to understand sympa- thetically what it was like to come out as “gay.” The presupposition, of course, was that a person who experiences strong or dominant homosexual incli- nations or desires must come out as “gay” in order to be true to himself. No alternative view was pre- sented, despite the fact that belief in sexual restraint and traditional sexual morality generally, not to mention reticence concerning one’s personal feel- ings pertaining to sex, is by no means a monopoly held by “straights.”
The moderator’s next move was to direct each student to state his or her name and say, “I am gay.” So around the table they went, with students, all too predictably, conforming to the moderator’s absurd and offensive directive. “I’m Sarah Smith, and I am gay.” “I’m Seth Farber, and I am gay.” When it was my friend’s turn, he politely but firmly refused. The moderator, of course, demanded an explanation. $$$$ With some trepidation he replied by simply stating the truth: “This exercise is absurd and offensive and has nothing to do with the purposes for which I and others came to Williams College, namely, to learn to think carefully, critically, and for ourselves.” Con- firming the old dictum that bullies are cowards who will never stand up to people who have the temerity to stand up to them, the moderator backed off.
NOW, OF COURSE, what goes on in these colle- giate re-education camps is radically differ- ent from the classical understanding of what liberal arts education is supposed to accomplish. Formally, the classical and the revisionist concep- tions are similar. Both propose the liberal arts as liberating. Both promise to enable the student to achieve a greater measure of personal authenticity. But in substance they could not be farther apart.
They are polar opposites. The classical understand- ing of the goal of liberal arts learning is not to liberate us to act on our desires, but rather, and precisely, to liberate us from slavery to them. Personal authenticity, under the traditional account, consists in self- mastery—in placing reason in control of desire. According to the classical liberal arts ideal, learning promises liberation, but it is not liberation from demanding moral ideals and social norms—it is, rather, liberation from slavery to self.
How can it be liberating to enter into the great conversation with Plato and his interlocutors? Why does the study of Augustine, Dante, or Aquinas help us to be free? Beyond being entertained by Shakes- peare’s charm, wit, and astonishing intellectual deftness, why should we make the effort to under- stand and appreciate the plays and sonnets? According to the classical liberal arts ideal, our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths—truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base. These are soul-shaping, humanizing truths—truths whose appreciation and secure possession elevates reason above passion or appetite, enabling us to direct our desires and our wills to what is truly good, truly beautiful, truly worthy of human beings as possess- ors of a profound and inherent dignity. The classical liberal arts proposition is that intellectual knowl- edge has a role to play in making self-transcendence possible. It can help us to understand what is good and to love the good above whatever it is we happen to desire, and it can teach us to desire what is good because it is good, thus making us truly masters of ourselves.
These contrasting views of liberal learning reflect competing understandings of what human beings fundamentally are, and what is possible for us to be or become. I have spoken of the soul-shaping power of truths, but on the revisionist view there neither is nor can be any such thing as a rational soul. There is merely a “self.” And the “self” is constituted not by powers of rationality that enable us to know what is humanly good and morally right and direct our desires toward it, but rather by our desires them- selves. Reason’s role in our conduct can be nothing more than instrumental. It is not, and cannot be, the master of desire, but only its servant. Reason cannot tell us what to want, but only how to obtain whatever it is we happen to want. As David Hume articulated the point, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and may pretend to no office other than to serve and obey them.”
On this view the rational soul is an illusion and belief in it, and in truths that can liberate us from slavery to our desires, is something not unlike a superstition. Human fulfillment consists not in overcoming desires that run contrary to what reason identifies as good and right, but rather in freeing ourselves from “irrational” inhibitions (those “hang- ups”) that impede us from doing as we please. Hence, the slogan that will ever stand as a sort of verbal monument to the Me Generation: “If it feels good, do it.”
THE TRUE liberal arts ideal rejects the reduc- tion of reason to the status of passion’s slave. It is an ideal rooted in the conviction that there are human goods, and a common good, in light of which we have reasons to constrain, to limit, to regulate, and even to alter our desires. It proposes the study of great works with a view to grasping more fully these goods and the reasons they provide, and to understanding them in their wholeness. What liberal arts learning offers us is a truly audacious hope; the hope of self-mastery.
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