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As we prepare for what promises to be a difficult academic year, my thoughts turn to the challenge of keeping liberal education truly liberal in the Age of Zoom. It won’t be easy. To a very large degree, higher education works by bringing students together on campus with one another, forming a community of them, and placing them in face-to-face contact with the faculty, preferably in groups small enough for a genuine conversation to take place. Zoom conversations, we all learned beginning in March, can be successful if the interlocutors already knew each other from being in a room together before their exile into the private spaces where they then spoke and listened online. Can the computer screen be a place in which strangers succeed in becoming friends in search of the truth? We shall see.
What is liberal about liberal education? Not its politics, on any spectrum from left to right, but its dedication to liberating—freeing—the minds of students from anything that inhibits the pursuit of truth. (And the minds also of faculty, who are lifelong students.) As the great federal judge Learned Hand said in a famous speech in 1944, “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” That is certainly the spirit of liberal education. In addition to the institutional and technological changes now being forced on colleges and universities, we are also witnessing a renewed political activism on the part of some students—and some faculty—in the name of racial justice and other causes. What worries me is that they are very, very sure that they are right, and (to understate it considerably) impatient with those who are not so sure they are.
Campus turmoil, structural changes, and the challenge of engaging the world without the certitude of partisanship are not new problems in the academy. Allan Bloom tackled them in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and whatever one makes of Bloom’s own political and philosophical views, his diagnosis of many of the academy’s pathologies remains as powerful as when his book became a surprise bestseller 33 years ago. Bloom’s critique of rock ’n’ roll’s effect on students in one of the early chapters, and his vivid account of the upheavals of the 1960s in a later chapter, were magnetic poles, attracting many readers and repelling others. But the center between those poles was a searching examination of how American universities in the twentieth century became the home of “dogmatic skepticism,” a corrosive philosophical acid that attacked all the prejudices of American life but could provide no sounder opinions—much less any self-evident truths—to take their place. Bloom’s book is still must reading for understanding the modern university.
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With a very different temperament and purpose, Alvin Kernan’s memoir In Plato’s Cave (1999) can be read as a companion to Bloom’s book. Kernan, a scholar of Shakespeare and Jonson who taught principally at Yale and Princeton, looked back on a career from his student days, immediately after the Second World War, to the late 1980s. His book is full of incident, and of incisive pen portraits of figures like Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Joyce Carol Oates, and others, both famous and now forgotten, with whom he worked. Kernan saw the university as teacher and scholar, and as an administrator, and those experiences give his book a large and generous perspective on his subject, even while his writing remains very personal. His tour of the battlefields of literary theory over four decades is invaluable, and his analysis of elite English departments explains more of the shape of the modern academy than one might expect. As Kernan quotes an editor he once knew, “If you want to know what is actually disturbing a university, visit its English department.”
Another veteran of those theory wars in literary criticism is Berkeley professor Frederick Crews, the author of two of the funniest send-ups of academic pretension you will ever read. In The Pooh Perplex (1963), Crews crafted an even dozen of fictitious analyses of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, each a representative of a highly refined school of thought in English departments. Nearly forty years later, in Postmodern Pooh (2001), Crews delivered eleven more essays in Pooh Studies equaling the hilarity of his earlier collection. If you ever wondered what the deconstructionist followers of Derrida have to say about a stuffed bear—and why the numbers of English majors have plummeted in recent decades—wonder no more.
Where can we, teachers and students alike, turn for wisdom about our common enterprise of liberal education? One ready resource is a little book called Another Sort of Learning (1988), by the late Fr. James V. Schall of Georgetown, a legendary teacher of political philosophy and a prolific writer on that and many related subjects. Schall’s comically long subtitle said it all: “Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found.” As Schall knew, “to be in an institution of higher education does not mean by itself, unfortunately, that a student will confront the highest things.” There seemed to be nothing of importance that Fr. Schall hadn’t read, and no subject high or low, from the problem of evil to the “seriousness of sports,” that he hadn’t thought deeply about.
I close by looking forward very much to a new book that has just come into my hands: Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz. (Public Discourse will publish an exchange between two reviewers and the author over three days in the coming week.) My friend Zena is a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, and was a visiting fellow at Princeton’s James Madison Program several years ago. She is a woman of lively spirit and straight talk, and her devotion to intellectual life is uncompromising, a rare thing in an era of timorous trimmers. I open her book at random and find gems like this:
Our vision of the love of learning is distorted by notions of economic and civic usefulness. I can be more blunt. We do not see intellectual life clearly, because of our devotion to lifestyles rich in material comfort and social superiority. We want the splendor of Socratic thinking without his poverty. We want the thrill of his speaking truth to power without the full absorption in the life of the mind that made it possible.
Oh yes, I’m going to enjoy this book. Zena Hitz has something in common with every other author I have mentioned above: one would love to be a student in her classroom, that intimate space that we will all miss with such longing in the year to come.