Editors’ Note: This essay is the third in a four-part series on the decadence of modern society. This series examines the cultural roots of our economic, demographic, intellectual, institutional, and moral decadence. In this essay, Jessica Hooten Wilson shares how liberal education can help transform us into the people we are meant to be.

On my way to lead professional development workshops, with my whole family in the car, we were listening to Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. What struck me while listening this time was Corrie’s assertion that in her household—during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, when she and her sisters and father were hiding Jews in their home to save their lives from the Holocaust—they were “happy.” She explains: that “it could have been happy, at such a time and in such circumstances” was attributed to how her sister would open their evenings “to the wide world” via music and literature. They would play piano or violin or read “Vondel (the Dutch Shakespeare)” aloud to one another. When electricity went out, one of them would pedal a bicycle in the living room to power a light, so they could continue reading. Their lives were tense and fearful during the day, but the evenings became “happy” because of these beautiful practices.

I often teach literature written during the Third Reich or the Soviet rule of Russia; I’m always inspired and moved by how much prisoners of concentration camps or the Gulags relied on poetry and literature to sustain them as they endured unimaginable horrors. They would recite from or compose verses to memory. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would save bits of his bread ration to create rosary beads to mark lines of poetry, as he composed it, to aid his memory. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl credits the “inner self” or inward life as the source of survival for those in the concentration camps. Worn out by a seemingly pointless and endless future and a painful and depressing present, the prisoners must draw on their memories of the beautiful things they loved from the past to encourage them to keep living through the suffering.

How many of us, if we underwent such terrors and trials, or—let’s be less extreme—when we endure life’s regular crises of sickness, mourning, and anxiety, have the inner resources that we need to be sustained? What verses might we recite for moral sustenance? What immediately comes to my mind: “Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete? Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl who has everything?” Is anyone else afraid that the treasures of our hearts have been Disney-fied? Our very souls have been molded by the culture that we have consumed, and if we have not chosen wisely, we have been impressed upon with poor substitutes for culture. Would we not prefer to have other refrains in our heads and inscribed on our hearts? “The quality of mercy is not strained, “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well, “Yet I do marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”

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What do we love and what do we spend our lives loving? When we talk about education, we do so in such a sanitized way. People speak abstractly of making productive citizens. The language of consumers dominates. The use of market language undergirds everything: what’s the ROI (return on investment) of a course in humanities? What’s the value of studying ancient history? What’s the purpose of reading fiction? If you will permit one example, I recently had a public relations staffer observe my Great Books class where I was teaching Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The students and I were enthusiastically engaged in questions posed by the story, regarding the meaning of freedom and whether people would prefer to renounce their liberty to receive regular meals and entertainment. During a five-minute break when students were searching for passages to support their claims, the PR writer whispered to me, “What is the point of reading novels like this?” As though sharing a secret, I whispered back, “Great books classes are countercultural: we believe in the love of useless things.”

Many people balk when I employ the word “useless,” especially when I use it to describe things we love, like great books. Or, most humorously to me, when I say—with all sincerity—that babies are useless. They get up in arms over it. “Babies can be used for cuddling,” they insist. And I refute them: “If you use my baby for your emotional support, you are mis-using my baby.” Or consider, what happens when that baby is not okay with such a use? When the baby is cranky, difficult, dirty, etc? We do not use babies, or people, or great books. Our culture conflates use with worth. Following the Industrial Revolution and the proliferation of utilitarianism (if I can make such a large, unsubstantiated claim), we assume that all things must be useful to be worthwhile. As I have said elsewhere, we have set up the idol of use.

When speaking at Hillsdale College recently, I argued this point, and a noted historian attempted to put me in my place. He decried my rhetoric as falling into the enemy’s hands. If I could not argue the usefulness of great books, then I was already on “their side.” Let me denounce that assessment here (putting aside the false culture war metaphor of us vs. them): those of us who love the humanities are treating beautiful, good, and true things according to their proper purpose, which is to be enjoyed, rather than succumbing to the world’s conviction that all things must be used to matter. In the fourth century, St. Augustine divided useful things from those things we enjoy. In On Christian Teaching, he explains, “To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love.” We love babies; we don’t use them. We love God; we don’t use Him. We love great books; we don’t use them.

Sure, we can play the world’s game about use to argue for the good of great books, for humanities, for majoring in English. A humanities degree will be more adaptable to a number of careers over the lifetime of a college graduate than an overly specialized degree or a non-distinctive business major. Studies across the board show that such statements are quantifiably true. Following the results of a 2023 Oxford study, Professor Dan Grimley, who heads the Humanities Department at the college, says

I often hear young people saying that they would love to continue studying music or languages or history or classics at A-level and beyond, but they fear it would compromise their ability to get an impactful job. I hope this report will convince them—and their parents and teachers—that they can continue studying the humanities subject they love and at the same time develop skills which employers report they are valuing more and more. 

The dissonance between the love for the good things and the pressure from the world to be valuable (aka useful) in the marketplace is a narrative that has become the water we swim in—so much so that we forget that we can breathe on land.

In this story of education, students are meant to enter college to be trained for a marketable career. I did not become a professor to train English majors to make money. Such an end is a waste of time for anyone who remembers that they are going to die. Perhaps that is too blunt, but the reality is that all of us are living for a very short amount of time. Do we really want to found all our decisions on making money? Walker Percy once quipped, “You can get all As and still flunk life.” Education must be about something other than training for a job, for we force all citizens to go through at least twelve if not sixteen years of it. We find education so necessary that we insist on spending approximately 20 percent of our lives being educated. If all that time is directed only toward the telos of career, why do we educate those who cannot work because of special needs? Why educate those who decide to be stay-at-home parents? Why educate those with family wealth or without any need to work?

What becomes unsustainable when we look at education as something that begins as early as pre-K and lasts for more than a decade is a justification that such education is merely for work. If that truly is the only end, then some kids would never need to read: they could merely be programmers and learn algorithms. Other kids should never do math because they will only need verbal arts in their workplace. Then there are many children who will never do anything requiring cognitive skills but mostly involving manual labor. Yet we insist that all people should be well-rounded—despite forgetting quite a while ago what that metaphor was meant to show us about human nature. And we cannot justify why. What is the point of a well-rounded person—and what does it even mean? Education must have a grander and more transcendent telos than we currently assume.

What if education was meant to make us free?

Returning to Corrie ten Boom’s home, the Jews hiding there were free despite their inability to leave the house, be employed, or pursue any other daily activity that we take for granted. Their freedom was in the moments they read Vondel in the evenings—it lifted their souls beyond the confines of their physical captivity. Same for Solzhenitsyn, Frankl, and countless others, from Boethius to Bonhoeffer, who have discovered the freedom of liberal arts. When the world lies to us about what we’re made for through marketing or imprints our souls with the worldview of Disney through the cultural products we consume, the liberal arts free us to choose higher goods. When a 1955 Time Magazine article asked, “Who speaks for America Today?” Flannery O’Connor wryly answered, “The advertising agencies.” If we want sounder voices in our ears than commercials or news stations that have become little more than adverts for specific tribes, perhaps we should return to the liberal arts, to the great books, to classical education that was once assumed and is now so rare.

In a couple of lectures that O’Connor delivered to high schools, she provides her own evaluation of the problem. “Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning,” O’Connor laments. For K-12 this may look like choosing electives, but it more often appears in the teacher’s choice of required reading. With good motives but poor formation, the teachers attempt to choose books that students will like, that will suit their palate. They assign YA novels in place of Dante or Dickens. Or they pick writers with whom their students can relate, unintentionally degrading their students to superficial markers, rather than encouraging them to see their shared humanity in the works of Olaudah Equiano or Shusaku Endo. In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor blames the “devil of Educationism,” and contrasts this move with the past: 

In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible. . . . No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers [a popular author] to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail. 

Just as in math or science or learning a language, we require discipline of a student, so that we can cultivate their love for the good.

Similar troubles occur in the higher education world where professors try to be relevant or popular with their choices. In Battle of the Classics, my friend Eric Adler gives examples of how his colleagues teach Thelma and Louise (1991) instead of requiring students to wrestle with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Even our students have fallen for the lie that literature is all about preference. They assume that I merely teach books that I like and that they—possessing equal ability in determining quality—should have the freedom to agree or disagree with the merit of The Aeneid or The Tempest. In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor disabuses her audience full of English teachers of this assumption and encourages them instead to guide all students “through the best writing of the past to come, in time, to an understanding of the present,” and if the student “finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” Until a student’s taste has been cultivated, his reading must be compelled, for the good of the student. In a recent conversation with a teacher, she informed me that she regularly reminds herself and her students that she is not teaching who they are now, but she is teaching their thirty-five-year-old selves. Or, to quote Cornel West, the liberal arts teach us how to die. Both philosophies point beyond the short term to the long game: educators should aim to free students to love what is worth loving over their lifetime.

Around the turn of the century, roughly from the mid-1890s to 1910, two black intellectuals, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, fought on the battleground of education for what Du Bois famously called “the souls of black folk.” Newly freed slaves were not only released from physical bondage but freed for a different kind of life, one in which they could receive the privilege of education. In 1881, Booker T. Washington, born a slave and freed at seven years old, founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the first institution of higher learning for African Americans, which emphasized learning skills, manual labor, and business training. Justifying the methods and content of the education provided there, Washington claimed: “Friction between the races will pass away in proportion as the black man, by reason of his skill, intelligence, and character, can produce something that the white man wants or respects in the commercial world.” While the output may resemble slave labor, Washington insisted that the money made created invaluable independence, and that was the difference that mattered.

In contrast to Washington’s system of education, W. E. B. Du Bois famously declared the need for a “talented tenth” of African Americans to become scholars, lawyers, doctors, and teachers in order to uplift their race from beneath white subjugation. Living more than fifty years after Washington’s death, DuBois had the benefit of hindsight. He saw that Washington’s way had failed to create equality between blacks and whites in the South. In a final interview with the Atlantic shortly before he died, Du Bois reiterated his disagreement with Washington:

I did not believe that the skills of an artisan bricklayer, plasterer, or shoemaker, and the good farmer would cause the white South, grimly busy with disfranchisement and separation, to change the direction of things. I realized the need for what Washington was doing. Yet it seemed to me he was giving up essential ground that would be hard to win back. . . . [B]efore [Washington] died he must have known that he and his hopes had been rejected and that he had, without so intending, helped make stronger—and more fiercely defended—a separation and rejection that made a mockery of all he had hoped and dreamed.

Because the work for which Washington trained his fellow African Americans appeared to keep them in the lower position that white Southerners deemed adequate according to their racial status, the exaltation that Washington desired for blacks in America did not come about as quickly as he had hoped.

Just as in math or science or learning a language, we require discipline of a student, so that we can cultivate their love for the good.


Of course, W. E. B. Du Bois’s methods did not produce expedient results, but the type of education that he desired was fuller, not limited to African Americans, not limited to a specific class or group, but universal and timeless. Above all, the goals that Du Bois lists for a “Negro college,” he prizes most an education that develops human beings: “there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development.” For Du Bois, the education that frees the soul is that of the liberal arts and the greatest of books. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” Du Bois famously proclaims

Across the color-line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded hall. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. 

Such beautiful truths are more effective for freeing souls and creating friendships than politicizing rhetoric or tribal jargon.

Caught in the middle of this fight was Anna Julia Cooper, the principal of what later became Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, a woman born a slave, as was Washington, but who became the fourth African American woman in history to receive a Ph.D., in her case at the Sorbonne in Paris. She exemplifies the kind of education that Du Bois exalted, the kind of education that we need to be a free society. At eight years old Cooper became a tutor in her elementary school. By the time she applied to college, Cooper listed the various texts from Latin and Greek that she translated (from Virgil to Plato), as well as her various courses in mathematics, of which she later became a teacher. She rejected the “Ladies Course” of study because what was good for men to know should be good for women to know. In defense of women’s education, Cooper writes:

[An educated woman] can commune with Socrates about the daimon he knew and to which she too can bear witness; she can revel in the majesty of Dante, the sweetness of Virgil, the simplicity of Homer, the strength of Milton. She can listen to the pulsing heart throbs of passionate Sappho’s encaged soul, as she beats her bruised wings against her prison bars and struggles to flutter out into Heaven’s aether, and the fires of her own soul cry back as she listens. . . . Here, at last, can be communion without suspicion; friendship without misunderstanding; love without jealousy.

Cooper’s rhetoric echoes that of Du Bois, but you may be delighted to learn that her presentation was given prior to his essay. In addition to defending classical education for women, she applied the same argument to justify this education for all African Americans. The image of the bird breaking free that Cooper describes was the soul liberated by the great tradition, and it was a vision that all deserved, regardless of race, gender, or class.

In a 1930s talk that Cooper gave on education, she reminded educators of their responsibility to “make [students] righteous.” Whereas people were thwarting her efforts to implement a classical education for African Americans in the DC high school, Cooper insisted, “In a word we are building [human beings], not chemists or farmers or cooks, or soldiers, but [people] ready to serve the body politic in whatever avocation their talent is needed.” She fought against the reductionist impulse to overspecialize students young, to teach what is most useful to their future jobs. Her essay is directed against those who sneer, “What good is this education for the Negro?” But we might also apply the question—almost a century later—to all human beings. Do we not hear this same complaint, “What good is this education for a future nurse? An engineer? A businessman? A woman who plans to stay home as a mother?” We should hear such a question as condescending and fight as hard as Cooper did against this type of prejudice that reduces souls to mere “hands.” “The aim for education,” Cooper declares, “for the human soul is to train aright, to give power and right direction to the intellect, the sensibilities and the will.”

More than a century later, we do not recognize the purpose of education, as W. E. B. Du Bois champions it. From college students to university administrators, to fellow faculty at times, and even the contemporary press, too many in our society do not recognize the study of Latin, Greek, ancient history, medieval art, Renaissance music, Japanese poetry, modern novels and so on as anything other than boxes to be checked, quizzes to be passed, or elite subjects for those who have time to dally. Gone is any idea that these studies could be the truly freeing things, the goods that remind us of our equal human dignity, the beauty that makes life worth living and troubles less overwhelming. With suicide as one of the leading causes of death in America, with social polarization and fragmentation at such a tense high in the country, and with media stealing all of our time, we cannot afford to go without these things any longer. “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers—Little we see in Nature that is ours . . . ” Wordsworth writes.

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathéd horn.

Wordsworth reminds us what we were made for—to enjoy, to love. We were not meant to be “forlorn” because of all our “getting and spending,” to be “out of tune” with creation and our nature as creatures. So much that we have forgotten about what we are, that education should be guiding us to remember and to hold fast.

Lest I sound impractical and idealistic, I should note that I asked twenty non-humanities major students to memorize Wordsworth’s poem to be recited on the last day of class. While they originally balked at the assignment, the evaluations of this assignment were all positive. They wrote glowingly in the course evaluations of how they had never been asked to examine their souls until this course. One admitted that he worked harder for my humanities class than his anatomy course and would likely not get an A, but he didn’t care anymore about the grade. Although this generation has to be convinced of the goods of the past, they are just as human as all those who have come before, and therefore they long for these worthwhile goods. 

In 2013, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson wrote a rallying cry on behalf of the English major, encouraging everyone to become one. And he meant everyone. “To me,” Endmundson writes, “an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person.” Edmundson lifts up the English major as the most humanizing of all majors. Such students are readers, seers, empathizers. Through reading a thousand books, they become a thousand people—to cite C. S. Lewis, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. I see with myriad eyes, yet it is still I who see.” For Edmundson, the English major also can transcend the channeling “of ad-speak, sports jargon, and the latest psychological babble” with human words expressing human ideas and emotions. English majors learn a vocabulary of being human. Finally, Edmundson exalts the ideal English major as one who loves life and lives as “an open-ended work in progress.” All these ideals may well be true. I hope that they are, and I delight in Edmundson’s vision.

However, my purpose is not to recruit people to major in English or the liberal arts, but to encourage us to pursue the humanizing education that Edmundson assumes would be desirable. Education should rehumanize us. In higher education, with the guidance of professors and mentors and elders, we should move through Homer, Newton, Wordsworth, Du Bois, O’Connor, and be transformed by our love for the good, true, and beautiful, into the person we are meant to be. Like Dante ascending the summit of Mount Purgatory, we should walk through the purgatorial fire, be cleansed of all the dross by which the world has soiled our souls, and hear Virgil’s words echo in our ears, “Your will is healthy, upright, free and whole. / And not to heed that sense would be a fault. / Lord of yourself, I crown and mitre you” (Purg. 27.139-42, Esolen). With such an education, the advice, “Don’t major in English,” will sound rightly laughable.

Image by Goffkein and licensed via Adobe Stock.