What is Liberal Learning For?

In my last post, I outlined a bit of my personal history, including my fixation on the importance of being a polymath – one who knows something about everything. I argued that learning in the tradition of the Great Books – and not necessarily limited to the book collection, but more generally the entire Western intellectual tradition starting from the Ancient Greeks to Marx, Darwin, and Einstein – is a good starting point to work towards that goal. In the American educational tradition learning in this tradition constitutes part of a liberal education. But why is liberal learning worth it? Why the great ideas of Western civilization, as opposed to other parts of the world? Why not pick or choose only those ideas that are relevant or interesting today, as opposed to studying the whole package?

In A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning  by James V. Schall, this question is addressed in a framework based on the assumptions that the student-reader has realized something is “wrong” in their typical college education, and that he is interested in finding the truth:

Students see in their education and in the culture all too little of the pursuit of truth and of its relation to loving what is good and what is beautiful.

(“From Whence Did These Observations Come,” Location 132)

But what is truth? What is good and beautiful? One could quickly reply to Schall by saying that what he is really getting at is that our culture is lacking in the pursuit of a certain conception of truth. For what university or scholarly institution would gladly study something which without regard to its truth or falsehood? Such an attitude would undermine the fundamental reason for scholarship. But for Schall, the problem with the common conception of truth taught in current universities is the following:

…by the time they reach the universities, most students have already absorbed this dubious doctrine of relativism, the premises of which they have not intellectually examined for their validity.

(“Do You Have This Problem,” Location 158)

It seems that Schall is referring to the recent intellectual movement of postmodernism, as exemplified by intellectuals such as Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty. I have never actually studied postmodern philosophy, neither formally nor through self-study, so I cannot give a fair and truthful account of what it teaches. But what Schall is referring to, or rather exemplifying through his text, is something which I am well-acquainted with: the conservative Christian complaint, or fear, that the current era is infused with the tendency to not care about The Truth, but rather, each individual is only concerned with their own version of “truth” that works for them. In this view of postmodernism, the traditional Western, Christian conception of The Truth is only one narratives out of many which are equally valid.

The Wonder of Reality, and How to Approach It

Continuing in this vein, Schall does not attempt to defend why postmodernism is wrong, and why the Truth is indeed contained in the Great Ideas of the Great Books and the Western intellectual tradition in general. Instead, Schall starts out from assumption that postmodernism and cultural relativism is a lie that doesn’t conform to reality, and like other lies, reality will start nagging persistently at the student. The Truth is self-evidently the Truth, and it has a beauty and goodness that irresistibly draws many intellectually hungry students to it. Schall takes this for granted, that a traditional liberal education deals with issues pressing the soul (any soul) and concerns itself with the “great philosophical and religious minds.”

The supposed correspondence between traditional liberal education and the Truth is illustrated in the wonder and enchantment it brings to the student. The ineffectiveness of postmodernism in conjuring up something similar is illustrated in the many students who personally feel dissatisfied with their college coursework: they read Augustine’s Confessions, which details Augustine’s personal transformation after reading Cicero’s lost dialogue Hortensius, and “wonder why they have not had a similarly mind-wrenching experience.” This mind-wrenching experience is experiencing the “wonder of reality, of what is” – presumably, reality is captivating, and learning about it should captivate us, and if the normal college coursework does not captivate us, it means that it does not conform to reality, or it is not getting us closer to it.

We begin our intellectual lives not with need, nor less with desire, but with wonder and enchantment.

(“On Teachers and Teaching,” Location 470)

Schall also stresses that it is important to seek truth for its own sake, presumably as otherwise it would not be possible to otherwise learn about reality. The implication is that postmodernism does not seek the truth for its own sake. This may be true – postmodernism and by extension, critical theory, argues that no narrative, no conception of Truth, is free from biases on the part of those proposing the narrative. Construction of narratives of the Truth always occurs within a social context that is never free from the usual forces of political power acting against each other. Thus a dispassionate search for truth is impossible, and it makes sense to use scholarship as a tool in the political power struggle, especially through giving voice to those who have never had the chance to establish their own Narrative – the traditionally oppressed groups of people in society. I assume that this kind of perspective on scholarship is what Schall thinks is a great sham and farce which does not conform to reality.


Do the Great Ideas Contain a Special Kind of Truth?

Is Schall right? Is it true that “postmodernism” and “cultural relativism” is an empty intellectual edifice, built on lies that do not conform to reality?

The first problem with Schall’s claims is that he does not even attempt to defend why the Great Ideas should be the Truth; he assumes it should be self-evident to a reader of the book. Thus it is difficult to respond explicitly to this claim. More generally, he is unclear in defining even what “reality” is. Is “reality” a set of propositions about common philosophical issues – what is justice, what is good, how should a state be governed – things talked about a lot in Plato’s The Republic? Is it an insight into what humans are mentally capable of, how their feelings affect their decisions, how they navigate societal structures? How is Western tradition superior to “cultural relativism” in addressing these issues? This is never answered – instead, Schall assumes that students who have an interest in a liberal education are looking for something different than cultural relativism, and he assures us that they will find it.

So perhaps a better way to evaluate Schall would be to look at personal experience in reading intellectual work in the Western tradition so far. In the last 4-5 years of my life I have gone through 30-40 books, novels, plays, essays that can be considered part of the “classics.” I have been enchanted with parts of most of them (very few enchanted me all the way through – one of them being Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Kamarazov). But even if I am enchanted, I don’t recall feeling that it is because I have successfully penetrated the depths of some hidden reality. Perhaps my lack of enlightenment is because I’m not thinking enough of what I’m reading, treating it as more of a sensory or mechanistic experience (in the sense of just wanting to know how the plot goes, and who the characters are).

That being said, Schall is maybe getting at something in that denying the existence of truth would indeed make the entire experience utterly miserable: why am I reading these books, if their ideas are no more special than other books, and other more popular books can give more immediate gratification? My reading experience has been based on a temporary faith in the idea that these classic books are significant – that the characters and plot inside them are good enough to have captivated other human beings before me, such that they make it to the lists of 100 Greatest Books or 100 Authors You Must Read and so on. Perhaps this is the Truth which might work better for what Schall is aiming at. The Truth is simply that there are a collection of ideas that are optimally suited to be able to win over the mental thoughts of the human species, and tradition by definition meets that criteria.

It’s interesting how this argument can also be turned on its head if tradition changes. Maybe in the future, tradition will be postmodern scholarship. Studying the Western canon has no longer been cool for the last 30 years. Many new college graduates (including my alma mater) go through four years of education without much exposure to the classics. In time, it is conceivable that the Western canon will be lost to history, replaced by either a new “postmodern canon” or nothing at all. In other words, Schall is the one in the wrong: maybe postmodernism really does captivate some people. Otherwise why would it have successfully managed to take over academia? I can imagine someone like Schall would answer with even more speculative theories about the general moral decline of society, and so forth – complaints that almost all older people in every generation have uttered. Thus the only test for Schall’s arguments is just time – time will tell whether the Western canon will endure well into the 21st century and beyond.

(One might also wonder whether the idea of a Western canon, Great Ideas, or Great Conversation itself has always been a “thing” in Western scholarship. Or is it just an artificial synthesis cooked up by Mortimer Adler and the people who first published the Great Books as a collection? This is similar to how in music history, there was a long period after his death when Bach was rarely performed or studied. Not until Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in 1829 did a Bach revival occur that eventually cemented his place in the canon of Western “art music.” I can imagine that if the postmodernists are right, by the middle of the 21st century the Great Books will just be a historical oddity, interesting only to historians and not actual philosophers and scholars.)

Practical Relativism vs. Methodological Relativism

The second problem is one which Schall recognizes himself, namely that there does not seem to be much difference between the multiplicity of perspectives commonly encountered when studying within a framework of cultural relativism, and the multiplicity of perspectives encountered when reading an assortment of Great Thinkers as varied as Shakespeare, Locke, Hume, Descartes, and Marx. One could easily argue that cultural relativism is just the end result of the freedom of the modern world thanks to modern technology plus the availability of the work of so many past thinkers. It’s from this possible objection that Schall argues studying Great Books is not necessarily a good way to obtain a liberal education:

The study of “great books” can lead students to a kind of implicit relativism or to a choice of a great mind that leads them far afield…The condition of not knowing should not lead us to a further skepticism but to a more intense search for the truth.

“Where Do I Begin,” Location 276-280

Schall’s solution is too simple, however. Does an “intense search for the truth” mean eventually arriving at a final set of conclusions at some point in our studies, perhaps after being finished with reading all of the thinkers? Schall himself admits that some of these works can take a lifetime to digest. This means that most of us will be in a constant state of intellectual flux, always ruminating on our latest interpretations of what Plato, Kant, or the Bible said about reality. This is a state of constant relativism. But maybe the difference, which Schall is getting at, is that this constant relativism is only there because of practical reasons. It is different from the deliberate methodological relativism employed by the cultural relativists and postmodernists, who eschew any notion of a “true narrative” from the beginning. In practice, however, I think that there might be nothing empirically different about the two camps: Imagine Alice, a student of the Western tradition who has a set of propositions P1 in her head as a result of her studies. Then Bob, a student in the postmodern “tradition” who has a different set of propositions P2 as a result of his studies. How while the contents of P1 and P2 might be radically different, on average, it doesn’t seem that Alice should believe in each member of P1 more strongly or weakly than Bob should believe in each member of P2.

If there is no practical difference, then how can tradition be superior or more beneficial to the individual? The obvious reply from Schall would be that tradition gives better content, i.e., P1 conforms more to reality than P2. This would bring us back to square one, a naked assertion that Western tradition simply is self-evidently superior to postmodernism, as attested to how it can captivate humans more than the latter.

The Western Tradition as an Open Challenge

Gathering all of our observations so far, we can see that Schall does not really answer the question of why Western tradition is superior to its subversion in the form of postmodernism and cultural relativism. His core argument is that the former is inherently more captivating and enchanting as it is more in line with reality. In perhaps scientific language, being captivating to human readers and scholars is the phenomenological manifestation of an intellectual work conforming to reality. And like an experimental physicist thinking about the Standard Model, Schall proudly assumes that the latest experimental evidence vindicates that the Western tradition is indeed superior to postmodernism in this manner.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that postmodernism is also captivating to a certain set of people, and I’m not sure that we can definitely say that if we were to expose 100 people in the room to both postmodernist and traditional ideas, more people would prefer the latter. And surely using “captivation” as a metric for superiority is unreliable in general, as it will depend heavily on someone’s personal background – including the usual ethnic and racial objections, that the Western tradition is overwhelmingly dominated by dead, white European men. So rather than being a true defense of a liberal education, Schall’s introduction to liberal learning is a celebration of it, for people who have already felt that captivating pull towards these works, indeed, people like me. He is preaching to the choir. I feel pumped up that I am about to be captivated by something I already feel captivated by, but for someone who subscribes to postmodernism already, they would only be offended by Schall’s encomium for the Western tradition.

Nevertheless, I do believe there is still something to be redeemed from Schall’s essay, if we interpret it not as a naked declaration of the self-evident superiority of the Western tradition, but as an intellectual challenge to try reading these works which may have been neglected in a normal contemporary college education. Schall does stress that learning about reality necessitates that one always compares one’s learning to one’s actual experience in the world:

Ideas need to be tested by reality, by what is.

“On Teachers and Teaching,” Location 463

So in this reading of his words, Schall’s main point is really the advocating of a certain method of assessing the worth of a book or school of thought: by engaging with it and seeing whether it is captivating. Perhaps when one does try reading the Western intellectual tradition, the experience will vindicate it. This is in many senses striking, because usually we don’t hear the Great Books being advertised for the reading pleasure they give. It’s much easier to enjoy Harry Potter or the latest Stephen King novel. On the other hand, reading certain postmodern authors (especially continental Europeans) has been argued as an even worse bore, with their forest of undefined, obscure terms and pseudo-scientific ideas. So perhaps Schall is not incorrect in that respect.

The obvious implication here is that I should just go about reading the works immediately, discovering for myself whether they captivate as Schall insists they will. And that is indeed what I will set out to do in the coming years.


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