It’s Urgent To Put The Liberal Arts Back At The Center Of Education

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:

Here’s the thing. In the understanding of both the great Ancient philosophers and, taking after them, of the thinkers who gave us the Enlightenment and the intellectual scaffolding for our prosperous liberal-democratic society, including the Founding Fathers, democracy did not simply happen. Democracy depended on a robust citizenship, and this citizenship, in turn, was a struggle of all the men (and, now, women) of the polity; it conferred rights as well as responsibilities. In particular, two of the most fundamental requirements of citizenship were virtue and a liberal education.

The expression “liberal education” is quite important. Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe–a.k.a. science–but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.

Similarly, the great men (and, sorry, they were mostly men) who bequeathed us this wonderful order understood that a regime of majority rule cannot long withstand the test of time without having a citizenship that takes seriously the notion of virtue. The virtues, to Aristotle and others, are not so much about being a goody-two-shoes, but rather about the lifelong effort to reach self-mastery through confronting our passions (today, perhaps, we would say: our addictions) and properly ordering our will towards that which is good. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see how growth in virtue is itself a form of liberal education.

Without an awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom.