Why I do what I do.

Yesterday while searching for bibliographical data on Freud’s Traumdeutung I accidentally stumbled on a blog by a Colombian-Canadian named Andrés Melo Cousineau, called “Refractions”. Let’s just say the internet is bigger than New York and if you let Google be your guide there’s really no telling where you’ll end up. Or maybe there is telling. Maybe Google can tell. Maybe they can predict what I am about to say.

Anyhow AMC’s charming manifesto led me to Leo Strauss’ (1899–1973) 1959 commencement address for the University of Chicago’s liberal studies program, another charming manifesto on why study the liberal arts, why the liberal arts are truly liberating, and why democracy always, whenever it has truly been democracy in the original sense and not merely mob rule which is the other side of the same coin as the rule of the elite, has been dependent on a liberally-educated citizenry.

I’ll permit myself one last bit of preface, viz., “liberal” in the term “liberal arts” does not mean what “liberal” means in modern American political terms. And in what I am about to say, “conservatism” does not mean what “conservatism” means in the same terms. Conservatism and liberal arts interpenetrate and interdepend. In fact, in this sense “liberalism” implies “conservatism” because truly to permit freedom to others is preservative of a present state, and truly to conserve one’s own present state is to focus primarily on one’s own culture without concern to reform that of others.

One sine qua non for this state of social existence is of course stability (the forgotten virtue now sometimes considered almost a vice or a failure).

I don’t suppose this is really possible in today’s automobile-enslaved, electronically-communicating, airplane-traveling, “Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted” America.


“The teachers themselves are pupils and must be pupils. But there cannot be an infinite regress: ultimately there must be teachers who are not in turn pupils. Those teachers who are not in turn pupils are the great minds or, in order to avoid any ambiguity in a matter of such importance, the greatest minds. Such men are extremely rare. We are not likely to meet any of them in any classroom. We are not likely to meet any of them anywhere. It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one’s time. For all practical purposes, pupils, of whatever degree of proficiency, have access to the teachers who are not in turn pupils, to the greatest minds, only through the great books. Liberal education will then consist in studying with the proper care the great books which the greatest minds have left behind—a study in which the more experienced pupils assist the less experienced pupils, including the beginners.”

The liberal education, then, is at once the easiest and the hardest thing in the world to acquire. The easiest, because all one needs is this wish, this desire, which is common to all, whether our ideology permits us to admit it or not, of knowing the truth…and because these books are usually ratified great by the consensus of centuries of opinion…and out of copyright. 🙂

The hardest, because one needs leisure—a treasure we often trade for wealth; humility—itself difficult enough to cultivate and requiring, like a garden, daily routine patient care; and boldness—in constant tension with the previous, and under constant attack from the those of the shortsighted who are not content to be ignorant but insist that others must be also. Here I mean those educationists who dictate to those educators who see themselves as both pupils and teachers, and who are willing to submit to the lessons of humility about which Strauss spoke.

The danger of the former ruling the latter is that we finally see our students come out the other side of their many years of dedicated leisure having cultivated a garden of crumpled beer cans and complaining, “This class is gonna f***in’ suck!”

“[L]iberal education cannot be simply indoctrination. I mention yet another difficulty. “Liberal education is education in culture.” In what culture? Our answer is: culture in the sense of the Western tradition. Yet Western culture is only one among many cultures. By limiting ourselves to Western culture, do we not condemn liberal education to a kind of parochialism, and is not parochialism incompatible with the liberalism, the generosity, the open-mindedness, of liberal education? Our notion of liberal education does not seem to fit an age which is aware of the fact that there is not the culture of the human mind but a variety of cultures. [The distinction here is between “culture” as “guiding in growth (the active sense)” and “culture” as “that which has grown (the passive sense)”, and is the same as the distinction between what a farmer “does” to a field and what a physician “does” when he conducts the test for strep throat (although clearly it is not the physician who really “does” something, but the cells collected from the patient’s throat).]

“Obviously, “culture” if susceptible of being used in the plural is not quite the same thing as “culture” which is a singulare tantum [Lat. “only singular (i.e., not plural)”], which can be used only in the singular. “Culture” is now no longer, as people say, an absolute but has become relative. It is not easy to say what culture susceptible of being used in the plural means. As a consequence of this obscurity people have suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that “culture” is any pattern of conduct common to any human group. Hence we do not hesitate to speak of the culture of suburbia or of the cultures of juvenile gangs both non-delinquent and delinquent. In other words, every human being outside of lunatic asylums is a cultured human being, for he participates in a culture. [But of course, this principal taken to its logical conclusions would include even the lunatic asylum.]

“At the frontiers of research there arises the question as to whether there are not cultures also of inmates of lunatic asylums. [And if he were alive today he would point to the development, now complete, of the principle. Thus, when we are finally forced to say that undergraduate education has failed, we redraw its definition according to the passive meaning of “undergraduate culture” rather than correct the failure according to the active meaning of “undergraduate cultivation” a process by which the farmer and the crop participate in a process of growth the success or failure of which one judges according to an independent standard. It is as if, upon failing to grow the corn by failing to water it and protect it from the threats of nature, we instead decide to become beetle farmers.]

“If we contrast the present day usage of “culture” with the original meaning, it is as if someone would say that the cultivation of a garden may consist of the garden being littered with empty tin cans and whiskey bottles and used papers of various descriptions thrown around the garden at random. Having arrived at this point, we realize that we have lost our way somehow.”

Thanks, dear reader, for being the gadfly of my discipline.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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