What Groucho Marx Can Teach Us About Liberal Education


The world wearies of defenses of liberal education and the humanities. What cannot be denied is that all over the country the liberal arts are dying out, with students abandoning the subjects and universities slashing programs and faculty lines. The liberal arts, it is claimed, lack practical value, are overly political, and are just a waste of precious resources in times of tight budgets. Still, let me add one more defense of the liberal arts. I in particular wish to appeal to those who care about sustaining a traditional curriculum. This includes teaching the best of the Western tradition and combating the deleterious effects of “political correctness,” or what we might call diversity wrongly understood. I do not wish to be parochial, but I want to demonstrate to my fellow conservatives why they in particular should support a vigorous liberal arts education. 

I have a stock lecture about the value of liberal education that starts with a clip of Groucho Marx singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” from the film A Day at the Circus. Partly this is self-indulgence, but there is a serious point behind it. The song features a bevy of literary and historical allusions. Examples include the Battle of Waterloo, “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” Alcatraz, and Andrew Jackson. Lydia has each of these, and more, tattooed on her body. While I find the song, and the Marx Brothers in general, to be hilarious, the students tend to be stone-faced. Part of that is the bias today’s students have against black and white film. But the bigger obstacle is that most of the allusions in the song are lost on them. Groucho is, to them, speaking gibberish half the time. It’s hard to get the humor of the song if you don’t know to what Groucho is referring. 

I had a similar reaction a few years ago when watching the film Peabody and Sherman with my kids. This film, based on the shorts that accompanied the old Bullwinkle cartoon, tells the tale of a time traveling dog named Peabody who has “a boy” (like a boy usually has a dog) named Sherman. Peabody and Sherman travel to revolutionary France, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and get scientific advice from Leonardo di Vinci and Albert Einstein. My kids liked the movie well enough, but it must be said that some of the jokes went over their heads. It’s hard to grasp Robespierre humor when you don’t know who Robespierre is. 

It’s one thing not to get a movie. It’s another thing not to get life.

Now imagine when what is at issue is not getting the jokes of Marx Brothers films or cartoons about a time-traveling dog. Imagine that what is at issue is life. Imagine going through life not getting all sorts of allusions and references. As will be discussed below, so much of making sense of life is through understanding events, experience, and ideas by putting them in intellectual context. A liberal education provides much of that context. Think of another classic story, that of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.”Rip falls asleep for twenty years and misses the American Revolution. When he wakes up and wanders back to town he cannot understand who George Washington is, what an election is, and why his allegiance to the king is problematic. It’s one thing not to get a movie. It’s another thing not to get life. 

This is why Thomas Jefferson put so much emphasis on schools and newspapers. Only an educated citizenry can navigate the world without guidance from the kinds of authority democracy tends to reject. Without education you are not free. As Mark Bauerlein has written, “Democracy requires an informed electorate and knowledge deficits equal civic decay.” If you don’t know what is going on in politics you cannot exercise control over your government. This requires a knowledge of history (including literature) so you can put ideas in context and draw upon a bevy of experiences. Such knowledge allows us to adequately assess the day’s circumstances. If you’re liberally educated, you aren’t a Rip Van Winkle to whom every situation and every argument appears new and unique, causing you to simply end up confused. 

The problem of youth is precisely lack of experience. We make up for that in education, attempting to encourage the young toward wisdom. If you are ignorant you are the plaything of people who know more than you do and who can mislead you–because you just don’t know any better. This means putting down the phone and turning off the computer from time to time to spend some time dwelling on more important things. That’s why liberal education has its name. It is education for liberty. 

Nicholas Carr’s work on how books and technology influence our neurobiology is incisive here. In his book The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains, Carr demonstrates that reading and writing are not natural. They require practice, habit. The benefit of reading is that it allows for both information and reflection. Carr notes that oral cultures traditionally had to stress memory, as by definition nothing was written down. Thus Socrates famously pondered whether writing constituted an advance or retreat as it allowed our memories to slack. What Carr finds is that reading and writing keep the memory well exercised, but as we read we can do so at an intentional pace and thus can also reflect upon what we are reading. A literate culture is able to bolster knowledge beyond what an oral culture can produce. 

A people who can only describe something bad as a “double-plus ungood” are easier to control.

What Carr shows, essentially, is that the more you know the more you can know. One of the ways in which our brain retains information is to associate it with previous knowledge. So as our brains learn things about, say, the aforementioned Andrew Jackson or Leonardo di Vinci, it makes it easier to learn newer information by associating the new with the old, literally building upon neural pathways. That’s why the more you read the easier it is to read. Liberal education seeks to expose students to all sorts of different branches of knowledge that allow them to learn even more. In addition, a literate person is more articulate. Mastery of language is a kind of freedom as our minds are able to more accurately and vividly comprehend the world. There is a reason why Orwell’s Big Brother seeks to destroy the vivacity of language through Newspeak. A people who can only describe something bad as a “double-plus ungood” are easier to control. In our day, our adjectives too often consist of mere vulgarities, indicating a lack of imagination inconsistent with a free person. 

One of our challenges is that the education field believes that learning is merely a technique. For example, for many years I was involved with a now defunct federal program called Teaching American History, a program to help history teachers bone up on history content. Many of the grant proposals I read expressed a goal of getting students to “think like historians.” Now, thinking like an historian is a good goal. But the first step to doing so is to actually know some history. History is more than names and dates, but it is at least names and dates. It is hard to “think like an historian” about, say, the Thirty Years War when one is clueless as to when those thirty years took place and what actually happened in those years.

But this is not what education “experts” think education is. The tendency is to see education as teaching students a skill they can apply to any subject rather than helping them learn actual content. See the current fad of “critical thinking.” As Wendell Berry put it in “Sales Resistance For Beginners,” we tend to think that we can be literate without “knowing the meanings of words, or learning grammar, or reading books.” But as E.D. Hirsch, educator and literature professor, has been pointing out for three decades now, education happens best when students actually acquire content knowledge. So if a student reads that someone “rose like the Phoenix” or that “something is rotten in Denmark,” they actually know what those phrases mean. To know the story of the Phoenix bird or to have read Hamlet makes one more literate, i.e, better able to comprehend the world. The goal here is not the mastery of trivia, as if life were a Jeopardy game. Learning the great works of our civilization can open a young person’s eyes to the wonder of creation. Democratic citizens, Tocqueville notes, need reminders of lasting beauty. The liberal arts promote this good. 

Here technology is not our friend. The online world draws us to snippets and bits. We lose context. It is designed to keep you moving from one thing to another. Authors as varied as Nicholas Carr, Matthew Crawford, Maryanne Wolf, and Jonathan Haidt have noted that technology can produce a mental state similar to autism. Looking for constant stimulation you move from one thing to another in a catatonic state without really imbibing anything. Anyone who has played a silly game on a smart phone or browsed the Web and then wondered where the hour went knows the sensation. The screen is the enemy of deep reading. As Carr writes, “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning…. If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.” It bears remembering that in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 the government does not initiate the destruction of books. Instead, a population enamored with television simply stops reading them. 

A liberal education also has the benefit of taking us out of our time and asking us to have our prejudices challenged. One of the errors of our time, so influenced are we by historicism and academic fads, is that we think the past has nothing to teach us. The historicist error is the belief that simply by benefit of living later in history we know more than previous generations, thus we can dismiss the wisdom of the ages. This is temporal arrogance. The academic error is to look at history or old books and assume that they represent nothing more than political ideology. Academics, influenced by literary criticism and critical history, approach the tradition as debunkers, analyzing old texts through contemporary ideologies to see how the past measures up. It isn’t really considered that maybe it’s the contemporary ideology that needs debunking. 

Old books offer a more authentic multiculturalism than a host of contemporary books that merely reflect trendy ideology.

As C.S. Lewis so helpfully reminds us, each age has its own biases, its own unquestioned assumptions. To avoid ending up in deep error, we need to question those assumptions. This is not because questioning is an end in itself, as modern education theory tends to think, but because we desire to live in truth. This is Lewis’s justly famous defense of reading old books. As Lewis notes, reading books from the future would be just as helpful, with the slight difficulty that they haven’t been written yet. So we must turn to the old books. To be sure, they have their own biases and assumptions, but they will be different from ours. The truly liberal mind, difficult to find these days amongst instructors in the liberal arts, will approach old texts with the notion that, say, Shakespeare might have something to teach us; that Augustine might be on to something; that Dante may know things that we don’t know or have forgotten. With the entire history of the written word at our disposal, old books offer a more authentic multiculturalism than a host of contemporary books that merely reflect trendy ideology. This requires an openness, but not a naïve credulity, to the past. Leo Strauss said that liberal education “demands from us the complete break with the noise, the rush, the thoughtlessness, the cheapness of the Vanity Fair of the intellectual as well as of their enemies.” A sound liberal education introduces us to what has been called The Great Conversation or The Great Tradition. We can take old authors and, in a sense, converse with them. A good instructor will show how authors, even those writing centuries apart, can enter into conversation with each other. 

The typical complaint against liberal education is that it is not “relevant,” especially to our economic needs. While that’s an exaggeration, there is some truth to it. Herbert Storing, in the unjustly neglected essay “Liberal Education and the Common Man,” considers just this complaint. Storing, a student of Strauss, was skeptical regarding whether liberal education as Strauss conceived it was of use to the common man. Storing believed, along with Tocqueville, that our public leaders needed the highest liberal education. But if liberal education is about being free, Storing believed that what the common man needs is vocational education. The thing that sets the average person free is not a classical education, but a good job, a good wage, and a kind of economic independence. 

There is much truth to this. Still, Storing stressed that such an education should be accompanied by what he called “civic education.” We are not just educating workers; we are educating citizens. Americans should know their rights, for example. They should know how to justify those rights, the basis of those rights, how they are protected in law. In addition, citizens need immersion in what Storing called American myths. He lamented the contemporary fad of debunking our heroes, “for a country without heroes is a country without principles or aspirations.” In effect, Storing is arguing for a culturally literate citizenry, literate enough to understand public discourse, to intelligently defend one’s interests and rights, and to not be the plaything of people who have power over you simply because they know more. 

One example here will do. If one is ignorant of the American founding, politicians can make all sorts of false claims about the U.S. Constitution and a citizen will never know the difference. I don’t know how many smart people I have heard or read saying, “Under the original Constitution, women and blacks weren’t allowed vote.” This is not true. The only thing the U.S. Constitution says about voting is that if you are eligible to vote for the most numerous branch of your state’s legislature, you can vote in House elections. No one is denied anything. Of course before the Constitution was amended, no one voted for Senators as they were elected by state legislatures. Regarding the president, the Constitution sets up electoral votes that are to be allocated “in such Manner as the Legislature” of each state “may direct.” To be sure, in the founding era no state allowed women to vote for state legislature. Most states did not allow blacks to vote. But that was not demanded by the Constitution. Perhaps this is a minor matter, but it exemplifies how a politician might be able to manipulate a population with poor civic education. 

In my own state of South Dakota there is concern about these matters, and it seems certain contradictions are coming to a head. Our new governor, former U.S. House member Kristi Noem, in her recent State of the State address, said both that she wants all South Dakota high school graduates to be able to pass the U.S. Citizenship test and that we need greater emphasis on career education starting as early as middle school. Put me down as in favor of the former. These two goals are not necessarily in conflict, but they are in tension. The more we see education as merely job preparation, the more we neglect Storing’s suggestions regarding civic education. Career training must come at the expense of something else. The more emphasis we put on it the less we put on courses such as U.S. History, U.S. Government, Civics, and literature of all kinds. Recall the discussion of Carr. The less our young people read, including great literature, they less they know and the harder it will be for them to learn more. In my state, the last time students take an early U.S. History class is in the eighth grade, where, as a friend of mine puts it, they aren’t far beyond the drawing-turkeys-with-your-hand stage. And then we get concerned that our students know nothing of the American founding. 

South Dakota’s state legislature is also anxious about curriculum. It is asking our state university governing body if our students are being educated into the foundations of American and Western Civilization. But it is the legislature itself and current and former governors who have emphasized that our universities exist primarily as job creators, not as initiators into a great tradition. In the last two decades the state higher education system has gone through two bouts of general education revision, both of which dumbed down general education almost entirely at the expense of history, literature, and social sciences–the very disciplines in which one would learn about American and Western foundations. It is now easy for most students to get through South Dakota universities never having taken a single history class, or government class, or literature class, or philosophy class. They will know nothing of Ancient Greece. They will have read not a single word of Aristotle. They may not have read Shakespeare. They will have no formal education on the United States Constitution. They will have no college level history course whatsoever. To be sure, most students actually do wander into one or more of these fields while fulfilling our shrunken general education, but it is by accident, not design. As Plato says of the blind man, we don’t praise him because he accidently found the right road. 

Universities are under pressure from outside sources. Most valid are the concerns of legislatures (for public institutions) and parents who want to know that their investment will pay off. Also, these constituencies are sometimes reasonably perturbed that their money is spent on university courses and curricula that are excessively political, virtually always in the same leftward direction. But we also have the federal government, accrediting bodies, and corporate non-profits like the Gates Foundation who want to put all sorts of demands on universities (such as “diversity”) that are secondary to the educational mission. Corporate interests, such as Gates, also demand that universities simply become credentialing mills, turning out graduates who, like the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, are declared smart because they have a piece of paper. I agree with the late Peter Lawler that techno-vocationalism and the reign of the managerial class are as much a threat to sound education as “politically correct” faculty.

One way to gain broader support for the liberal arts is to promote intellectual diversity amongst faculty that is more in harmony with the general public. The National Association of Scholars and Heterodox Academy have documented how higher education has become an ideological monoculture. But there seems to be no consensus on how to achieve intellectual diversity without resorting to crude tokenism or unjust inquiries into faculty members’ views. This is why I prefer focusing on a properly constructed curriculum. I have always found Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia to be a fine synthesis between Strauss’s and Storing’s visions, one mirrored in the Morrill Act that created our land-grant colleges and universities. Jefferson wanted students to know enough to run a farm and a business. So they must know math, plants, geometry and the like. But they must also be citizens, so the plan calls for knowledge of political economy, languages, ethics, “Belles Lettres, and the fine arts.” It is a mixture of what we might call the practical and the poetic. It is education for the body and the soul. It is an education fit for the free citizen.


  1. Though the main point of this article (content>critical thinking) is well made, I must heartily object to your use of Groucho. First off, even a cursory reflection on “What Groucho Marx Can Teach Us about Liberal Education” ought to consider his groundbreaking work as a university administrator in ‘Horse Feathers.’

    Secondly, the whole point of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” is that book learning is boring when compared to sex. You don’t need to know anything about the Battle of New Orleans to get the line “When her muscles start relaxing / Up the hill comes Andrew Jackson.” In fact, the song actually argues for the opposite of your thesis. While nothing is added by knowing Jackson’s historical resonances, Jackson does function as a place-holder for the wonderful things you can learn from Lydia. And so the listener for whom Jackson represents some great mystery is actually better able to appreciate the song.

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