The Human Side of the Liberal Arts

Franklin’s Junto

For many college students, liberal arts courses are the courses that they need to “get out of the way” in order to get on to the important courses in their professional-oriented major–business, education, engineering, nursing, etc…  For administrators and the gurus of higher education who write for the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, the liberal arts are just another piece of the curriculum–something that needs to be delivered as part of a complete college education.


But in the past few weeks–really in the past few days–I have been reminded that the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, are about people engaging ideas in community.  The questions about the meaning of life raised by the study of the liberal arts are often asked in the context of friendship, sociability, and conversation.  The liberal arts are about human beings.  And they are best cultivated by human beings in relationship with other human beings. 

Here are three real-life examples:

1,  This semester I am teaching a course on Pennsylvania history.  A couple of weeks ago I introduced my students to Benjamin Franklin’s Junto–a society of artisans and tradesmen who gathered together in Philadelphia for the mutual improvement of its members.  The Junto members sharpened their intellect and sense of civic responsibility through discussions of the major issues facing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and British provincial society.  

As I often do when talking about the Junto, I got on my soapbox for a few minutes and challenged my students to form their own Juntos–to gather together in their dorms or over a meal together in the college dining hall, to discuss the things that matter, the so-called “first things.” These kinds of regular conversations, coupled with formal college coursework, just might result in an education.

2.  This week I had the honor of serving as an outside reader on a doctoral dissertation defense in early American history.  I was not able to be present for the defense, so I spent most of the two-hour session with the phone on my ear until I was given my fifteen-minute opportunity to grill the candidate.  The next-to-last person to question the candidate was the professor who served as the candidate’s doctoral adviser. She began her comments by saying that it was a privilege  to work with this young historian. After spending so many years working closely with this doctoral student, conversing about history and other things that matter, and developing a friendship with the student, the adviser seemed sad to see it all come to an end.  She described her work with this student as one of the highlights of her life. As I sat quietly on the end of the phone, I found myself deeply moved by these remarks.  It was clear to me that the adviser’s relationship with the student–a friendship forged over the ideas that stemmed from their high-level engagement together with the past–should serve as a model for the transformative power of the liberal arts when practiced in community with others.

3.  This morning I read an op-ed in my local newspaper by my friend Eric Miller, a history professor at Geneva College.  The piece is a moving reflection on the life of Eric’s friend and Geneva colleague Howard Mattson-Boze, who recently passed a way.  Here is a taste of that piece:

In the liberal arts Howard was a master.  He knew the lineage that had formed him so finely, and delighted in it. 

A conversation with Howard took one from ancient Athens through medieval Paris to nineteenth century London in ten minutes flat. He dipped into Kierkegaard in the spirit of a boy playing baseball in spring. 

As he spoke, whether across the table or behind a lectern, his eyes gleamed with contagious purpose.

When he died this past January many former students remembered the discussions he and his wife hosted through the years, evenings spent on “the deep questions of life,” as one, now himself a professor, put it. 

Howard taught, in the words of another, “the classical liberal ideas that we live by today.”

This was simply what college was for, to Howard. More particularly, it was what he thought our college was for, despite countervailing winds. The ideals that spark our way do not live by books alone, he knew, but through people–people living in places structured for their preservation and advance. 

Howard believed that without generosity of mind and depth of spirit this world is a harsher place. About the ideas themselves, about their truth, we might–we will–disagree. 

But apart from a foundation of respect for ideas and their centrality in our lives, all debates about their worth, and about the world itself, move from incivility to hostility to worse. And the great hope of liberal society, of a place where we live together in honor of the dignity of life, fades like fall. 

The liberal arts aren’t the only pathway toward our highest ends, to be sure.  But they have aided decisively all pathways we’ve ever known, keeping them clear, straight, and manifest. 

The darkness many of us feel today, in an age marked by so vicious and spurious a form of “realism,” may in part be the fruit of the liberal arts fading among us, leaving us, inevitably, less free.

I know what counsel Howard would offer.  He would urge deep, costly institutional commitments to preserve and prosper liberal learning. 

Do we have the will to heed it?  

The liberal arts are about people.

4 thoughts on “The Human Side of the Liberal Arts

  1. Thank you for sharing this Dr. Fea! I wish I had had this on hand last semester when a student asked what the point of taking the humanities elective I was teaching was if he is a tech student at a tech college. Makes me miss being surrounded by humanities minded!

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  2. The proper question is not “Liberal Arts: For or Against?”

    There is indeed a culture war going going on, but per Allan Bloom it's that the liberal arts per Howard Mattson-Boze

    He knew the lineage that had formed him so finely, and delighted in it.

    A conversation with Howard took one from ancient Athens through medieval Paris to nineteenth century London in ten minutes flat. He dipped into Kierkegaard in the spirit of a boy playing baseball in spring.

    Howard taught, in the words of another, “the classical liberal ideas that we live by today.”

    no longer exist. Instead of nourishing the social capital that a healthy polity depends on, in the name of “critical thinking,” the new ideology is quite purposefully eroding it.

    Philosopher Roger Scruton's recent “The End of the University,” mandatory reading for educators/academicians:

    http://eppc.org/publications/the-end-of-the-university/

    Universities exist to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and culture that will prepare them for life, while enhancing the intellectual capital upon which we all depend. Evidently the two purposes are distinct. One concerns the growth of the individual, the other our shared need for knowledge. But they are also intertwined, so that damage to the one purpose is damage to the other. That is what we are now seeing, as our universities increasingly turn against the culture that created them, withholding it from the young.

    Of course, the culture of the West remains the primary object of study in humanities departments. However, the purpose is not to instill that culture but to repudiate it—to examine it for all the ways in which it sins against the egalitarian worldview. The Marxist theory of ideology, or some feminist, poststructuralist, or Foucauldian descendent of it, will be summoned in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status to the power that speaks through them, and that they are therefore of no intrinsic worth. To put it another way: The old curriculum, which [John Cardinal] Newman saw as an end in itself, has been demoted to a means.

    It is no longer permitted to believe that there are real and inherent distinctions between people. All distinctions are “culturally constructed” and therefore changeable. And the business of the curriculum is to deconstruct them, to replace distinction with equality in every sphere where distinction has been part of the inherited culture. Students must believe that in crucial respects, in particular in those matters that touch on race, sex, class, role, and cultural refinement, Western civilization is just an arbitrary ideological device, and certainly not (as its self-image suggests) a repository of real moral knowledge. Moreover, they must accept that the purpose of their education is not to inherit that culture but to question it and, if possible, to replace it with a new “multicultural” approach that makes no distinctions between the many forms of life by which the students find themselves surrounded.

    To doubt those doctrines is to commit deepest heresy, and to pose a threat to the community that the modern university needs…”

    And of course, through government education subsidies, our society is buying the rope to hang it with.

    See also philosopher John Searle. These concerns are not mere talk radio.

    http://www.ditext.com/searle/searle1.html

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  3. Thank you, John, for sharing your passion for the liberal arts. You remind me to share my passion with others, especially the young folks who need to hear an invitation from a trusted grownup.

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