< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: (iii) What is Taught By Liberal Education?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

(iii) What is Taught By Liberal Education?

Some A9 readers emailed me why I have given up the Liberal Education Series (parts one and two)? Not true. In fact, I was eagerly anticipating Eva Brann's latest essay: A College Unique and Universal. A little bird had tipped me off it was in the works when I had posted my latest on liberal education, and I'm glad I waited to post again on this until I had a chance to review it. A wonderfully written piece, as is typical of Eva. There is so much here to write about, I will attempt to limit my comments on this post to just one particular aspect. What is it that a liberal educator "teaches" (the term itself is oxymoronic for liberal learners)?

After going on at some length about how a liberal educator helps students learn, Eva sums it all up a wonderful phrase.
So we tutors at St. John's believe - all of us most of the time - in directness and immediacy; we put nothing between ourselves and the reading and behave as if every one of our books was indeed an open book to our students. I call this the "a cat may look at a king" principle - these royal books were written for us, the willing laity.
A College Unique and Universal, pg. 18.

Indeed. This is the American principle which Eva turns into a memorable phrase. No more precise an explanation of our jurisprudence, our morals, and our constitution (small c) has ever been made. It is something we forget in today's world of dark windowed limousines, fenced off free speech zones, private jet excursions, and closed session meetings. Now onto the substance of liberal education. While initially trying to get away from the far too easy tag of "Great books" Brann relents:

I think it is hard to get away from the Great Books designation for the simple reason that "greatness" has real sifnificance for us. It is the criterion by which we have chosen our hundred-plus works-based in part on these millienia-old lists.

Here are some of these crieria: Greantess shous up as inexhuastibility. [...]

Second, these works are pretty self-sufficient. Writers of stature strive to be as context-independent as they can be. [Ed. note: interesting that so many bloggers strive for exactly the opposite isn't it?] They tell you what you need to know to understand them. Good editions with pertinent notes will do the rest.

Third, and most telling, these books are original in two senses. They are often the earliest version of something new that will sweep the world, when it was still close to its roots in common experience and accesssible to lay people. And they are original in the sense of being charactersistic, of bearing the stamp of their author's personality - not only their personal crotchets and idiosyncrasies, but their peculiar ways of reaching depths.

Fourth, these works are infinitely artful, bold and subtle, beautiful by design or ugly on purpose. These authors are masters of the liberal arts that are a large part our Program.

Fifth and finally for present purposes, the works, though their message may sometimes be dismal and dark, are not themselves dreary or depresing but grand and redemptive. We have a sense that this four-year gift of semi-adult freedom that parents make to their children would not be spent on mediocre documents of societal problems and their academic solutions - the world will soon teach all that - but on the deepest, most exhiliarating exemplars of human achievement. The principle here is: First have acquantaince with the best, then face the worst.
[Emphasis mine] Id. at 21-23.

Liberal education helps the learner's soul experience greatness. It seems that simple. I know a great many people, myself included, who believe they experienced a liberal education. But was what we experienced greatness in any sense? Did we view master artworks? Listen to master symphonies? Read master poets? Or did we instead learn about all the greatness through the filter of a professor - someone whose very title is an obstacle to learning - and a professor's favorite "critiques"?

And of course, Brann concedes that the listing of a set program of books that students will read directly is of course elitist. But "so what" seems to be her attitude. Know the best, then face the worst. That sounds like both practical and theoretical wisdom. So what if learning from great works of art is elitist, is it bad to experience greatness or is it necessary? And to those who would argue there is no body of elite works, they miss the point (if they are being honest). Surely no one would deny that Bach's St. Matthew's Passion is one of the greatest musical works ever made. Maybe not the very best, but certainly on anyone's top 100 of all time. That is the point, learning from the best means learning from the greats.

Moreover, and this is me talking not Eva (I'm sure she would bristle at the following notion) but how often is it that we find today circling in the halls of justice, or the surgery room, or the war cabinet even, the most philistine of people? In these grand and powerful places often sits a dangerous sort of recluse, one incapable not only of senstitivity, but of even tolerance or mere appreciation for the things of another. Thieves in suits. I myself have seen such absence of refinement throughout both parties, in the highest offices in government, and of course we all know about Justice Thomas and his Coca-Cola cans.

Decency, civility, these are the building blocks of honor and discipline. And of course, without a culture of honor and discipline, accountability and respectability are soon to suffer. Those who we entrust to guard our Republic are often the bellweathers of such drought. So what if its considered old fashioned? I'm often told manners and gracefulness are old fashioned, and yet they never seem to go out of style. And when we surround ourselves with greatness, with great workers, with great works, can we not but hope some of it rubs off? Can we not help but feel inspired when we hear the works of Palestrina, when we read the works of Shakespeare, when we discuss the Gospel in a free and open format? Is this not communing with the immortals?

Another way of phrasing this would be: It all starts at the top. Or as He once intimated: do not cast your pearls amongst swine. Every American has a pearl, and it should not be cast amongst an education built upon forgetful mediocrity or academic abstruseness. In my next post, I will continue to discuss other aspects of Brann's latest essay.