The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education, edited by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and David Henreckson (Plough Publishing, 224 pp., $17)
In the 1970s, students in the University of Kansas’s Integrated Humanities Program were converting to Catholicism at such conspicuous rates that local media accused professors of proselytizing. Though an investigation found no evidence for the charge, the school’s Great Books program ultimately folded—but not before several students, among them James Conley, future bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska; Paul Coakley, future archbishop of the Archdioceses of Oklahoma City; and Dom Philip Andreson, future abbot of Clear Creek Abbey, became Catholics.
This story gestures to an argument that Joseph Clair’s essay makes in a new collection about classical education, The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education. Truth in the Christian understanding, Clair suggests, is not just a concept but a person—that of Christ—and pursuing the truth means meeting Christ, whether teachers intend to facilitate such a meeting or not.
To that end, Clair argues for a construct that he calls “Jesus U,” a paradigm for liberal arts education that he claims rectifies deficiencies in two other frameworks: “Truth U” and “Social Justice U,” both of which fail to honor the “transcendent or religious sense of the human person.”
Truth U, Clair claims, is fixated on material truth divorced from metaphysical context. Social Justice U, on the other hand, obsesses over a myopic dismantling of power structures without good-faith consideration of their origins or motives. “Truth in a purely objective, universal, or rational sense is too bare a telos for the liberal arts to sustain themselves,” he argues. At the same time, within the paradigm of Social Justice U, “the inner logic of unmasking power and defending the victim becomes a totalizing narrative”—one in which there’s no rubric by which to choose “between Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community or the armed resistance of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.”
The book’s other chapters, which feature comparatively breezy and anecdotal entries, rest on premises that sometimes conflict with Clair’s conclusions. Some authors believe the logical end of pursuing the liberal arts is Christian conversion, as the University of Kansas anecdote suggests. Others think that conversion could be the logical conclusion, given the right conditions. Still others pursue the liberal arts from non-Christian backgrounds.
Despite the philosophical tensions, the collection is a worthwhile read. Sprinkled among the more theoretical chapters are narrative-based entries that tell stories of everyday people taking the initiative to read books and poetry with their local communities. While most of these entries are written from a Christian perspective, they are accessible to readers of other religious backgrounds (including Confucianism, to which one contributor adheres).
The book emphasizes that the liberal arts are worth pursuing for a variety of people and communities. The authors stress that a Great Books education isn’t just for privileged college kids in cushy seminar rooms; English-language learners, high school students from working-class backgrounds, inner-city minorities, Ugandan schoolchildren, white-collar hobbyists, left-brained engineers, and even the comatose and dying can all benefit from the liberal arts. In one particularly memorable chapter, Sean Sword recalls his encounter with classical education while incarcerated at the Calvin Prison Institute in Michigan: “When the Michigan Department of Corrections allowed the opportunity for prisoners to participate in a faith-based education, the liberal arts were liberated,” Sword writes, “freed from their confinement to schools to break through prison walls.”
The book offers numerous moving entries of this kind: from Adams Parham, who runs Nyansa Classical Community, which teaches the liberal arts to students largely of African descent; from John Mark Reynolds, who insists that liberal arts education need not exclude the working class; and from Zena Hitz on her work with the Catherine Project, which makes classical education possible for individuals from all walks of life.
The reader is left with a clear sense that pursuing “the good, the true, and the beautiful,” as Christopher Rufo put it during a February town hall at New College, is honorable. That pursuit can transcend the two competing visions that currently dominate modern American higher education—often rote and reductively performance-oriented, on one hand, or polemical and grievance-based, on the other.
Will colleges that emphasize the liberal arts, unshackled from social justice ideology, become like the University of Kansas circa 1970? Will those schools’ students eventually embrace Christianity, even if they are not taught in an explicitly Christian environment? The Liberating Arts doesn’t take a position. But let’s let students dive into Shakespeare and Flannery O’Connor, gaze at the stars, and contemplate the Pythagorean theorem. Perhaps they’ll find something else along the way.