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Liberal arts take wrong direction

When many of the flower children and new-left activists of the '60s became professors and university administrators in the '70s and '80s, they did not entirely overthrow the idea of liberal-arts education. Many proclaimed themselves its loyal partisans.

When many of the flower children and new-left activists of the '60s became professors and university administrators in the '70s and '80s, they did not entirely overthrow the idea of liberal-arts education. Many proclaimed themselves its loyal partisans.

Now, it is true that many think it their mission to create soldiers in the battle for "social change" - aspiring ACLU lawyers, Planned Parenthood volunteers, and "community organizers." But others resist the idea that learning should be instrumentalized. They profess allegiance to the idea that the point of liberal education is to enrich and even liberate the student-learner. That's what is supposed to be "liberal" about liberal-arts learning - it is supposed to convey the knowledge and impart the intellectual skills and habits of mind that are liberating.

Still, there is a chasm between the idea of liberal-arts education as classically conceived, and the conception promoted by some (mercifully, not all) in positions of influence in academic departments today. Many of today's academic humanists and social scientists have a different view of what students need liberation from.

In their view (what I will call the revisionist conception), it is liberation from traditional social constraints and moral norms - beliefs, principles, and structures by which earlier generations of Americans and people in the West generally had been taught to govern themselves for the sake of personal virtue and the common good. For them, it has become a dogma that these traditional norms and structures are irrational - "hang ups" that stifle our personalities by impeding desire-fulfillment.

Liberal-arts learning is thus seen as a way to undermine whatever is left of the old norms and structures. 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, Augustine, Dante, Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Locke, Gibbon, the authors of The Federalist, etc. - as mere propaganda propping up unjust (racist, sexist, classist, homophobic) social orders, or still worse (2) to show how they can be "reappropriated" to subvert allegedly unjust contemporary social orders.

Beyond this, liberal-arts learning is meant to enable students to become "authentic" - true to themselves - which means, to these liberal-arts revisionists, acting on one's feelings and desires. For the self is understood precisely as a bundle of feelings and desires, to be acted on without regard to supposedly outmoded moral and social norms.

On the revisionist conception of personal authenticity, whatever impedes one from doing what one most wants (unless what one happens to want would be politically incorrect) is a mere hang-up. So religious convictions and traditional moral ideals are to be transcended for the sake of the free and full development of one's personality - for example, by acting on sexual desires that one might have been "repressing."

Nowhere is this ideology clearer than in many college freshman orientation programs in the United States, which feature compulsory events designed to undermine among the students any lingering traditional beliefs about sexual morality and decency. These events are largely exercises in sexual-liberationist propaganda, however much they may be advertised by university officials as efforts to discourage date rape, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and bullying. Most are utterly one-sided. Dissenting views, such as the view that sodomy and promiscuity are immoral and affronts to human dignity, are never aired. Students who may dissent from the prevailing sexual-liberationist orthodoxy get the message that they are outsiders who had better conform or keep their mouths shut.

A friend of mine who attended Williams College tells a story that could be told by recent alumni of similar institutions from Bates to Pomona. Shortly after arriving at the college, students were divided into small, moderated group discussions of campus life. Attendance was compulsory.

The moderator told the students that it was important for each to understand sympathetically what it was like to come out as "gay." The presupposition, of course, was that a person who experiences homosexual desires must come out as "gay" to be true to himself. No alternative view was presented, even though belief in traditional sexual morality and reticence about sexual inclinations are by no means a monopoly held by "straights."

The moderator's next move was to direct each student to say his or her name and say, "I am gay." So it went, around the table. "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 refused. The moderator, of course, demanded an explanation. With some trepidation, my friend simply stated the truth: "This exercise is absurd and offensive and has nothing to do with the purposes for which we came to Williams College: to learn to think carefully, critically, and for ourselves." Confirming 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.

Of course, what happens in these reeducation camps masquerading as orientation programs, and in too many classrooms, is radically different from the classical understanding of what liberal-arts education is supposed to accomplish. They are polar opposites. The classical understanding 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 subjugation to them. Personal authenticity, on the traditional account, consists in self-mastery - in placing reason in control of desire. On the classic liberal-arts ideal, learning promises liberation, but it is not liberation from demanding moral ideals; it is rather liberation from slavery to self.