To paint with very broad strokes, the Enlightenment is an episode in the intellectual life and culture of Western civilization, where on the basis of and in reaction to a number of factors—scientific, social, religious, and political—Western thinkers experienced an acute loss of confidence in central elements of human tradition and in the institutions which embodied and perpetuated that tradition. Where Western civilization had been maintained by a tensed harmony (at least in theory) of a number of incommensurable authorities—faith, tradition, reason, experience, community—the Enlightenment project is perhaps best characterized as the attempt to secure the goods of that tradition upon the putatively certain ground of reason. A brilliant illustration of this project
is Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? in which he famously describes enlightenment as man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity, an immaturity strictly defined as reliance upon such traditional mediating structures and institutions as books, doctors, priests, and judges in human intellectual, physical, religious, and moral life. To be enlightened, claims Kant, is to dare to think for oneself—sapere aude!— and thus his ideal human is a rationally autonomous subject for whom reason is the sole guarantor of human intellectual and moral goods. The notion that human flourishing is dependent upon anything more fundamental than reason is precisely what is repudiated here.
By the mid-twentieth century, when the realization that the European Enlightenment had culminated in the most devastating (and efficient) elimination of human life the world has yet witnessed—indeed, greater in quantity than all armed conflicts in human history combined—recognition of the Enlightenment project’s failure was widespread. Yet, it was not merely malaise or disillusionment that signaled the end of the Enlightenment. Throughout the twentieth century there was also a succession of insights—notably from the sciences— concerning the role historical tradition and community practices play in forming our philosophical outlook, the influence that religious (or anti-religious) presuppositions have in our reasoning, and the comprehensive effect that language and culture have in shaping our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. With this succession of insights has come renewed appreciation for the displaced notions of faith, tradition, reason, experience, and community. There has been renewed appreciation as well for the practices and ways of being in the world that gave these notions plausibility prior to the Enlightenment.
It is this new way of thinking about human rationality that provides a renewed context for liberal arts education, and the most compelling case for its contemporary re-appropriation. An Enlightenment view of reason has simply proved too narrow to account for human rationality, much less to secure the goods of human life. The historical, aesthetic, and philological disciplines of the liberal arts curriculum, however, are especially well fitted to the more robust understanding of what it means to be rational in our current intellectual situation.
Beyond the “well-rounded” student
Understanding this historical context also helps us to perceive the problem with the commonplace notion mentioned above that a liberal arts education produces well-rounded people. For it was precisely as an unquestioning response to Enlightenment rationality that the liberal arts were first defended as the means of making well-rounded persons. The rational and scientific disciplines, so the thinking went at the time, set the standards for what it meant to be well educated. The liberal arts are important for making one refined, cultured, humane. Thus, taste, common sense, and judgment were understood to be important subjective or intuitive qualities one should develop while acquiring an otherwise objective and scientific education. However laudable the intention, this notion is tragically mistaken for at least two important reasons. In the first place, rather than maintaining the liberal arts in something of a separate-but-equal status with the sciences, emphasizing their cultural or refining qualities actually served to relegate the liberal arts to educational window-dressing. In the age of science, urbanization, and industrialization, such accoutrement was superfluous—indeed, when it comes to making the automobile, not only history, but art and literature too, are bunk. In this brave new world of progress, the very notion of refinement was seen to smack of elitism and old-world aristocracy. Moreover, in light of the discussion above, it ought to be clear that the relegation of the liberal arts to
the periphery of the curriculum was philosophically naive. It was not apparent in the nineteenth century, but we see now that the qualities the liberal arts cultivate, much more than rounding out a practical, scientific education, actually play a fundamental role in the acquisition of human understanding as such. The liberal arts are thus essential to and not just an accidental element of education.
In The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis writes: “And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation— we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self- sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity
we remove the organ and demand the function.” He is lamenting the failure of modern education to cultivate
the very qualities we have addressed all too briefly in this essay—moral judgement, common sense, and taste—not, we should note, critical thinking or academic rigor. Modern education rendered the cultivation of these humanizing qualities impossible because it displaced the liberal arts curriculum with what was imagined to be a more practical or more relevant curriculum. Chesterton once remarked that thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world. Perhaps we could adapt his words here and apply them to our discussion: thoroughly practical people never understand what is truly practical. So in its departure from modern education, the Christian classical renewal has come to understand that it is precisely the liberal arts curriculum—that seemingly impractical detour among the literary and imaginative works of humanity— that cultivates the qualities necessary for meaningful human action, and indeed true human flourishing.