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What is a liberal education and at what is it aimed?

Implementing any curriculum, even the chaotic cafeteria that passes for a liberal education in American universities today, assumes some answer to that question. As different points in the history of the West have responded differently, it is important that we too understand the necessity of wondering: why are we here?

Over the last two years, I have pondered why I am not doing what my parents expected I would at university: studying engineering, computer science, or anything, for that matter, which might earn me a lot of money in the future. Many of us spend our time at Yale reading books, learning languages, and talking about it all, but to what end? Prof. Kagan’s farewell lecture provides a wise and comprehensive answer to these questions.

“From the very beginning (let’s take the example of Cicero’s artes liberales), the champions of a liberal education have thought of it as seeking at least four kinds of goal:

One was as an end in itself, or at least as a way of achieving the contemplative life that according to Aristotle was the greatest happiness: knowledge, and the acts of acquiring and considering it were the ends of this education and considered good in themselves.

A second was a means of shaping the character, style, taste of a person — to make him good himself and better able to fit in well with and take his place in the society of others like him.

A third was to prepare him for a useful career in the world, one appropriate to his status as a free man.

The fourth was to contribute to an individual citizen’s freedom in ancient society. Servants were ignorant and parochial, so free men must be learned and cosmopolitan. Servants were ruled by others, so free men must take part in their own government. Servants specialized to become competent at a particular and limited task, so free men must know something of everything and understand general principles without yielding to the narrowness of expertise.

The Romans’ recommended course of study was literature, philosophy, history and rhetoric.”

A good education liberates man.

Most college students in America do not think of learning in such a way and would scoff at the notion that some things, say a Directed Studies-like core curriculum, ought to be studied by all. Since I have had the misfortune of taking three classes steeped in “theory,” I can recount some of their more creative arguments. Such a core curriculum is sexist, not only because most of the authors it covers are dead white men, but also by virtue of its works belonging to a past sans birth control—a past whose condition is so different from ours that it is a criminal luxury to spend our time engaging with it. Furthermore, this core is racist, since its authors belong to the same Western tradition that tyrannically colonized the rest of the world—I once heard someone make the case that learning French is a tacit approval of French colonialism. As such, it would be tyrannical of Yale to impose such a curriculum on free individuals who can make their own choices and learn from their own mistakes. And we should not forget the skeptic’s objection: how can one have the gumption to think that one is “right” in defining and imposing a certain course of study?

It is unfortunate that the twentieth century has made such skeptics of us all. The scars from the abuse of authority, from the horrors fascism and communism, have underlain mistaken appeals to reject all authority. In this tragic spirit, Barthes and Foucault questioned whether the “author” of any work is an entity that can be pinpointed at all, or whether this entity had now ceased to exist – partly because of the echoes, both phonetic and semantic, of “authority” in this word. Thankfully, it is Derrida, not God, who is dead, yet it is frightening just how much post-modern dogma masked in erudite skepticism has pervaded the educational system. We don’t know who is right and who is wrong; we don’t know who can make normative claims and who can’t. And so we impose a nihilistic non-implementation of order on everyone, from the most ignorant of freshmen to the most blasé of seniors.

But what better safeguard against abuse, I ask, than a dialogue with the past? What could be more open than engaging with different societies at different stages of human history on their own terms? Certainly not lounging content in our own intellectual myopias. Most of the works in the Western Canon have made it there because they speak a universal language and can expand one’s horizons further every time one engages with them.

We should not forget that humanistic inquiry and the study of civilizational history are the surest marks of civilization itself. These are also values that are not evident to the naïve and the juvenile or to the frogs that live in a deep well. As an ancient Sanskrit metaphor puts it, consider the walls of this well to be the bounds of an ocean.

Whereas eighteen year olds, many of who drink themselves into Yale Health, may claim the capacity to direct their own educations, it is up to the university to inculcate in its students the habits of study that will not only serve them, but also their civilization as a whole. No people can flourish without respect for their literary, historical, or philosophical heritage, not to mention a zeal for the pursuit of truth. And the very richness of the West lies in its Canon, which carries its roots, its essence, and most importantly its history of mistakes. Without an understanding of this past, one cannot be a full citizen of the West and, worst comes to worst, may just repeat the mistakes of the forefathers he neglected.

This is obviously not to say that Yalies should be prevented from studying literature, history, and philosophy of all kinds and from all sources. Yale both introduced me to the Western Canon and allowed me to study ancient Indian texts. And, of course, not everyone will spend their life studying the classics or the humanities. But let us remember Prof. Kagan’s words—apart from providing one with a job after college, education must also shape our characters and contribute to our freedom.

In sum, to make sure that Yale students study not only the objects of their tastes but also what they must, it is imperative that Yale adopt a core curriculum.