The Uselessness of Liberal Education: An ApologyBy Thaddeus Kozinski for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.
–St. Thomas Aquinas
The trouble with mere pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.
–G. K. Chesterton
I would like to put liberal education in its place, by unmasking its essential uselessness to students and to society at large. And I would like to apologize for all the time wasted by my students and all liberal-arts professors in trying to make liberal education useful. However, the place I would like to put the liberal arts is at the forefront and foundation of education, as the raison d’etre of every college and university in this country and the world. And my apology is to those who have suffered under any educational program not ultimately founded on and integrally oriented towards the study of the liberal arts, that is, to what is ultimately useless. For, such is inherently dysfunctional. Purely non-liberal education doesn’t work.
Now, of course, there is an essential role for useful, non-liberal, vocational, career, and professional education in the typical university and college curriculum. I am not arguing for the exclusivity of liberal education, that every college and university should be wholly devoted to liberal arts education and nothing else. What I’d like to propose instead is that the success, which is to say, the usefulness, of non-liberal education for individuals and society is inextricably bound up with and necessarily dependent upon 1) The uselessness of liberal education; 2) A widespread awareness of the preeminent value of this uselessness; 3) The place of liberal education at the very core of every college and university curriculum. Robert Hutchins, founder of St. John’s College’s integrated Great Books curriculum, sums all this up nicely:
.. The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, undeveloped one, or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.
The tension between useful and useless knowledge has been around for millennia. Consider Plato’s Protagoras. Here Socrates asks the sophist Protagoras what he teaches young men. His answer: “I teach them good planning, both in their own affairs, such as how one should best manage his own household, and in public affairs, how one can best speak and act in the city-state.” Contrast Protagoras’ notion of the education to these:
Aristotle: “Of possessions . . . those rather are useful, which bear fruit; those liberal, which tend to enjoyment. By fruitful, I mean, which yield revenue; by enjoyable, where nothing accrues of consequence beyond the using.”
Cicero: “In music, numbers, sounds, and measures; in geometry, lines, figures, spaces, magnitudes; in astronomy, the revolution of the heavens, the rising, setting, and other motions of the stars; in grammar, the peculiar tone of pronunciation, and, finally, in this very art of oratory, invention, arrangement, memory, delivery.”
St. Augustine: “Such studies are the way to the highest things, the way of reason which chooses for itself ordered steps lest it fall from the height. The steps are the various liberal arts.”
Cardinal Newman: “The principle of real dignity in Knowledge, its worth, its desirableness, considered irrespectively of its results, is this germ within it of a scientific or a philosophical process. This is how it comes to be an end in itself; this is why it admits of being called Liberal. Not to know the relative disposition of things is the state of slaves or children; to have mapped out the Universe is the boast, or at least the ambition, of Philosophy.”
What all these educational thinkers have in common is an idea of education itself as its own end. In other words, the end, goal, or use of liberal education is not found in anything outside of the study itself. So is the mere studying of the liberal arts the purpose of the liberal arts? That does seem self-referential and circular. The liberal arts, as all arts, are tools, in a sense, but they are tools for making humans. They perfect the intellect, the highest part of man, and thus enable man to know the world, oneself, and God as these really are. Is this useful? Consider an analogy. What do all humans desire for its own sake and never for something else? Nothing else but happiness. And in what activity or activities do we find our happiness? This is a difficult question, of course, for although we must agree that happiness is our ultimate goal, we disagree quite a bit as to the best means to get there, or else we say that the way to happiness is personal and not able to be judged objectively and universally. However that might be, we can all agree where happiness does not lie—not in that which is only instrumental, a means, good for another thing. For whatever happiness is, we find it in those objects, persons, and activities that we consider good in themselves.
One way of putting this is that happiness is the most useless thing, since it is never a means, but always an end. No one wants happiness in order to be healthy or to be rich or even to have pleasure, for one wants all these in order to be happy. Similarly, the reason we study engineering or marketing is because it provides us with something else that we desire. Engineering provides a skill that we can employ to make airplanes, but the making of airplanes is not the end, for that is to permit travel, which is itself a means to the societal good of mobility, which is itself a means towards the common good of political order and ultimately friendship. No one reads an engineering book to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of engineering, although this may be part of its attraction.
Again, unlike money or political order or freedom, liberal knowledge is a good in itself, for it is perfective of the human qua human, and not simply human qua worker or pleasure-enjoyer or freedom-employer. Just as happiness is the point and purpose of all our desires, the formation and perfection of ourselves as humans is the point of all our knowledge. Part of this formation and perfection is in the realm of the practical since we are not intellects trapped in a body, but integrated body-soul composites. In other words, we are meant to live in the work-a-day world, to use the phrase of Josef Pieper, the world of instrumental goods, means-to-end knowledge, economic production, and materiality. But to constrain knowledge only to this sphere, to say that all education must be ordered to use in the work-a-day world, is to imply that there is nothing that transcends, that we are trapped in the realm of the temporal, material, and instrumental. And this is to make human happiness not an end but a means, bound to whatever we can use from this world, bodily pleasure, emotional satisfaction, wealth, honor, power, and the like. These are legitimate goods, of course, and education can help us obtain these goods. But unless there is a transcendent reason for pursuing these goods, unless this work-a-day world is seen for what it is, a means and never an end, then we end up making a means our of an end, and an end out of a means, and we thus make human happiness, and concomitantly, true education, impossible.
In any means-end relationship, the existence of the means only makes sense if there is also something to which this means is ordered. If everything is a means, nothing is a means. For example, one goes for a walk. Why is one walking? It might be for purpose of diet and health. It might also be because walking itself is enjoyable, but even in this case, it is the enjoyment that one is after, the happiness ensuing upon the activity of walking. No one would want to be happy so he may walk! Similarly, if we see utility as all there is, if all we do and know are merely useful activities with nothing serving as what these are useful for, then the whole notion of use collapses in on itself. If there is the useful, there must be the useless. What ends up happening if we accept only the useful and deny the useless? What if the world-of-work encompasses us, so that any notion of leisure, philosophical speculation, contemplation of the whole, festivity, and enjoyment of God is construed as a means to an end, as merely useful? We rest and we philosophize and we celebrate—so that we can be more productive workers and successful consumers?
What is underlying the argument so far is a claim that I cannot prove, but for which I wish to show that there is no good reason to deny: There is more to life than the work-a-day world. The declining role of the liberal arts; the constant refrain of “what are you going to do with a liberal education”; the transfer of university funding away from the liberal arts to science, engineering, research, technology, and the practical professions; and the perversion of the liberal arts into purely subjective, emotional, and private concerns, on the one hand, and into the politicized categories of gender, class, race, and sex, on the other—all of these indicate that we, as a culture, believe that there is nothing other than the work-a-day world, the world of instrumental reason and goods, and that we think human happiness is to be obtained within this world alone.
But, and this is the claim of Josef Pieper in his book Leisure the Basis of Culture, the whole work-a-day world is itself only intelligible and livable as a means. To what? To the world of what he calls leisure, the world of goods that are good for their own sake, the world of knowledge that is worth having for itself, and the human encounter and celebration of this world. Education, then, is for leisure, to make leisure possible, and this means that all knowledge is preparatory for the contemplation of truth, the “philosophical act” by which man transcends the world of work and enters into the world of true freedom. The liberal arts are precursors and constituent parts of that one discipline that is the implicit goal of every other study, philosophy, in the broad sense of theoria, the contemplation of truth for its own sake. Philosophy as wisdom is the culminating discipline of the liberal arts and thus of all education whatsoever. The liberal arts are the arts of freedom, for they are pursued for their own sake, and thus are perverted when they become slaves to another master. Ryan Topping writes:
But this freedom means that philosophical knowing does not acquire its legitimacy from its utilitarian applications, not from its social function, not from its relationship with the “common utility.” Freedom in exactly this sense is the freedom of the “liberal arts,” as opposed to the “servile arts,” which, according to Thomas, “are ordered to a use, to be attained through activity.”[Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3.] And philosophy has long been understood as the most free among the free arts (the medieval “Arts Faculty” is the forerunner of the “Philosophical Faculty” of today’s university).
What does it mean to transcend the world? Is this a “peak experience” only obtainable by a small elite of privileged and wealthy liberal artists? Not remotely! As Pieper writes, anyone who loves and truly yearns for true happiness has already experienced this transcendence:
The lover, too, stands outside the tight chain of efficiency of this working world, and whoever else approaches the margin of existence through some deep, existential disturbance (which always brings a “shattering” of one’s environment as well), or through, say, the proximity of death. In such a disturbance (for the philosophical act, genuine poetry, musical experience in general, and prayer as well — all these depend on some kind of disturbance) in such an experience, man senses the non-ultimate nature of this daily, worrisome world: he transcends it; he takes a step outside it.
If we want to live in a world where there are only means to other means with no end in sight, where only the kitsch consumerist monuments of selfish human will and desire exist, where all knowledge is ordered to use, then we must say goodbye to liberal education. And to a large extent, this is precisely what we have done. But, have we really eliminated the transcendent, true leisure, the philosophical act, and the liberal arts, or have we just transformed them into mere tools to contemplate the idols of our own making—the idols of consumerism, pleasure, power, and self-worship? If we no longer have a place for the truly useless, for the good-in-itself, for speculation on the meaning of reality, then we ultimately have no place for the useful either. Those goods and truths that are so above our worldly needs as to remain transcendently useless are, per impossible, violently brought down into the work-a-day world, with the most useful goods and truths shoved into a transcendental world where they do not belong and must die. The end result is human degradation and unhappiness.
I conclude with the words of Simone Weil, a one of the philosophers of our time most dedicated to the useless. She takes our argument to the next step:
All study, whether inherently useful or useless, must ultimately be prayer. Our purpose in life is to imitate that Being whose very nature is useless, for out of the contemplation of His own uselessness comes the entire universe of useful things, useful, according to His plan, as steps on a ladder to Him, the only reality that can truly be said to exist for its own sake: Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use.