< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: (ii) Liberal Education in a Nutshell

Friday, May 12, 2006

(ii) Liberal Education in a Nutshell

In this, the second part of a developing series on Liberal Education, I will quote extensively from Jacob Klein's essays: The Idea of Liberal Education and On Liberal Education. For those of you not up to speed on Klein's role in the New Program at St. John's College, please see the Wikipedia entry on St. John's College for a description therein.

Also, many A9 commenters are likely to bring up the "friendship" or "feud" (depending on one's point of view) between Leo Strauss and Klein, as well as the relationship they had with their teacher, Martin Heidegger. All of this biographical information, interesting and entertaining as it may be, is very well beyond the point of this meager post.

Liberal education is the education of free people for the purpose of nothing but its own sake, that is, for the purpose of knowing.
From the very beginning one detects an ambiguity in the meaning of "free men." In ancient times free men are contrasted with slaves and, morevover, with men who, though not slaves, are engaged in menial labor and have to do that to cope with the necessities of life. [...]

To bring up children to the level of free men means to bring them up for the enjoyment and duties of a life which, secure in its subsistence, is attuned to the pleasures of bodily, sensual and intellectual exercises and to the challenges of military and political activity. Such life tends, however, to move along traditional lines, be it in games, in polite conversation or in the turmoil of public affairs. Its freedom is endangered by the dominance of accepted opinions, the "idols of the market-place," in Baconian terminology. However "free" the free man may be, he has thus still to free himself from the shackles of conventional views which pass for the truth of things. He has to cultivate pursuits in which the truth of things is truly made an attainable goal. These pursuits constitute the arts of freedom, the "liberal arts."
Klein, Lectures and Essays, 261-262 (1985).

To be a free man [for the Greeks] meant to be a man enjoying leisure - that is, precisely, a man not under any necessity or compulsion to do servile work. [...]

To study for the enjoyment of leisure and in leisure means to be engaged in liberal education. It is an arduous task. This kind of education does not look for some goal or good beyond itself. [...]

What this understanding of liberal education assumes is that man's most proper and specific character is his desire to know. Only in pursuing this goal is man really man and really free. To acquire the various means that enable man to persist in this pursuit is to cultivate the arts of freedom.
Id. at 165.

Liberal education is not subject matter specific, but procedure specific: to liberally educate one means to lead them to a place where they have only aporia (without a way).
The idea of liberal education, then, whether you accept or reject it, is not definable in terms of some peculiar subject matter. Some applied sciences may well fall outside its scope. But, by and large, any formal discipline may form its vehicle and basis. It is not the subject matter that determines the character of studies as liberal studies. It is rather the way in which a formal discipline, a subject matter, is taken up that is decisive: whenever it is being studied for its own sake, whenever the metatstrophic way of questioning is upheld, whenever genuine wonderment is present, liberal education is taking place.
Id. at 166.

Liberal education is impeded by the modern academy as an institution.
Since time immemorial, institutions of learning, especially higher learning, have been established, called "schools" -- and the ambiguity of the term becomes immediately apparent. Institutionalization means ordering of activities into classes, schedules, courses, curriculums, examinations, degress, and all venerable and sometimes ridiculous paraphernalia of academic life. The point is that such institutionalization cannot be avoided. [...] And yet we all know how this schedule routine can interfere with the spontaneity of questioning and of learning and the occurrence of genuine wonderment. A student may never become aware that there is the possiblity of spontaneous learning which depneds merely on himself and on nobody and nothing else. Once the institutional character of learning tends to prevail, the goal of liberal education may be completely lost sight of, whatever other goals may be successfully reached.
Id. at 166-67.

Liberal education is impeded by the very progress in knowledge it helps maintain
Each generation adds something to what has been previously built and preserved. We are proud of this fact and call it progress. And, indeed, such progress does exist in definite areas. But this very fact confronts us with the ever-present danger of sedimentation, fossilization, or petrification of our knowledge. We are fond of pointing to the European universities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which exhibit those petrifying tendencies rather clearly and are prone to exalt the fresh wind of the Renaissance and Humanism that blew all the accumulated dust away. But it behooves us to look at our own insitutions of higher learning and to discern these same tendencies among us. We are not immune.
Id. at 167.

Liberal education is in conflict with the political community, especially its elite
The demands of the political community to which we belong are indeed inexorable. It is important to understand, however, that the idea of liberal education cannot be easily reconciled with those demands. It is important to see that there is a definite tension between the exigencies of political life and the self-sustained goal of liberal education. [...]

I can hardly think of a better illustration of that tension than the story of Archimedes' death, which I shall recount by way of conclusion.

There are many versions of that story. It seems, at any rate, that Archimedes took an active an even decisive part in the defense of Syracuse, his home town, when it was besieged by the enemy, and he contrived, by means of ingenious machinery, to repel the attacker. He was fulfiling his civic duty. His end came when a Roman soldier stepped close to the place where he was drawing his figures on the sand. This is how Plutarch relates one of the versions: "A Roman soldier, running upon him with a drawn sword, offered to kill him... Archimedes, looking back, earnestly besought him to hold his hand a little while, that he might not leave what he was then at work upon inconclusive and imperfect; but the soldier, nothing moved by the entreaty, instantly killed him."
Id. at 169.