An Apology for the Liberal Arts
By Danny Semelsberger
I was listening to 154 by Wire the other day, and as “The 15th” came around, something struck me. Wire were among the forerunners of punk rock in the 1970s, mining the roots of the rock establishment as they raucously sneered at it. But something happened to their music as that decade waned. The musical and lyrical economy of punk were taken to their absolute extremes, thereby caving in on themselves, and without the capacity to express even a lone idea, the band’s purpose vanished. “The 15th” is a song about nothing, and it’s terrifying. No longer were Wire’s implications to pop music iconoclastic, they were apocalyptic—punk ethos does not necessitate punk music. Wire killed the center that made pop music intelligible, in the same way those in the marketplace killed God, as per Nietzsche’s madman.
In line with the rest of higher education, the merit and proper method to teach general education at Kenyon is in question. Being dedicated to the liberal arts, the frame of debate seems to regard how to broaden and adapt the traditional liberal arts pedagogy to applied fields, rather than seeing the tradition as impractical and irrelevant. Be that as it may, I cannot help but feel uneasy toward discussions about experiential learning in the liberal arts—discussions very real and present at Kenyon surrounding pre-profes- sional internship accreditation, applied learning require- ments, and career tracks. Though I have faith Kenyon is in good hands with President Decatur and the current faculty guiding the College’s trajectory, there do exist liberal arts schools which, sometime in their history, became lost in narrow areas of expertise and entrepreneurial spirit, now “liberal arts” only in name. This set precedent, coupled with anxiety about creating (or students’ fears of becoming) tragic starving artists and degree-holding burger flippers, make it conceivable that progress left unexamined could unintentionally kill what makes Kenyon, Kenyon: a school that provides a true liberal education. Broaden and adapt to applied and pre-professional fields and risk inadvertently stripping away the authority the liberating purpose of liberal arts holds over the curriculum; make God inaccessible to analytic truths and risk losing His unconditional authority; progressively remove a tiger’s stripes and it is no longer a tiger.
Therefore, my uneasiness lies in a gradual collective forgetting of what the “liberal” in liberal arts stands for. No, a “liberal education” is not learning to be a liberal, regardless of what paranoid grandparents would have you believe during college applications. Actually, it is the opposite. A liberal education is an existential education, a way of approaching education that progresses by playing on the emotions and expanding the mind, thereby discov- ering the heart. If one leaves Kenyon continuing to find reward or pleasure by participating in meaningless de- bates, playing the chauvinistic or moralistic ideologue, or worse demagogue, without actually examining what one is taking a stance on—seeing the benefits, consequences, and livability of their comportment toward the world— then the College might as well give a full-paid refund: either it did not do its job or it selected the wrong type of applicant. A true liberal arts institution provides a culture of examining mores and comprehending ethos without fear of prejudice, one where, if approached with an open mind and a thirst for understanding, a student can trans- form into his or her own unique individual, awake to the surrounding world that carries all its inhabitants daily. I feel that educational merit can only be given to the extent an institution does this. To illustrate, an example is needed:
My dad did not like being a college student at Harvard. For the longest time, I could not make sense of this; I was rejected there, as many of us likely were (or if not Harvard, fill in your dream school as a high school senior). To me, the prestige must have meant something.
I have learned something since then: only in the naive mind does nothing go unwarranted. I have actually met students attending the “real Ivies,” as a Princeton grad put it to me—Harvard, Princeton, yale. And in short, they are as one would expect. Their work ethic, level-headedness, direction—everything about them seems near-perfectly well-ordered to any sensible person; not a lot of disagreements, other than personal sentiment, could be made about the way they carry themselves. However, I found something strange in getting to know them: they were utterly, unspectacularly normal. They complained about academic workload and checked Facebook when left alone. They talked about rather dull things: where they were from, Hunger Games books, Disney films, past travels, and summer internships. And the way they did so was no different than the honors students at my public high school; small talk, not really major and controversial ideas, sometimes original, but never penetrating, sort of like hear- ing a new news story or learning an interesting fact from Jeopardy. Even more normal were their talks about ambitions. They wanted to become lawyers, policy specialists, business people with morals, professions commonly understood as what successful people do. But in asking, they never really could explain why, other than pointing to the “what” of what they wanted to do. There was no context, no explanation of what they really were doing in relation to themselves. Our conversation stopped when I told them I was studying the Republic while abroad, reaching an “agree to disagree/you do you and I won’t judge” endpoint, but grudgingly began again as I told them I am an economics/political science major—“good for a job” they said. They struck at their object of dissent, often defined by what could not universally be endorsed, only from where they were safe, even if they only knew the object imperfectly.
While it must ultimately be a student’s responsibility regarding their relation to education, an institutional culture is absolutely conducive to what that relation may be. And if an institution is not wholly devoted to liberal arts as existential learning in all facets—central curriculum, residential life and institutional goals—can it preserve the ethos? I wonder: is the “what” that one learns and trains for at college the object of value? I think it is the “why.” Specialization means nothing if specialists are unable to communicate themselves, unable to understand another’s perspective, or blind to the movements carrying them daily. Furthermore, specialization’s isolation frees conflict from those who “agree to disagree,” but make a person inherently dependent on the vocation, the “what,” they specialize in.
Here at Kenyon, conversations happen that few places can ever admit to having. People notice how much they do not know, put aside their beliefs, and give others more than a fair hearing—one where both sides walk out changed. Sympathy may just be constructed empathy, but holds real merit if authentic, and its authentic construction requires self-learning. Liberating independence and self-assurance, or rather purpose over outcome, stop rudderless groupthink and chauvinistic in-group devotion. By having sympathy and independence of mind, the soft nihilism threatening the former and the alienating individualism inherent in the latter synthesize to a more holistic personal truth by understanding from where another perspective comes. A person’s beliefs are given over to their own inclinations. They feel, understand why they feel, and feel anew.
The student who, at Kenyon, allows him or herself to become entrenched into its community, making the core virtues of liberal education into their own, experiences a transformation. Elsewhere, the mere mention of Plato raises the wall all-too-familiar to any teacher, or for that matter anyone (we all teach in some form): that impen- etrable wall blocking the way to inquiry and creating a sense of hopeless incompatibility, thereby necessitating humiliating defeat. Others stop hearing what you have to say. But at a place of liberal education, core values of sympathy and liberated creativity intact, Plato is a source of existentialized magic: a wholly worldly phenomenon, but to the one experiencing it, one that feels supernatu- ral nonetheless. The greatness of Kenyon’s curriculum is that it has arrested the pillars of our culture without devolving into pedantry. Don Quixote, The Leviathan, The Communist Manifesto, and Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems refuse to degenerate into a sort of antiquari- anism; they live as much here as they will always within the cultural zeitgeist, the primordial background practices all people—whether or not they realize it—are immersed within. We engage personally with the thinkers who struc- tured, reified, and created our very ethos in a way that is more real and transparent than even the most penetrating gossip. An idea of a great mind, not to mention the great minds throughout all place and time, both within our custom (which is our nature) and others’, appears energetic, convincing and penetrating: it moves. you may rationalize this entire take as a variation of Stockholm syndrome toward Kenyon if you will—I’ll keep the truth I formed as part of Kenyon’s culture.
In the spirit of Tocqueville, I ask then, hopefully not in self-reflective parody: Where are we going? As in Tocqueville, I answer with this: no one can say. But through it all, we must remember that the title “liberal arts” continues to impose a duty on those directing Kenyon, both faculty and students: to give life to its time-tested and true beliefs; to instruct the institution in accordance with those within it, those soon-to-be individuals adapted to the time and place of our age; to follow the institutional instincts but persuade reason to assist them with realizing its paradigmatic virtues. A commitment to inspiration, to eliciting questions from students, and to shaking them from inauthentically floating to the tune of others, must never be forgotten as the purpose of education. It hasn’t come easily, and certainly I do not—or better yet, cannot—understand the totality of perspectives, impli- cations, and guiding principles forming education, but I think I am finally starting to figure out this place where I blindly ended up. And I couldn’t have done it had Kenyon offered anything but the liberal arts, unmediated and essence intact.