Oh, the Humanities!

REVIEW: 'The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do About It'

Raphael's 'The School of Athens' / Wikimedia Commons
September 25, 2022

Numerous books and articles published in recent years have deplored the condition of American higher education. On the one hand, costs keep outpacing inflation by a wide margin. On the other, questions are increasingly raised about the quality of what students and parents are getting for their money. Outside the STEM fields, in which our colleges and universities continue to excel, newspapers regularly highlight students who, having majored in subjects broadly called the "humanities" at prestigious and costly schools, find themselves unable to obtain gainful employment in their field of interest—and hence to repay the hefty loans they may have taken out to finance their education (at least without the benefit of Joe Biden's federal bailout). Finally, a large proportion of our institutions of higher learning have succumbed to politicization: Many faculty use their courses as occasions for partisan indoctrination, syllabi are subject to censorship or "trigger warnings" for potentially offending various designated "minorities," visiting speakers are harassed or disinvited if they express dissenting points of view, and students report being "canceled" by their classmates for violating politically correct taboos.

In Part I of The Death of Learning, John Agresto acknowledges the force of each of the foregoing criticisms. But the greatest value of his book lies in its second part, devoted to the theme of "Redeeming and Reconstructing Liberal Education." While scolding the snobbery of societal elites toward fellow citizens who don't pursue a college degree, instead entering the working world directly, Agresto aims to defend the value of a genuinely liberal education, not only for the individual who receives it, but for his country. But to do this requires reconceptualizing the nature and meaning of liberal education.

Agresto is uniquely qualified to undertake this task. Having taught political philosophy at several prominent colleges and universities and authored five books (some dealing with the American constitutional tradition and the role of the Supreme Court), he held a senior position at the National Endowment for the Humanities before serving as president for 11 years at St. John's College in Santa Fe (one of two campuses of America's premier "great books" school). He capped his formal academic career by serving as senior adviser for higher education to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, where he held the positions of dean, provost, and chancellor of the American University there.

In his preface Agresto identifies several incidents that provided the impetus for this book. The first was his dissatisfaction with the contributions to a volume he once edited on the "uses" of the humanities. Those essays suffered from the "conceit" that "the liberal arts have no 'uses'" and lack any purpose than themselves; that they have no role, in particular, in promoting good citizenship; and that "true" humanistic scholarship must be "narrowly focused and academic" rather than broadly accessible. A second impetus was the widely publicized 1998 dismantling of Stanford University's Western Culture curriculum (required of all freshmen) in favor of a new course "capitulating to the self-aggrandizing … demands of student radicals," the content of which would conform to the dicta of "ethnic and gender proportional representation." A third was a challenge the author received from William F. Buckley on his Firing Line television show to the notion that all young people, whatever their intended vocation, "should be given the opportunity to be exposed to great literature," science, and history (since some find those studies neither interesting nor useful).

But the final stimulus Agresto mentions suggested the opposite of Buckley's position as well as that of the art-for-art's-sake humanities scholars and Stanford radicals: a question posed to him by three freshmen at the Iraqi university he helped to found, who had been studying Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War: Were the Americans "Spartans" rather than "Athenians"—that is, would they betray their allies as the Spartans had done? The students' challenge exemplified the way that a serious education in the humanities may benefit all young people, regardless of their nationality, their ethnic, economic, religious, or racial background, or their likely future careers, that might not arise without the study of classic, transhistorical texts, and which might be crucial to their enjoyment of a meaningful life and their role as thoughtful citizens.

Agresto summarizes the reasons for the growing loss of respect for liberal education in America in two phrases: the "denigration of the high" and the "stigmatization of the ordinary." The first phrase refers to the suicidal destruction of the liberal arts by "radicalized" teachers of fields like history, literature, philosophy, and classics who, in the name of "equity," replace nonideological courses on the history of Western civilization or American history with those devoted exclusively to the history of the oppression of women and minorities; allow arts requirements to be satisfied by courses on rock and roll; and incorporate courses devoted to comic books ("graphic novels") into the literature curriculum (I offer the last two examples based on personal observation).

To add to Agresto's point, I would note the replacement of the political and diplomatic history that used to constitute the core of the history curriculum with "social" issues focusing not only on oppression but more generally on how ordinary people lived, as in their diets and clothing fashions. This change illustrates a point made by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America: Whereas in aristocratic times, historians emphasize and even exaggerate the influence of great individuals in shaping events, democratic historians adopt the view that history is determined by impersonal forces operating on the masses. Tocqueville's aspiration was to encourage democratic people to think more highly of their capacities, rather than succumb to fate.

By the "stigmatization of the ordinary," Agresto means the view common among today's academics "that it is not merely the highest expressions of our culture that need to be toppled but this culture's more ordinary manifestations … the common views of right and wrong" held by most people, including national pride and the ethical beliefs that are supported by "conventional Western religious understandings."

In response to the disparagement of most Americans as bigots and racists by academic movements like "critical race theory," Agresto observes that people "across the political spectrum," regardless of their race, ethnicity, or economic status, regard "slavery and racism as betrayals of our founding principles of liberty and equality," while also believing "that merit, achievement, moral responsibility, and character are all to be assessed" on an individual basis, not any "collective identity," and that "no special status, no entitlement or punishment, should be bestowed simply by virtue of identity-group membership."

In the second, affirmative part of his book, Agresto opens with a chapter titled "Liberal Education in Its Fullness," which addresses the benefits a true liberal education offers for the individual's happiness as well as that of others. From the outset he stresses that his defense of the liberal arts will be "tough-minded," not a mushy one that promotes qualities like sensitivity and humaneness. As he observes, most of the great Western writers were "tough-minded and challenging" rather than (usually) "sentimental."

Agresto is himself no sentimentalist when it comes to the recent prehistory of liberal-arts instruction. Citing C.S. Lewis (he might have added Nietzsche), Agresto objects to the tendency of the professariat to focus on the historical context or biography of a great writer rather than assessing the truth of an authorial claim. By rejecting "the opportunity to see the world as a great author saw it," we make the study of his writing not only valueless, but boring. Agresto adds, "Only second-class books are truly captives of their times," rather than having transhistorical value. (As an example, he cites the way that Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter was written not for the sake of historical analysis, but to raise fundamental issues of "character and morals" for readers to contemplate.)

The plausible, nonhistoricist assumption that great writers from antiquity onwards made that "human nature doesn't change all that much over time" entails that they may raise major questions we might not have contemplated from within the intellectual confines of our own society. (Recall the query posed by those Iraqi students.) At their core, as Agresto puts it, "the liberal arts are a way of understanding the most important human questions through reason and reflection."

Turning, more specifically, to the reasons for studying "Western civilization and its American annex," Agresto first answers: "Because that tradition is ours." Regardless of one's country of origin or ethnic background, if you live in a Western nation, you become part of a common culture, shaped by a common set of great and good books—which is not incompatible with also studying works that are specific to your specific religious or ethnic background.

A particularly astute insight of Agresto's is his challenge to the often-asserted claim that the value of liberal-arts instruction lies in encouraging "critical thinking." As he observes, "too often radical questioning" of the sort espoused by today's "politicized professariat" is just an excuse not for learning but rather for "dismissing" books that don't agree with the current conventional wisdom. As Hegel and Nietzsche had observed, professors who approach great books, or historical figures, in this way are really just "puffing [themselves] up": Even if I'm not as wise as Socrates, the professor is saying, at least I'm free from his (supposed) prejudices. Rather than rely on a scholarly tradition or current doctrines to tell us how to read classic books, Agresto urges a return to "an older understanding of the liberal arts as the home not of sophistication but of naiveté," or open-mindedness.

In contemplating the value of the liberal arts for the individual, Agresto acknowledges that while studying classic books may help engender the virtues of intellectual courage (in "grappling with some of the greatest minds") and humility (knowing that we are seekers more than possessors of knowledge), there is merit to Cardinal Newman's point (and Aristotle's) that knowledge cannot in itself engender the sort of "command over the passions" that moral virtue requires. But he emphasizes another virtue, much undervalued by political partisans today, that liberal education can also generate: moderation, reflecting awareness of the limitedness of our knowledge, in contrast to the "elitist sanctimony" toward other people's moral, religious, and political beliefs that underlies much of the public's alienation from the liberal arts. Properly taught, the great books "can keep us from being ruled over by slogans," and even to confront secondhand (not only firsthand) "the baser parts of our nature," as well as its nobler potentialities.

At this point Agresto shifts focus from how liberal education benefits the individual to how it serves his country. As he observes, such learned members of America's founding generation as Jefferson, Madison, and Princeton's John Witherspoon would not have accepted the claim that such education serves no purpose beyond itself. He concludes that as the recipients of the learning of men like Shakespeare and Milton, we can repay them only by keeping their thought alive.

In his concluding chapter, "Where Do We Go from Here?" Agresto cites several promising models of the sort of education he has proposed. These include (besides St. John's College) the Core Texts program at Assumption University; the Jack Miller Center, which "has built a community of professors and teachers dedicated to teaching American history, principles of democratic government, and constitutional law and history"; and the "comprehensive" American University of Iraq, founded only 14 years ago in the Kurdish area (but with an enrollment that has grown from 45 to over 1,600). Its curriculum and mode of instruction, he observes, are the direct opposite of the narrow curriculum and "draconian" emphasis on memorization that prevailed under the Saddam Hussein regime.

While spreading this liberal-arts model will be costly, Agresto, ex-college president, has useful advice on how to address the costs, citing the multiple donors to the soon-to-open University of Austin; offering adult education in the great books to supplement regular tuition, including the Summer Classics and Executive Seminars programs at St. John's; and the need to recruit allies in graduate programs in medicine, law, and the sciences to the cause.

Limits of space prevent me from discussing the six useful appendices to this volume, which address (among other topics) Lincoln's self-education in the classics; the case for studying Latin and Greek; and "The Politics of Reading." The book concludes with "messages" to high school teachers and principals and to high school seniors preparing to choose a college.

This is a splendid book that deserves to be read by every professor and academic official who seeks to restore liberal education; by every student (and prospective student) sharing that interest; and by the parents who'll be paying the tuition. In fact it should be read by every public-spirited citizen.

The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do About It
by John Agresto
Encounter Books, 256 pp., $30.99

David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.