In a crisis, it is best to balance change and continuity. The liberal arts help us do so by embracing both. On the one hand, they are the anchor-in-bedrock that conserves the best of our culture. On the other hand, they are the wind-in-the-sail that powers us to betterment.

I. Accelerating Our Experience of Big Things

For years now, higher education has been on a forced march across uncharted terrain. Numerous structural changes are afoot, driven by demography, economics, technology, politics, identity politics, social justice, and now the pandemic depression. Understanding the forces that are reshaping higher education is critical in these uncertain times.[1] But in our rush to adjust to a new and dynamic situation, it’s also critical that we not sacrifice what has long been the glory of higher education: the liberal arts.

In a crisis, it is best to balance change and continuity. The liberal arts help us do so by embracing both. On the one hand, they are the anchor-in-bedrock that conserves the best of our culture. On the other hand, they are the wind-in-the-sail that powers us to betterment. This dynamism between change and continuity—between innovation and conservation—makes the liberal arts ageless. As our “freeing arts,” they help us throw off the ties of ignorance and prejudice that hold us back from the fullest pursuit of excellence of which we are capable. As our “thinking arts,” they help us chart the course to further and better thinking.

The main job of the liberal arts is to help lifelong learners grasp reality (truth), feel the wonder of it (beauty), and work ethically, creatively, and productively with it (goodness). History and literature, foreign languages and classics, physics, and philosophy—all provide a wonderful introduction to the splendor of the truth. These disciplines immerse students in the reality of the human condition and show both constructive and destructive ways to dealt with it. Let’s look briefly at how a few authors do this.

Every year I use Homer’s Odyssey in the Hauenstein Center’s annual “Hidden Wounds of War” conference to help veterans make the difficult readjustment to civilian life. In the epic, Odysseus spends ten years returning home from the decade-long Trojan War. On the way back, he must navigate horrific perils, but most of all he must resist hard drugs, easy sex, and strange gods. It’s all there, every distraction, and the veterans appreciate Homer’s map to help them find their way back home. It’s told by someone who understands what they are going through, even if a span of 2,800 years separates them.

Because most students are young, they have limited exposure to the diversity of human types. The study of literature accelerates their acquisition of worldly wisdom, making them less likely to be shocked or deceived. By transporting readers to the unfamiliar and “the other,” fiction presents case studies of ethical dilemmas students haven’t yet encountered. Reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, for example, speeds up the student’s acquisition of knowledge of the world on its terms. The Pequod, the Nantucket whaling ship at the center of the novel, contains a society unto itself. All our virtues and vices are exposed during the hunt for the great white whale. The story does not end well. It illustrates what happens when a leader is driven by a maniacal obsession that goes unchecked. Captain Ahab—an “ungodly, god-like” man—is a type that students should know. His obsession was with a bull sperm whale; Hitler’s was with the Jews; Stalin’s was with the capitalists; Diocletian’s was with the early Christians.

Melville’s Moby Dick is a parable of destruction. So is another book written about the same time. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin sought to pull slavery up by the roots; pull it out of America’s soil and cast it into the cleansing fires of justice. The best-seller made the evils of chattel slavery unnervingly real to Northerners—so real that public opinion tilted decidedly more abolitionist. It even made abolitionists of some in the South and West who had not previously been opposed to slavery. As a result, historians often cite the novel as one of the causes of the Civil War. Certainly President Lincoln thought so. When he received Stowe in the White House in 1862, he reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

The liberal arts teach Big Things. If you’ve been steeped in them a while, you see that reality, in our Western perspective, has been defined, organized, and interpreted through polarities: life-and-death, good-and-evil, creation and fall, change-and-continuity, unity-and-diversity, core-and-periphery, freedom-and-necessity, justice-and-mercy. These polarities are existential, baked into existence. Our most provocative books draw on these polarities to explore how human beings navigate between opposing poles, for we are “in the middle of things,” as Eva Brann observes. Genesis uses a vivid sequence of polarities to describe the creation of the world. Ecclesiastes uses many of these same polarities to say that the world is not enough, that existential opposites cannot be reconciled except by God—therefore seek out your God. Likewise Antigone is a veritable study in polarities; the classicists George Steiner and Eva Brann observe that of all Greek tragedies, Sophocles’s drama is distinguished for expressing “all the [five] principal constants of conflict in the condition of man: the confrontation of men and women, of age and youth, of society and individual, of the living and the dead, and of men and gods. The play presents each of these as an equilibrium . . . evenly poised in its resolutions.”[2]

Closer to the present, A Tale of Two Cities famously opens with polarities that characterize modernity as an age of extremes:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Setting the stage of his novel with these memorable words, Dickens not only contrasted two early modern cities, London and Paris, but more significantly argued that the French Revolution brought all these polarizing extremes to the surface—and we’ve been trying to reconcile them ever since.

From Greek tragedies to Genesis creation stories to our astronomers’ latest cosmologies, polarities abound. I challenge students to organize more of their thinking around polarities because life presents not just problems to solve but also polarities to manage.[3] Experienced leaders know this. Current debates over how to manage the coronavirus pandemic highlight the point. It’s an HBR case study in the making, this fierce tug-of-war between health officials on the one hand, and economic advisers on the other, over how to achieve the best outcome: saved lives and a robust economy. Our President and governors are experimenting, trying to find the right balance. But until scientists develop a vaccine to halt the spread of coronavirus (a problem to solve), the debate between public health officials and economists will generate a clash of values and require the balancing of risks, challenging our leaders to bring their best judgment to bear (a polarity to manage).[4]

II. Working in the Most Extraordinary Laboratory of All: Human History

The study of history helps students grasp reality because it spreads before them the empirical record of what human beings have said, written, and done. Every experiment, every calculation, every invention, every discovery, every triumph, every failure that our ancestors recorded these past 5,000 years is there for examination and evaluation. From Adam to atoms, from Plato to NATO, from Stonehenge to Stonewall—it’s all there, this rich human laboratory, in our histories. Close study of those who have gone before equips students to think analogically and compare the way they think and live with the alternatives developed by earlier generations. We soon see, as Mark Twain observed, that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

If you put our current war against the coronavirus in the long perspective of history, you quickly learn that we are not alone. Countless generations had to figure out ways to survive a plague. At one extreme is medieval Eurasia during the Black Death, the worst catastrophe in history since it killed off half the Earth’s population. At the other extreme is American Samoa during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-1919, probably the most successful place on Earth to survive a modern pandemic. In the current crisis, don’t we want our leaders to know why that is?

The study of history can give people much-needed distance from present-day concerns—and I don’t mean by escaping them but by becoming more objective. It used to be that historians wrote their books considering just one or maybe two viewpoints. But during the nineteenth century, public and private archives proliferated—as did the railroads and steamers that connected them—making it possible to research the same event from a variety of viewpoints. That’s when history became a modern profession. The training of historians became methodologically pluralist, rigorously scientific, and liberally humanistic. It was now possible to see an event such as the Mexican War from a variety of viewpoints—from that of the soldiers who fought it, the generals who directed it, the slaves who supplied it, the Democrats who supported it, the Whigs who opposed it, the British who watched it, and the Mexicans who lost it. When pursued with an open mind, without ideological blinders, the study of history exposes our limitations and checks our biases. Like travel, it challenges us to embrace a bigger reality than the one we’re comfortable with.

I ask students to think about their lives in relation to those who came before. Who flourished more, I ask: you or they? You may like being modern. But what are the trade-offs to enjoying our lifestyle? Surveys reveal that our multitude of screens exhausts us. Social media leave us feeling envious and alienated from one another. The pollution generated by our lifestyle harms us. What have we lost by gaining smart phones, 3D printers, and 5G networks? Did people in the past have it better in some ways? Did they have fewer distractions, less anxiety, more time to enjoy the rhythms of nature, more genial relationships with family, friends, and neighbors? Because of modern medical and technological advances, there is a tendency to think that we today have it best—and in many ways we do—but students of history caution, don’t be too quick to judge. Historians learn to think comparatively and evaluate critically. They neither glorify the past nor idolize the present. As my graduate advisor, Stephen Tonsor, used to say, “The good old days were not that good, and the present may hardly be better.”

When history is taught in the spirit of the liberal arts, it can be a potent antidote against the ideological poisons coursing through our body politic. Americans have recently been going through a great sorting. Extremists on the left have concentrated in the Democratic Party, extremists on the right in the Republican Party. This sorting has made principled accommodation more difficult if not impossible, which in turn has been injurious to self-government. As Madison asserted in the final paragraph of Federalist 55, self-government requires more of citizens than any other form of government. Our efforts to seek better ways to live with one another must always be accompanied by the search for truth. Ideologues, alas, do not want truth, only power. To get it they distort reality by lazily resorting to pre-packaged answers. Modern-day sophists, ideologues are like people seeing all of life through colored glasses, when what they need are clear lenses.

III. Opening Wide Our Aperture

The study of philosophy, intellectual history, and psychology challenges students to open their mental aperture. When you open the aperture of a camera lens, it lets in more light. In class I illustrate the importance of having a wider aperture using Pierre Lecomte du Noüy’s “plumb bob exercise.” A carpenter framing a house uses a plumb bob to establish that two stud walls are vertically parallel. Despite what the plumb bob is telling the carpenter—it is not lying—the walls are not actually parallel but rather two radii pointing to the center of the Earth. Aperture matters. Perspective matters. Don’t we need leaders and policy makers who see the big picture?

To illustrate, as of this writing (April 18, 2020), some 38,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19. The scale of death is heartbreaking. But hardly ever factored in are the additional deaths that are likely to occur from suicide, substance abuse, and heart disease when people lose their jobs. Writes former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey: “Every 1 percent hike in the unemployment rate will likely produce a 3.3 percent increase in drug-overdose deaths and a 0.99 percent increase in suicides, according to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the medical journal Lancet. These are facts based on past experience, not models. If unemployment hits 32 percent, some 77,000 Americans are likely to die from suicide and drug overdoses as a result of layoffs. Deaths of despair.”[5] That’s double the number of people who have thus far died from the coronavirus in the U.S. The point is lost unless one’s aperture is wide open. Perspective makes all the difference between good and bad risk assessment.

Taught well, the liberal arts instill respect for intellectual diversity, whether from the left and the party of innovation or from the right and the party of conservation. Practitioners of the liberal arts appreciate methodological diversity to meet the demands of intellectual rigor: point and counterpoint, sic et non, pro and con, tertium quid. Leaders who are lifelong learners welcome multiple perspectives on the most critical issues we collectively face. As a result, they are not credulous. They acquire the good habit of not uncritically accepting the first information they receive or the first answer they hear. As I write, there is a furious investigation to try and find out whether the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan wet market, as Chinese officials maintain, or in a government virology lab, as U.S. intelligence analysts suspect.[6] The implications are enormous. If the former, then the coronavirus is a natural disaster and no one is to blame. If the latter, then the Chinese regime is possibly culpable for hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide and trillions of dollars in economic damages besides. Truth matters. There can be no justice without truth.

A good liberal education helps students speak with their minds and listen with their hearts. We could all develop more empathy, which is the emotional intelligence to identify with the “other.” A vivid case study, a moving novel, a riveting story, a powerful work of art or music—all expand our emotional repertoire and remind us never to leave the human factor out of our calculations. When I train a diverse group of students to find common ground with one another, I pair them off and ask them to tell at least three core stories that define who they are. Without fail, people who start the exercise believing they are irreconcilably different from their table-mate find unexpected points of convergence. They connect emotionally—and often make a new friend. Does anyone doubt that EQ and empathy are critical for policy makers and democratic leaders who are making decisions on behalf of the rest of us?

At the same time, practice of the liberal arts teaches students about the space between receiving another’s communication . . . and giving our response to it. We all know what it’s like to talk to someone who is not really listening but just reloading as we speak. Moderated classroom discussion can instantiate the habit of being quick to listen, slow to disagree, and eager to understand.

A good liberal arts education exposes students to the dangers of hubris, or excessive pride. Reading the historian Thucydides makes us alive to the “known unknowns” and “unknown knowns” when we must choose a course of action. But there are also “unknown unknowns.” Hubris can lead people to be heedless of the law of unintended consequences. Pericles was arguably the greatest leader Athens ever had. He was reputedly the most incorruptible. But after he ordered every inhabitant to come inside the city walls during the long war with Sparta, a plague broke out. It killed one-fourth of the population. Once plucky Athens—the polis that had turned back the mighty Persian Empire, the superpower of its day—was forever weakened by a good man’s bad decision. Athens would eventually lose the war. Pericles in his pride did not think he could make such a big mistake. Despite his storied eloquence, the plague had the last word: it ended his political career and also his life.

This cautionary tale reminds me of a story about General George Marshall who, upon learning that he was being nominated for Secretary of State, was asked how he would prepare to deal with a tempestuous world. “I’m going home and reading my Thucydides.”

The law of unintended consequences has asserted itself throughout history. Who knew that when Muslims began closing down Christian commerce in the Mediterranean Sea, a whole new world—the Americas—would open up to Europeans in search of alternate routes to the East? Who knew that when an obscure monk nailed 95 theses to a church door, it would kick off a civilizational break within Fortress Christendom? Who knew that a depression in the late 1920s would strengthen war-bent fascists in the 1930s, leading to the most devastating carnage in world history? During the last few decades, despite a stable of PhDs, relatively few experts predicted such world-historical events as the Fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, Great Recession of 2008, Arab Spring, rise of ISIS, election of Donald Trump, or coronavirus pandemic. Does anyone doubt that our best and brightest should occasionally have a little more humility?

IV. Loving Science, Logic, and the Laws of Thought

There are two quotations I like to share with students:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” ~Daniel Patrick Moynihan

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” ~Sir John Maynard Keynes

The U.S. scientific community leads the world in research. A good liberal education instills knowledge of, and respect for, sound science. It also assumes that citizens have every right to be skeptical when they hear someone use the term, “settled science” (often a rhetorical ploy to stop conversation). Even more, a good liberal education assumes that citizens can sniff out the opposite of sound science: junk science.

One of the most scandalous abuses of science occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, when the leaders of America’s tobacco companies, guided by a public relations guru named John Hill, conspired to launch a campaign of misinformation against research that established the connection between cigarettes and poor health. The PR campaign funded “studies” asserting that cigarettes were harmless. The “studies” seemed plausible enough when reported in newspapers. At the same time, an army of lobbyists fed the junk science to legislators. The campaign worked. It sowed enough public doubt and confusion about the hazards of cigarettes that a public consensus was slow to form around the dangers of smoking. As a result, the percentage of Americans who smoked tobacco products climbed for another 15 years, until the late 1960s, and many additional thousands of people died annually from cigarette-related cancers and heart disease. All this, because an industry funded “research” that yielded not the truth, but the outcomes the industry wanted. It would take another three decades before the historic tobacco settlement forced cigarette companies to pay up. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports: “The November 1998 Master Settlement Agreement marks . . . an unprecedented event. Although admitting no wrongdoing, the tobacco companies signed an agreement with the attorneys general of 46 states. This agreement settled lawsuits totaling $206 billion.”[7]

Perhaps more than anything else, the ability to reason distinguishes human beings from other animals. A good liberal education teaches us how to do it better. At some point every student—not just those who concentrate in the liberal arts—should be exposed to Aristotle’s three laws of thought: the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle. These laws may not titillate, but they are powerful tools in public discourse. Debaters learn, for instance, that the Achilles heel in argument is finding irreconcilable contradictions in others’ assertions. Often these contradictions can be quite humorous. During the pandemic, one of the more humorous violations of the law of non-contradiction occurred in Orange County, California, where a man protesting the stay-at-home order appeared in public wearing head-to-toe protective gear yet holding a sign that read, “COVID-19 is a lie.”[8] At the very least, the liberal arts can give both sides of a controversy some common ground rules to raise the quality of debate.

V. Returning to the Splendor of the Trivium

Administrators and educators tout that a good liberal arts education develops their students’ critical thinking skills. The statement is true as far as it goes but is incomplete. Critical thinking was embedded in the classical trivium that developed across civilizations and over millennia. The trivium, which is Latin for “the three paths,” steeped students in grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric—concepts that we think we know from everyday use but that are much richer in their original meaning. The trivium comprises much more than critical thinking. It provides a comprehensive method to deal with a society’s most important issues.

In the great tradition of the liberal arts, “grammar” is much more than knowing the rules of composition, important as that is. More broadly understood, it refers to learning how the worldview of our civilization pulls the Big Questions together. The understanding of God, the view of human beings, their ideal social relations, their relation to nature, the values they hold as non-negotiable, and the ends to which they should direct our lives—all are part of grammar, the grammar of our worldview. Grammar subsumes the major source documents of the culture—the works of poets, prophets, philosophers, and scientists. All these works together define the civilization’s authoritative canon, its worldview, and the task of education traditionally has been to transmit that worldview to its young through reading and discussion of the canon. Grammar is the liberal learner’s anchor.

In the great tradition of the liberal arts, “dialectic” is much more than knowing the rules of rational thinking, important as that is. More broadly understood, it refers to learning how to critically engage a civilization’s worldview. In a moderated setting students learn critical methods that arise from good questions and healthy skepticism. These methods range from Socrates’s dialectical conversations to Saint Thomas Aquinas’s scholastic method to Sir Karl Popper’s criterion of falsifiability. The dialectical tradition is perfectly comfortable with aporia, the Greek word for inconclusive statements that invite more questions. It seeks to ferret out weaknesses in the reigning paradigm—not as idle negativity but as rigorous method, the better to grasp what is to be done. Many centuries ago, Europe’s natural philosophers pushed and pushed on weaknesses in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic geocentric view of the universe until it collapsed and was replaced by the heliocentric conception of our solar system. We call that moment in history the Copernican revolution. The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment that followed instantiated dialectical methods in modern Western culture. These methods give students ways of questioning received wisdom—again, not to tear down but to build stronger and go farther. Think again of our maritime metaphor. Dialectic is the liberal learner’s sail.

In the great tradition of the liberal arts, “rhetoric” is much more than learning Aristotle’s three means of persuasion—ethos, pathos, logos—important as they are. More broadly understood, rhetoric refers to discerning the best ways to advance the conversation about our civilization’s worldview (grammar) and our critical engagement with that worldview (dialectic)—but with this twist: rhetoric requires the speaker to have the courage and skill to offer his or her considered viewpoint in the marketplace. In a representative democracy it applies, by the way, not only to writing and speaking but also to other forms of symbolic communication such as music, painting, sculpture, and architecture. In whatever form the rhetoric “speaks,” it is the liberal learner’s rudder, hopefully steering the ship of state to a better destination.[9]

There’s no gainsaying that rhetoric has always been the most problematic part of the trivium. Plato cautioned that rhetoric’s power—its capacity to move people to just and unjust actions alike—must be used to assist in the search for truth or else it can be dangerous. Many of the sophists of his day were indeed dangerous. The worst among them taught students how to win arguments by making the weaker argument the stronger. They eschewed dispassionate reason for violent displays of emotion. One can imagine the chest-thumping and table pounding in the sophists’ performance—or the bullying they resorted to when they had the inferior argument, which they often did. It was sophists who trained the witnesses in Socrates’s trial; they succeeded in instigating the judicial murder of a great man.

One of the best ways to defend against the sophistical viruses that plague us today is to boost our body politic’s immune system with the trivium. Traditionally the trivium was at the heart of the liberal arts, just as the liberal arts were at the heart of higher education. The trivium’s lofty goal was then, and ever will be, to integrate knowledge of a civilization’s world view with constructive criticism of that worldview, all the while deploying rhetoric to move one’s fellow citizens to seek, to the extent they are capable, what is truer, lovelier, and better. In the present crisis, as in any crisis, don’t we need to recall the better angels of our nature that seeks understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness?

VI. Becoming Odysseus

My final thought in this meditation on the liberal arts returns to Odysseus, perhaps the only king in literature who was really good at working with his hands, good enough to build a boat with an anchor, sail, and rudder. In Book 5 of the Odyssey, this “man of many twists and turns” left the island of Calypso and set out on the open sea for home. From long learning he knew much: whom to trust for setting the course, why the color of a current changed, how to read the light in the sky, when to brace for heavy weather, how to get back on a course set by the stars. Sometimes he relied on his anchor to hold him in place. Other times he needed his rudder and sail to move out of danger and closer to home. Through all his days and nights of travel, he never doubted his final destination.

Those who are liberally educated are like Odysseus. They share a noble lineage. They are travelers. They prefer the road to the inn. They have prepared for life’s journey by assembling the books and building the library and finding the crew they need for anything they will encounter, from dog days and doldrums to dark clouds and heavy weather. When after many years they yearn to go back home, to their place and their people, their learning does not fail them, but guides them across charted and uncharted waters alike. And then, when they finally reach home, they are delighted to discover that another adventure is about to begin . . . in the telling of the tale.

Author’s Note: I dedicate this essay to Winston Elliott and the spirit of Odysseus who lives within him. Many of the thoughts in the essay grow out of our delightful conversations about the liberal arts, hard books, St. John’s College, Eva Brann, and friendship. See my recent webcast with Winston. I hasten to add that Winston is not responsible for any errors in my work.

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Notes:

[1] See, e.g., the large concerns of Eva Brann; as well as those of Nathaniel Urban and Jonathan Pidluzny. In the more granular present, time will tell the extent to which the coronavirus pandemic is changing life as we know it. Unprecedented is government’s decision to shut down much of the U.S. to enforce social distancing, which in turn caused the nation’s economy to fall into the steepest depression ever. In March 2020, industrial production experienced its worst one-month drop since 1946. Consumer spending is also at unheard of lows. As a result, revenues to government at all levels are catastrophically down. That means colleges and universities—my sector—are having to make major adjustments. They are moving courses online, eliminating marginal majors, releasing redundant administrators, furloughing staff, maximizing facilities, having campuses share more resources, shuttering financially vulnerable colleges, and adjusting to lower revenue streams from enrollment, government, and donors. And that is just the beginning of it. For more than a decade, university leaders have been spearheading structural changes, and the pandemic depression is now accelerating the transformation. We now find ourselves in the midst of a paradigm shift. No longer marketing mostly to 18-year olds, college presidents are casting a wider net to all potential lifelong learners. No longer focusing just on the degree path, deans are bundling courses around specific skills needed in the marketplace. No longer limited by face-to-face instruction, professors are rapidly expanding the use of technology to deliver knowledge to learners around the world. In the new paradigm, a university’s brand is no longer identified just with its classrooms and research labs, its football stadiums and upscale dormitories, but also by its global reach. That is the new mark of distinction—and a predictor of its success.

[2] Eva Brann, “The Enduring Legend of Antigone,” The Imaginative Conservative.

[3] Gleaves Whitney, “The Fusionist Mind of Stephen Tonsor,” Modern Age (Winter 2019); and Barry Johnson, “Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.”

[4] Gleaves Whitney, “The COVID-19 Crisis: The Need to Balance Public Health and Economic Stability,” The Imaginative Conservative.

[5] Betsy McCaughey, “We Must Count the Deaths from Shutdowns As Well As from Coronavirus,” New York Post, April 14, 2020.

[6] Adam Taylor, “What Caused the Coronavirus?” Washington Post, April 16, 2020.

[7] For the CDC report, see here. For more of the story, see Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

[8] Rachel Kiley, “Protester Spotted with ‘COVID-19 is a lie’ Sign—Yet Wearing Full Protective Gear,” Daily Dot, April 19, 2020.

[9] I am indebted to two individuals who helped me understand the civilizational and not just the curricular importance of the trivium. One is the University of Colorado classics professor emeritus E. Christian Kopff. I came out of my undergraduate study of rhetoric with a technically competent but conventional view of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. I regarded it as merely curricular. On several occasions between 2000 and 2010, I had the privilege of talking with Chris, who transformed my thinking about the trivium’s role in the liberal arts; it was not merely curricular but educational and thus civilizational in the deepest sense. The other individual was my graduate mentor, Stephen Tonsor (1923-2014), who, though he never explicitly put it in terms of the trivium, taught me by his example how to understand and engage Western civilization in such a way as to reflect the structure of the trivium’s three elements. (1) In the University of Michigan history department, Tonsor billed himself as a “modern European intellectual historian”; sure enough, he had mastered the grammar or canon of the modern West. (2) More broadly he called himself a “cultural critic”; sure enough, he had mastered the dialectic or critiques of modernity and the West. (3) Anyone who knew Tonsor personally or through his writing also was aware that he was a fierce polemicist who did not hesitate to apply his erudition to the issues of his day. A complex liberal-conservative-Catholic thinker, he believed that many of the critiques of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Anglo-American “Establishment”—Nihilism, Marxism, Positivism, Freudianism, scientism, radical relativism—were undermining the very culture that had made such -isms possible. He did not let critical modernity go unscathed. His biting tongue and caustic pen often went straight to his target’s heart. In Tonsor’s essays and teaching, therefore, we see all three elements of the trivium. But I did not fully understand Tonsor’s unspoken link with the trivium’s intellectual structure until years after I left Ann Arbor, when Chris Kopff taught me to see grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric as central to the liberal arts and education.

The featured image is “The Temple of the Liberal Arts” (1779) by Jacques Sablet (1749-1803) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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