From the beginning of the American Republic, our best statesman and thinkers have seen an essential connection between liberal democracy and liberal education. According to Thomas Jefferson, the extensive educational plan he proposed for his native Virginia was a necessary means for “rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.” Robert Maynard Hutchins, the influential president of the University of Chicago, wrote that “the object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens.” For both Jefferson and Hutchins, a free society cannot long subsist without vibrant institutions of liberal learning, fully mindful of their dependence on the liberal democratic political institutions that sustain them.
The curriculums Jefferson and Hutchins envisioned, however, have little relation to what is taught in American universities today. The rich education in political history Jefferson thought necessary to the protection of democratic liberty would be hard to come by on most campuses. The “Great Books” approach championed by Hutchins has fallen out of favor at all but a tiny minority of colleges. In its place, one all too often finds a smorgasbord of topical approaches, methodological disputes, ill-concealed political advocacy, and a decimated set of general education requirements that have somehow inherited the mantle of liberal education.
Recently, the atomization of our university curriculums has combined with the financial crisis to produce a disturbing prospect for all those who care for genuine liberal education. Parents, students, and politicians have begun to wonder whether the kinds of education available at our colleges and universities are worth a price tag that strains the limits of middle-class credulity. At the same time, our universities seem increasingly incapable of giving an account of their function in terms of the high and noble purpose of liberal education itself: the full development of the human person. Instead, we hear the value of higher education justified in terms of economic, technological, and social utility. But precisely insofar as we conceive of the role of universities in merely utilitarian terms, the prospect of their replacement by less pretentious and expensive modes of credentialing, such as online and explicitly vocational training, becomes more thinkable. In terms of both liberal education’s present malaise and its uncertain future, the possibility that Jefferson and Hutchins may have been right in supposing that liberal democracy was unsustainable without a liberally educated citizenry should give us pause.
These considerations thus make the present moment a timely one for asking a timeless question: What is liberal education? In particular, what is—or should be—liberal, or liberating, about such an education? What is the moral and political function of liberal education? What, ultimately, does it mean to be educated? What, ultimately, does it mean to be free?
John T. Agresto is an author, lecturer, and university administrator who has served as President of St. John’s College, Chancellor and Provost at the American University of Iraq at Sulaimani, and as Assistant Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions, The Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy, Liberty and Equality Under the Constitution, and The Humanist as Citizen: Essays on the Uses of the Humanities. He is presently at work on a book on higher education.
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Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1962. He has held Guggenheim and NEH Fellowships and has been a Fellow at the National Humanities Center. He has won the Joseph R. Levenson award for his teaching at Harvard, received the Sidney Hook Memorial award from the National Association of Scholars, and, in 2004, accepted a National Humanities Medal from the President. His many books include Taming the Prince, Machiavelli’s Virtue, America’s Constitutional Soul, and translations of classic texts by Niccolò Machiavelli and Alexis de Tocqueville. His latest book is the provocatively-titled Manliness.
Anthony T. Kronman is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School. A former Dean of Yale Law School, Professor Kronman teaches in the areas of contracts, bankruptcy, jurisprudence, social theory, and professional responsibility. Before arriving at Yale, he taught at the University of Chicago. Among his books are Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, Max Weber, Contracts: Cases and Materials, and Lost Lawyer.
Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She has been a research advisor at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, member of the Council of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and member of the board of the American Council of Learned Societies. She has published more than fourteen books and close to three hundred articles. Her writing has garnered numerous awards. Her books include Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Cultivating Humanity, The Fragility of Goodness, and Hiding from Humanity.
Thomas L. Pangle holds the Joe. R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also Co-Director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has won Guggenheim, Isaac Waltam Killam, Carl Friedrich von Siemens, and several NEH fellowships, as well as the Robert Foster Cherry Great Teacher of the World Prize. His many books include The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham, Justice Among Nations, and The Ennobling of Democracy.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University, and has recently served as Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His scholarly essays have appeared in PMLA, Yale Review, Wilson Quarterly, and Partisan Review, and his commentaries and reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, TLS, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Weekly Standard, Reason Magazine, and Chronicle of Higher Education. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, Civil Rights Chronicle, and the galvanizing The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.