Why We Need Liberal Arts Education
Review by Jesse Hake
Bilbro, Jeffrey, et al. The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education. Plough, 2023.
The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education edited by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and David Henreckson is a book born out of personal loss and uprooting for the majority of its contributors and editors. After years of award-winning teaching and writing, several of them faced recent relocations as so many universities and colleges have undergone yet more cuts to the liberal arts and humane letters. This pulls the book out of the abstract and provides a straightforward and effective shape to its apologetic for these studies that gave birth to the university. Despite the book’s pragmatic purpose, however, it provides, even more profoundly, a leisurely and meandering conversation with an expansive vision for these arts. This vision is rooted in companionship and gratitude for good gifts that are still—despite all of the evident losses—with us and continuing to impart life. The book manages to be both a no-nonsense manifesto and a convivial exchange of great ideas.
With a matter-of-fact structure built around a set of familiar and entirely contemporary questions about the relevance and appropriateness of the liberal arts, the book covers challenges from both sides of our bifurcated and politicized age. A chapter collecting reflections in response to the concern “Aren’t the Liberal Arts Liberal?” from the right is tucked in between two reflections on “Aren’t the Liberal Arts Elitist?” and “Aren’t the Liberal Arts Racist?” from the left. In addition to this clearly intentional weaving together of concerns that would not typically show up between the covers of one book in today’s world, these essays from twenty-five contributors contain both a glorious variety of personal experiences and backgrounds as well as a more varied array of reasons for teaching the liberal arts than I have encountered within any of the many books on this topic that I have read. Rachel B. Griffis, among others, argues that the compelling statistics on the earning potential and profitability of the liberal arts for prospective students have been foolishly spurned by many defenders in ways that perpetuate “a false dichotomy between gainful employment and the humanizing goods of the liberal arts” (145). Such cases were good for me as I tend to indulge myself most often in the more somber points such as those made by Zena Hitz that “leisure might require sacrifice” (32) or by Lydia S. Dugdale regarding how effectively the liberal arts prepare us for death. I was deeply moved by Dugdale’s point that “the ars moriendi provided prayers that the healthy could utter on behalf of the dying” so that “the art of dying thus proposed a collective solution to the problem of isolated inability to participate” (177).
In my impression that these many different voices and ideas felt conversational, perhaps I was influenced by the fact that I have enjoyed some time face-to-face with several of these wonderful writers, but I doubt it. Even with the many that I have not met, this quarter-century of contributors was clearly a network of people who have read and written together across multiple overlapping contexts for years. They cite each other several times and without any sense of artifice or pretense. Moreover, this is not simply a book full of ideas in conversation. Most of the essays describe shared labors and projects on an almost dizzying number of different fronts from prisons to after-school programs, from university initiatives to small magazines. In these accounts of their undertakings, the contributors further demonstrate both constructive critique as well as community and relationship with multiple points of mutual help. Peter Mommsen, editor of Plough magazine, commends a long list of other small magazines while warning against the strong pull to drift into political and ideological advocacy “that simply serves up regular helpings of whatever kinds of hot take will reliably fire up one’s base” (196).
In addition to a wide range of hard-nosed defenses and practical examples, the book also contains rich engagement with history and with several conflicting theories of the liberal arts. Joseph Clair offers a bold defense of why we should take specifically “Christian liberal arts instruction more seriously than [Jonathan] Haidt does” so that the Christian tradition—which is “capacious enough to be appealing to Christians and non-Christians alike” and “adaptable to other religious or philosophical approaches”—can continue to provide “a viable alternative to the liberal or progressive adaptations of the liberal arts on offer today” (67). (Every classical educator should understand these two distinct and more recent adaptations of the liberal arts tradition in the classical liberal and the progressive modes as opposed to the more explicitly religious or contemplative—although still human and expansive—purpose of the liberal arts in the pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pre-modern world.) With a wonderfully refreshing historical eye, Angel Adams Parham argues that the heart of the liberal arts tradition has always been “located at the Mediterranean crossroads” (86), so we should recognize “the liberal arts as a conversation among diverse interlocutors” that has always included vital “African and Eastern contributions” (90). Time and again in the book, we are given paradigm-shifting ideas served up within short essays and clear prose from authors who are not all in full agreement.
Classical school leaders and teachers will benefit from all three aspects of the book with its many practical ways of defending classical education, its vivacious array of concrete projects and labors to serve as inspirations and examples, and finally its demonstration of leisurely and substantive discourse between contributors with differing approaches and priorities. In all of these ways, this short book can provide rich material for faculty and staff conversations that will brighten their visions for their classrooms and for their school as a whole. Teachers will be challenged and encouraged with fresh ways to advocate for the value of the liberal arts at the same time as gaining clarity regarding the various ways in which the liberal arts have been relabeled, reinvented, and repurposed over the centuries. This was a book that was easy to read around the edges of my own too-frantic life. Its short essays were easily enjoyed and digested in brief snatches of time, while several conversational elements and reverberating themes that ran from cover to cover also encouraged me to pause for reflection and to circle back.
Not only would this book bless parents and teachers in classical schools, but several of the essays would be helpful to older students as well. All liberal arts teachers today should recognize that they are engaged in countercultural activity and that their students should be given support and clarity regarding the misperceptions and confusion surrounding the modes of study as well as the moral integrity of the classics that they are reading. Even if there are still any students who are blissfully cut off from concerns over the elitism and the patriarchy of the past, they should know something about these contemporary debates and have the resources to defend the content and methods of their own education. They should be familiar with Jeffrey Bilbro’s case for why knowledge of the past is always intensely relevant and how Jessica Hooten Wilson shows that liberal arts education is a part of everyday life even outside of schools and institutions. Essays such as David Henreckson’s “On the Road with Marilynne Robinson” also make great companions for some of the contemporary books that parents, teachers, and students in classical schools and homes should be reading.
This book is virtually guaranteed not to cater to any one of the pet fears or hopes that any reader might bring to it. Instead, it will insist on a willingness to hear multiple stories told in multiple voices along with following a variety of cases that are built on overlapping but not always compatible principles. In all of this, the book will enrich your understanding of what the liberal arts have been across the many centuries of their existence within a wide variety of places and cultures as well as why the liberal arts have been reinvented, championed, and maligned for such a wide range of reasons in more recent years. It is a book that will refresh your own gratitude for friendships, co-laborers, reading, and contemplation. While it has points to make and work to do, it remains alive and irreducible to ideologies or agendas.
Jesse Hake is the Director of ClassicalU. He has been an upper-school humanities educator. Most recently before ClassicalU, he was Principal for seven years at Logos Academy, a classical school in downtown York, PA. Jesse leads the course production efforts at ClassicalU where he helps recruit talented teacher-trainers and professors, and arranges for all aspects of the course design, and recording, as well as hosting presenters onsite in Camp Hill, PA.
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