A preliminary function of a liberal education must be to serve as a purgative, a cleansing, of those who wish to be free. By its means we can cleanse ourselves of our undigested and unconscious prejudices.
When it first came home to me that I would not be a tutor at the Graduate Institute in Liberal Education this summer, I felt great twinges of regret—regret that I might not see some of you again and regret that I was not to be a part of that exhilarating exercise taking place up here, on the slopes of Sun Mountain. So I was only too glad to accept the Director’s invitation to come at least for this occasion, and in the dead of an Eastern winter I sat down to compose my ticket of admission—this commencement address.
I had a suspicion that I knew just why he had asked me to come; namely, precisely because I had found last summer so thoroughly exhilarating and, on the whole, successful. So it seemed to me that I was called upon to examine the ingredients of that excitement and that success.
Of course, as I face you now, I realize what a risky undertaking that will be. After all, I have not been with you through this summer, so what do I know of who grew disenchanted with what or with whom, when and for what reasons? Therefore, I have to make my speech in the blind hope that most of you have had, when all is said and done, three or four grand summers.
Let me start my analysis from the outside (as it were), from the most external aspect of this enterprise, and go from there to what I think of as its center.
This outside aspect is the location of the institute in New Mexico, in the Southwest—for many of us a strange and even fabulous part of the United States.
Last summer, one of our students, now a graduate, was a man who was an experienced pilot. A number of us had the good fortune to be taken by him for weekend flights over the four-corner country, where New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona touch. We swooped about like mechanized gods in a ridiculous flying contraption—once we were forced down by a bumble bee which had clogged our speedometer duct—and saw a country whose vast-scaled features can only be taken in from above; no ordinary earth-crawling mortal could see enough of it to apprehend its shape. So our view and our scale expanded and expanded. It was a truly fabulous land insofar as every account of it must appear like a fable. For here, nature herself had taken to the arts, to building, sculpting, painting. We saw a rock lying on the desert like a majestic ship: Shiprock of the Navahoes; we saw a land covered with the most delicately colored ripple design: the Painted Desert; we saw an enormous park of magnificent columns and arches: Monument Valley.
But the ship had no destination, and the painting no intention, and the monuments commemorated nothing. From this point of view, each natural panorama appeared as a stupendous mockery of human work whose soulless, unchanging shapes, with their violent and yet predictable moods, seemed repellent and hostile to the human spirit. We began to understand why the local painters so often produce such dreadful, lurid pictures—it is because they have been anticipated and outdone by the very nature they are supposed to inform with meaning. So in defense, we drew in on ourselves and seemed to become particularly attentive friends during that adventure.
I thought I noticed something similar here on the campus: at first we were all avid and wide-eyed sight-seers, but once we had seen the sights, we stayed home and made music and conversation. It reminded me of a Platonic dialogue, namely, the Phaedrus, the only dialogue which takes place in the country, outside the walls of the city. In this setting, Socrates behaves like a well-informed foreigner. “I am a lover of learning,” he explains, “and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, while the people in town do.” And so it seems to me in general, that the enterprise of education needs enclosure and density, and that the very expansive grandeur of this sky and this land, by driving us inward, makes a perfect summer setting for the kind of learning Socrates means. So much for our surroundings; what about the people who belong within this enclosure of learning (I am referring to the Graduate Institute), the people who, Socrates says, are his teachers?
What is most striking about the members of the Institute is their variety and distinctiveness.
The distinctiveness is largely the result of age. Our students here are adults when they come, as they are adults when they leave. For a teacher used to undergraduates this makes for a noticeable difference. The difference is not in the way classes go—they are remarkably like those in the winter school, since the advantages older students have in experience are often cancelled by their reserve; and the advantages younger students have in freshness are balanced by the better application of the graduate students. The difference is much more in what the students are. Young students are distinguished from each other by the adventures they have had, but older students are distinguished by the moral decisions they have made. It takes a while to learn of these, but I have met people here who have changed their profession because they learned that their advanced training required them to do what they considered indecent, and others who had devoted the last ten years of their lives to the laborious acquisition of a night-school degree, and still others who have deliberately committed their next ten years to the great plan of founding a school which would be exactly what their children needed.
The variety of the Institute’s students, on the other hand, is much more immediately striking, especially to me, because I have this last winter visited a number of good liberal arts colleges and observed the wisely fed, well-doctored, regularly exercised, casually expensive normality of shape and dress that is prevalent among their undergraduates. In contrast we here come broad and narrow, tall and short, gaudy and drab, elegant and dowdy. That variety is, of course, a sign of the variety of our origins: Our summer community up here is a community-in-diversity.
Like all my fellow-tutors I found these differences in our students not only invigorating but peculiarly appropriate to our undertaking—to graduate liberal education.
I am probably about to say what some of you cannot agree with at all. But to say what everyone agrees with is to say nothing at all—and it would seem almost like adding insult to injury to make you sit here in your black heat-absorbent gowns to listen to nothing. Perhaps I can at least make you feel nostalgic for those many seminars which you have left feeling deeply dissatisfied with the opinions of your more vocal fellow-members.
So let me begin by saying that I do not believe that everyone in this enormous republic should be like everyone else or should be with everyone else, because that can only be done in terms of the lowest common denominator. But that denominator is so low that all character is lost, since only those traits can be kept which offend no one. The compulsory public schools in very large systems are sad examples of this effect—Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is removed because it offends some Jews, prayers disappear because religious libertarians object, discipline is adjusted to suit progressive parents. Everything has to be composed very carefully and inoffensively or made up anew while boredom and irritation grow. It would seem to me better that people should have alternative places to go, places where they need not be so careful not to tread on each other’s toes, where they can live loudly and merrily or silently and soberly, in tribes or alone, as suits them.
In stating this preference, I may seem to be ripe for certain modern “movements”—those toward “individual liberation” on the one hand and “ethnic identity” on the other. But in fact, I have the greatest doubts about them both. For I think we have, all of us, together, gone much too far toward losing our innocence for such crude salvations. And I think that this Institute, because of its setting, its people, and finally and most centrally, its program, is the place to come to terms with this fact. Here we live together in a comfortably temporary suspension of our working opinions and in friendly compromise of our living habits—for example, I confine my squeaking flute practice to an inoffensive hour and my neighbor kindly turns down her radio to an inaudible volume. Here we can think about what ought to be common and what ought to be separate.
Now it is easy to know what makes us all utterly the same and equal. If we came here overland we all travelled over well-numbered routes, keeping to the right of a white line and going, I trust, at exactly 55 miles per hour, that being the national speed limit. If we stopped to eat we knew what kind of standard stuff would come with our hamburger, like it or not. (I have a friend, a little boy, the joy of whose life it is to bring a certain imperial hamburger dispensary to a dead halt by asking for his hamburger without a pickle.) If we go to the drugstore in the Coronado Shopping Center, 1500 miles from home, we can home in on the paper clips without the least hesitation, because they are always in the stationery department.
De Tocqueville says in Democracy in America that Americans are, without knowing it, Cartesians in action. He is referring to the way they direct their minds toward managing their affairs. Those of you who have read Descartes’ Rules in the “Mathematics and Natural Science” seminar, or even the Meditations in the Philosophy tutorial, will remember what way that is: just such a rational, departmentalizing, engineering way as has produced the well-organized, convenient sameness of our lives. We certainly owe our sameness largely to Cartesian principles.
But people get tired of this rule-ridden, rationalized, homogeneous world, and so they try to construct differences and distinctions. Merchandise, for instance, is “personalized,” so that you can order a mug, say with your initials on it. Of course, those initials are stamped on before you ever order the mug—many J’s and M’s and very few X’s and Y’s, because few people are called Xavier and Yolanda and many people John and Mary. All kinds of “individualization” are, I think, only sophisticated sameness.
It seems to me to be at least partly the same with the “ethnic movements” as well. They are a reaction to our homogeneous lives, but a reaction on the same level and from the same source. The paraphernalia that go with them are certainly merchandise like any other. But what is more essential is that they were invented at the universities and think-tanks by people who have subjected the world to rational analysis. The very learnedness of the term “ethnic” shows this, as does its generality. The scholars who constructed the concept took the Greek word used in the New Testament to name the heathen nations and to make an invidious distinction between them and the People of the Covenant. But they took the derogatory sense out of it. Anyone (except perhaps those poor “Wasps”) can be equally an “ethnic”—it is a difference without distinction.
Here is the point I want to make: It is too late for us to make an innocent and naive return either to youthfully spontaneous individuality or to venerably traditional ancestral ways. We are too much caught in the regularity, efficiency, and rationality of our Cartesian world. That is why our enthusiastic attempts in those directions always look a little like a costume party.
And yet I believe in some such return. I think most of us have a feeling that some sort of a new beginning is needed, and I have never heard of a true beginning which was not a return. What I want to claim is that a liberal education, like ours, here, this summer, is the beginning of that beginning.
Some people say that the correct meaning of the phrase “liberal education” is “food for the free.” “Liberal” means “suitable for free people,” and the word “education” has its root in common with our word “edible.” I don’t know if this etymology is correct, but I will use it to help me say something opposite: It seems to me that in modern times a first, preliminary function of a liberal education must be to serve as a purgative, a cleansing, of those who wish to be free. By its means we can cleanse ourselves of our undigested and unconscious prejudices, most of which turn out to be associated with just that rationalized sameness I was describing before. Isn’t that just the effect which the study and discussion of Descartes, Rousseau, Hume, de Tocqueville, and Marx had, if they had any?
But while such study sets us free from the sameness of our regulated environment, it also reveals to us what we have both truly to ourselves and truly in common: our common human nature. Let me give two examples taken from my experiences last summer.
The first will mean most to those of you who have taken the rewarding leap of doing the “Mathematics and Natural Science,” and who have studied Euclidean and Non-Euclidean geometry. The Euclidean figures came very naturally—every child who draws stick-figures already implicitly sees their properties, and anyone, when asked a series of skillful questions, can, like Meno’s slave boy, make Euclidean discoveries by consulting his imagination. But when we came to Non-Euclidean Geometry, although every figure and every theorem was perfectly thinkable, not one of us could honestly report that we were able to imagine a single Non-Euclidean property. For instance, we all understood that in this geometry no figures could be different in size and yet preserve the same shape, but we could not imagine this impossibility. Then we had a very lively discussion in which we concluded that the very ability to make images and figures different in size but the same in shape, was so deep and common a human characteristic that humanity might almost be tested by the presence of an image-making faculty, which would, by its very nature, be Euclidean. We concluded that human beings must have Euclideanism in common.
The second example comes from the “Politics and Society” seminar where we read Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on Law. To my happy surprise, it turned out to be the summer’s most influential reading. I often wondered why that was so, and finally thought that it must be because our relation to eternal, natural, human, and divine law was recognized by the members of the seminar as being both more their own and at the same time more a common concern than other, apparently exciting and current, social preoccupations. Thomas had evidently taught us terms which could become our common reference.
This then seems to me to be what liberal education is for, and what should happen in the course of liberal learning—and should continue to happen when its formal requirements have long since been completed.
First, that we should find ourselves enabled to break out of the web of learned slogans and engineered solutions in which we are enmeshed. Next, that we should search for the true roots of our own humanity in hopes of discovering common questions, establishing common terms and formulating possible common answers. And finally, that we should be moved to make a deep-felt, thoughtful return to our own affairs and take up our narrower loyalties to ourselves, to our ancestry, or just to our daily associations, not by being helplessly and witlessly driven into them, but by free choice.
So I think I can summarize the ingredients of the summer’s exhilaration in this way: There was the grandness of our setting, which made us expand and yet pay more attention to one another; there was the variety and distinctiveness of our participants, which made them the best sort of partners in learning; and finally there was that commonality, rooted in single human souls, which is the beginning and the end of this program of liberal education.
You have completed the formal requirements of this program, and are about to enter the degree of Master of the Arts which make a liberal education possible. That degree is given for practical and professional purposes, and you certainly have, through three or four hard-working summers, earned that reward. For my part, I have never been able to see why a thing that is good in itself—a liberal education—should not also have ordinary profitable consequences. I therefore wish you the very best of luck in your careers and I earnestly hope that your plans may work out and that your expectations may be realized.
Still, speaking among ourselves, good as it is to have a Master of Arts, it would be ridiculous to claim to be one, for the free arts are exactly such as can have no masters only devoted practitioners. And therefore let me now welcome you, who are about to be alumni to the permanent part of St. John’s College, not as Masters but as Fellow-lovers of liberal learning.
This essay was originally published here in February 2016, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was given as the commencement address for the graduate institute in liberal education at St John’s College in August 1975. It appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 27, Number 4, 1976) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.
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The featured image is “A young Scholar and his Tutor” likely by Gerrit Dou, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.