In Defense of Liberal Education
What is liberal education? This question is not easy to answer. But it is worth the trouble of answering, since liberal education is the only true road to wisdom, and since our university no longer believes that such a singular, path exists.
Democracy is epitomized by the bazaar or the mall, and this is what the university is becoming. It wants to be inclusive, indiscriminate and accommodating toward every predilection. The university thus admits students less and less according to rigorous standards of individual excellence, and more and more according to the diverse backgrounds and experiences they can import into the student body. In other facets of the university as well, variety is prevailing over quality. Witness the accelerating proliferation of concentrations, special concentrations and sub-concentrations, and the clamor for even more, such as ethnic studies.
The democratization of the university is not innocent or even progressive, but thoroughly political. Diversity is in vogue wherever the many rule or wherever power belongs to the mediocre. The mediocre many have an interest in denigrating wisdom, virtue and even merit--all severe, undemocratic notions--and in elevating sheer experience, which even the meanest can contribute to and appreciate. While wisdom, virtue and merit are hard to achieve and discern, experience is easy to assert and acquire. Yet because of the superficiality of plain experience, one needs it in great quantity and variety to appear impressive and interesting. So like everything else democratic, the democratic university is not focused and deep but expansively broad and various.
As exciting as it seems, the democratization of the university poses a great threat to liberal education. This threat is hard to perceive at first because it lurks behind what appears most gentle, familiar and just. Yet what is the endless rhapsody about diversity, but really a perverse assertion of our individual incompleteness, ignorance and mutual dependence? The ideal of diversity hates homogeneity and loves heterogeneity, and so disdains the one or the few in order to embrace the many. The diverse university and the diverse curriculum are therefore democratic. But liberal education is anti-democratic, shunning what is vulgar and variegated in order to perfect the few best souls through intense study of the few great books. This presents the problem we must be true-hearted enough to face.
The problem is even clearer when we see the diversification of the university as an extension of the degradation of public culture. The impetus for both is democracy, which aims to secure immediate validation for all possible experiences, including the most vacuous, lurid and debauching. As pornography, crudeness, and sensationalism erode public decorum, great pressure bears on the university to follow suit--to become indiscriminate, to refrain from judging and to take everything in.
Owing to this pressure, Harvard has already forsaken its motto. It now offers its students a diversely hall-marked experience instead of anything resembling veritas. Truth demands a sobering progression toward it and away from everything else. The heady democratic ideal of limitless experience, by contrast, encourages permanent disorientation, immoderate openness and intransigent immaturity. Once a promiser of maturity, our university is now an apologist for adolescence.
The purpose of liberal education is--and always has been--to make those who undertake it radically mature, free and complete individuals. Today this goal appears Sisyphean, even ugly. Who can--or even dares to--permanently transcend all partiality, particularity and perspective? A person who succeeds in this kind of education will not need to indulge in outward experiences. He will not need others to correct or complement him. He will have overcome, to a scandalous extent, ignorance of what is good and bad, better and worse, important and trivial, right and wrong. He will not become indiscriminate, but will learn how to discriminate justly. If he shows contempt for others, he will do it with reason and not bigotry. He will not hold opinions but know truth.
There is not enough space here to supply an adequate roadmap for a liberal education. But a good procrustean rule of thumb is to doubt everything modern, which means all philosophy, literature, art and music less than 180 years old. Jane Austen's brilliantly anti-modern and anti-Romantic novel Mansfield Park is an especially fine place to start a liberal education. But wherever one begins, one must ultimately turn to the exceedingly difficult works of Plato and Aristotle. The reason one must strenuously study these fossilized Greeks reveals itself only after the fact, so you must take my advice on trust and hope it eventually appreciates into conviction. In any case, most of us see truth and goodness too dimly to rely wisely on our own judgment, so we must learn to see from those who saw clearly.
Liberal education is learning to see truth and goodness on one's own, without the comfort of consensus or the smugness of solidarity. This is the hardest thing for a human being to achieve, but also the most brilliant achievement. The liberal education is harder than an education in any particular task, whether making money, curing the sick, helping the underprivileged, entertaining the bored, advancing science, winning arguments, reporting the news, deconstructing texts, grinding out punditry or decrying oppression. The liberal education goes beyond making one good at something or for something. It makes one good and wise without qualification. It aims to produce the whole human being, who possesses everything of genuine worth, who lives in truth rather than ignorance, and whose soul has come to rest.
The word university comes from the Latin word for whole. The word diversity, on the other hand, stems from the word divert, which means "to turn aside from a course or direction," "to distract" and "to amuse or entertain." Diversity is as false, fragmentary and shallow as liberal education is true, whole and deep. Let us not be diverted from what is good by what is fashionable.
Daniel Choi '94 is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government.