During a commencement address delivered for the 1959 honors graduating class at the University of Chicago, American philosopher Leo Strauss congratulated the students on having received a “liberal education.” He defined this liberal education as “an education in or toward a culture.”
For Strauss, ‘liberal education’ involves student engagement with an established canon of literary, philosophical and scientific texts, dating roughly from the epics of Homer to the scientific works of Freud.
According to Strauss’s model of liberal education, students begin with Greek poetry and the Socratic philosophers, discovering the rudiments of poetic expression and the foundations of reason. One continues into Roman and medieval writing, and learns how Vergil and Dante expand upon Homer’s initial vision. This creates knowledge in both the national and the personal epic, and also the expansion of Hellenistic thought into everything from the harshness of Senecan stoicism to the redemptive Christian vision of Augustine. Students further expand the breadth of their reading in literature and philosophy beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing into the middle of the twentieth century.
The liberal studies program at NMU is not an education in culture. It is not cultural at all, but instead “multicultural,” emphasizing the adjective liberal (in the contemporary political sense of the word) over the noun studies. As noted critic Harold Bloom has repeatedly stated, if multiculturalism simply meant substituting Shakespeare for Cervantes (an Anglo-Saxon author of genius for a Latino author of genius), it would be a welcome and refreshing change; but this is never the case.
Our multicultural liberal studies program allows students to ignore books written by people of genius over two thousand years ago in favor of books written barely two weeks ago by authors who claim to have been repressed, oppressed, or both and so are worthy of our attention. Students are given free reign to take the classes they choose in the order they choose over the course of their academic careers. It is absurd and arrogant to suggest that one’s sense of “freedom” and one’s pursuit “identity” are more valuable academically than a tradition of knowledge descending directly from Plato to Karl Popper.
At a recent meeting with members of the general assembly of ASNMU, President Les Wong spoke at length about something he called “the core of Northern.” He did not mention the liberal studies program, but one gets the sense that reforming it is as far away from his idea of important projects as can be. Many students are glad to remind us that they are here for “training” only, so better yet, instead of fixing the program, let’s cut the petals off the rose and find the core.
Let’s eradicate the liberal studies program altogether. Let future nurses learn nursing and nothing else-what does it matter if they cannot write a simple summary of an article in the New York Times? Let students who think art history is boring elevate their adolescent judgments to the level of outright decisions-if they think YouTube productions are more important than Titian and Rembrandt, just indulge them. After all, it’s only a matter of opinion, and there are no ultimate standards for what is good and valuable according to which ideas and works of art may be judged.
None of this is meant as sarcastic or spiteful; it is better to have no liberal studies program at all than to have a program which does not live up to the name and reputation of liberal education. We must decide: either reform the program in the name of actual liberal studies or throw it out the window and be “trained.”