Graduates sallying forth from the ivied halls need to be free men and women. That is the claim and purpose of the liberal arts. Having had a significant time to ponder and pursue and practice the virtues of freedom, these students can join the ongoing conversation of the ages and continue to refine the personal and civic skills necessary for free-minded souls.

The urge to prepare for a career is strong. Perhaps the stronger the student, the stronger the urge. Universities foster this urge with an ever-expanding array of studies that are career-based, career-driven. For example a student can choose to major in golf course management at some schools, as well as business administration, finance, computer engineering, and more and more. In many instances the work for these majors is surely demanding, directly related to what follows in a job, and amply respectable. Such interests increasingly drive university work, so much so that schools practically serve as job training programs with nice benefits in food, facilities, and fun. Parents hardly complain because, except for those pesky majors tending to be called “studies” of some kind (probably jobs follow these, too, but the urge to betray bias overwhelmed for a moment), jobs tend to follow the job training. Young people, then, are launched in their financial independence. For some, though, something is missing. Job preparation is not enough, and not rightly the focus of university at all.

Universities, by the grandest scheme, should train with a single goal in mind. Being a university, not a multiversity, itself suggests that. Graduates sallying forth from the ivied halls, or whatever kind of place it might be, need to be free men and women. That is the claim and purpose of the liberal arts. Having had a significant time to ponder and pursue and practice the virtues of freedom, these new men and women can join the ongoing conversation of the ages and continue their efforts to refine the personal and civic skills needed to live as free-minded souls.

In later medieval Europe, the original liberal arts were the seven studies, divided into the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), suited to freedom in a world characterized by the bondage of serfdom or the endlessly limiting hierarchies of a feudal aristocracy and of craft and merchant guilds. Later, at the origin of the United States of America, higher education was largely liberal, that is devoted to developing the powers of the free individual, but largely limited to an elite few. Another claim, however, is that even at the beginning the goal was job training, but the two chief jobs under consideration, lawyer and minister, required studies that at least tended toward the liberal. In the aftermath of World War II, when hordes descended upon the limited spaces in school, a more practical, pragmatic bent, already considerably evident, burgeoned, with hugely beneficial results in the lives and expectations of those who had endured the Great Depression and the war that followed. Some schools still preserved a common core of studies for the first two years of study, followed by more specialized studies related to a major. Soon, however, the demands of growing professionalization staged a colonizing pressure on more and more of the class opportunities. Schools recognized the lure of choice (school as cafeteria or buffet) and the responsibility of “breadth.” This requirement of encountering a smattering of studies unrelated to a particular major kept alive some of the spirit of a unifying, broadening purpose of the university. Given, though, both the imperializing professions and the buffet-inspired offering of the classes that fulfilled the breadth requirements in various schools, the coherence of a curriculum devoted to the free individual in a civic society became mighty attenuated. Courses with hints of the old liberal arts within them became the pleasing decorations of the minds of students armed with the panoply of the tools of increasingly narrowly defined disciplines. Professionalism overwhelmed the liberal arts.

Resistance has occurred. St. John’s College, along with a few kindred, scattered schools, continues its idiosyncratic way with a full-voiced pursuit of the liberal arts. For a time the University of Kansas pursued a legendary program of integrated studies, but it ran afoul of modernizing forces within the university and faltered. Some honors colleges, like those at Baylor University and Belmont Abbey College, are making sturdy attempts to restore a larger and grander view of the work of higher education. Perhaps these valiant and persistent attempts, and others that will come, are enough. Only a remnant is, in this way of thinking, suited to the study of freedom of the self and obligation to community. Maybe islands of preservation and promotion will flourish enough for enough, while more merrily pursue career preparation. The question of enough, though, for the benefit of the common good continues to puzzle. Perhaps many simply need career preparation, but is university study necessary for such earnest strivers?

In one sense, the grandest gain, everyone needs to acquire the skills and disciplines and habits of freedom. If each is free, then, like gun safety and driving, training for its proper use matters for each. After all is said and done, though, many will lack the time or inclination to pursue a liberal and liberating study. One alternative might be to restore the integrity of a common portion of the curriculum of higher education. An irony intrudes, however. In insisting on certain classes for everyone, one seems to be forcing freedom on some unwilling victims. That is done with driver training, but the demands in time and effort are modest, so they can be more easily tolerated. Schools are unlikely to join in forcing courses on students beyond the tolerated demands of a major. The buffet and the privilege have lasted too long.

Perhaps more hope exists for restoring a larger vision of the ends of higher education. At some point, agree both Ann Hartle and Thomas Hibbs, many people need to see the purpose of schooling as self-making, not “merely” (a word Dr. Hibbs especially deploys) career preparation. In her essay “Liberal Education and the Civil Character,” professor emerita Ann Hartle shows robustly how the student trained in the liberal arts has opportunity to acquire, in the words of John Henry Newman—quoted also by Dr. Hibbs—the “philosophical habit of mind.” This habit of mind suits a person for responsibility for the common good. Mastery of personal freedom sets the stage for the practice of civility. The formation of “judgment,” a key concern for Dr. Hartle, is the enabling power that suits an individual to negotiate the ceaseless flux of situating the self in community. Perhaps the wording is too grand, but the idea sought by the words is indeed grand, perhaps beyond the ken of someone who aspires to be a mid-level manager in a large corporation. That is the rub. How can the heights be sought when all around the chores and challenges aim for the mundane or, according to Dr. Hibbs, professor at Baylor University, the “instrumental.”

The tendency to a false dichotomy—“instrumental” and “pragmatic” skills opposed to a “rich conception” of skills—perhaps needs to be addressed. One involves the chores of the banker, the accountant, or the manager (even these, of course, can offer exalted vision when sought); the other a dangerously airy notion of the “liberation of human souls.” It will not do, either, to sequence these two goals, taking time to develop the rich skills and then turning to the practical. That is, of course, the assumption behind the old foundational courses: two years of broadening studies followed by two years of the sharpening studies of a major. Professionalization practically precludes this possibility. Going back to an old way of schooling is not a very likely option for many people. Perhaps the hope can rest on an elite willing to pursue the old studies, to seek “formation of character” with a much diminished concern for particulars of a discipline. The ongoing experiments in colleges and programs will keep alive the prospect of the arts of freedom, and those who choose them will flourish with the opportunity.

Though the world is a vale of soul-making, or perhaps because it is such, school need not be such. As inviting as the “liberating power of the humanities” might be, the arts of freedom can be learned apart from formal studies. A whole lifetime of learning and “forming” (an important word for both Dr. Hartle and Dr. Hibbs) awaits. If one supposes that character is formed finally and completely by the end of college, then ongoing studies may not help. It seems, though, that continuing education at work, as well as the informal learning that takes place in book clubs, in churches, and even in meet-up opportunities fostered by online connections show that both the mechanisms and the motivations for learning abound beyond school.

The challenge seems to be to keep active the purpose of the learning. Without a lively and large sense of purpose, a vision that restrains, all the reading and listening and talking and thinking become just one thing after another (close to what Henry Ford said about history). This is where Drs. Hartle and Hibbs can help. They summon an old view. They promote the liberal and the humane. Now, of course, these are loaded words. Many use the word “liberal” in new ways, making it mean things very different from its origins in liberty and in freedom. Similarly “humane,” as unlikely as this may seem, can come across as troublesomely provocative, especially in the somewhat altered form “humanism.” At their best, however, Drs. Hartle and Hibbs help readers “name what is missing” (Dr. Hartle), what might well be promoted as the great goal of all of the learning of one’s life.

Dr. Hibbs repeatedly notes the dangers of “bondage” and of being “bound” by convention, by fads, by the tyranny of the present moment. Freedom is needed. Dr. Hartle takes a somewhat different angle in asserting that “sentimental relativism,” and “political correctness,” and “demeaning and servile sensitivity” combine to render some college students unable to see themselves as “moral agents” capable of assuming responsibility for a place in the world. Dr. Hartle’s list seems to fit readily enough into Dr. Hibbs’ as simply examples of some of the virulent forms of tyranny evident presently. People become and remain victims. Both see the need for training as free individuals, “formation of character” for Dr. Hartle and “forming a whole human being of competence and character” for Dr. Hibbs. With such attention to formation, individuals will be ready to assume, in addition to personal responsibility, a larger share of life together in community, Dr. Hartle’s “common good.” In a sense, then, both promoters of liberal learning, Drs. Hartle and Hibbs, see their promoted studies as a means of escaping the Greek word “idiot” (originally one who cut himself from the life of the city-state because of satisfaction with private pursuits). This is the “civil character” of Dr. Hartle’s title. Dr. Hibbs dwells more consistently with the individual’s escape from the bondage of a “narrow and self-indulgent private life,” but he does note the dire political consequences that come from an “indifferent and disconnected populace.” He, too, to some extent acknowledges the social and political implications beyond the individual that come from a too thorough surrender to an “instrumental” education. Career preparation is not enough.

Yet creating the idyllic, noble course of studied freedom is likely to remain a minority pursuit. Let it be fostered for all it is worth, and the number will be modest. Nonetheless the individuals and communities involved will benefit. A larger number may well be attracted to robust courses that summon people to the formation of judgment. Though perhaps not satisfying because they will be too few in number, such courses may still hold some hope if they can advance the vision of life as a project for developing judgment. The work will persist after the class, or even the university, is over. There must be, however, intentional effort to escape the downward pull that threatens to turn classes into the dilettante’s dabbling in the history of rock music, or some such folderol. Perhaps even such a class could be soul-making if pursued with rightly directed intention. As Dr. Hibbs notes from Stanley Fish, only students in the “pursuit-of-truth business” ought to be in college, and there is the rub. Pontius Pilate’s old question (already a surrender of objective truth)—“What is truth?”—gives way to a happy self-centeredness. To each his own truth persists. Maybe the first step of liberation, a step in liberal learning, depends on recognizing a continuum. Perhaps one cannot arrive at acceptance of an absolute, objective truth, like traditional claims for the Bible or another religious text. Still gradations await. One need not resort to the opposite extreme that only personal, private, individual truth exists. Surely there are tentative explorations one can make; these themselves are the essays of liberation, to discover something larger than the self but somewhat less encompassing than the old sureties. If not the Bible, perhaps the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” (in the title of the old Kipling poem—oh no, surely a forbidden name encroaches here) offer some intermediate assurances. Such freedom from the absolute tyranny of the self is the end sought, but perhaps it can be offered initially as a vision of what might be. Complacency in the self, or complacency in the criticism of tradition (a significant issue for professor Hartle) rest readily enough it seems in the buffet model, but perhaps there is room for escape.

Perhaps Drs. Hartle and Hibbs are right that liberal education is for the university, but perhaps some hope can be found for liberal soul-making and judgment-training exercises in a whole array of settings in a civil society. The inns of revolutionary Boston may offer an oddly vigorous model. Given a chance to “appropriate” (Dr. Hartle—perhaps in admirable disregard for all the baggage that accompanies this word) tradition, citizens, in their return to “careful reading” (Dr. Hibbs) of freedom texts, can acquire selves ready to join those more thoroughly trained in the liberal arts in order to build the power and the restraint needed to sustain civil society. Freedom can be learned in the hedgerows and in the inns and in the classroom when hearts have been made receptive.

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Hartle, Ann. “Liberal Education and the Civil Character.” Modern Age. Summer 2018.

Hibbs, Thomas. “The Liberating Power of the Humanities.” Modern Age. Summer 2017.

The featured image is “Work” by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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