One encounters any number of reasons for the importance of a liberal arts education, both from within the Christian classical renewal and in the broader educational culture. In Christian classical circles one is likely to hear an emphasis upon the potency of the liberal arts as tools of learning, while in the broader culture the emphases one often meets range from vague notions of well-roundedness to pragmatic claims of employability. Thus the thesis advanced in the present article may appear to some as bold and somewhat surprising.
The best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is not that it produces well-rounded persons, though the breadth of human experience it affords is expansive. Nor is it that the liberal arts foster or engender the kind of written, verbal, or critical thinking skills sought after by some employers, though the skills of persuasive writing and speaking and of interpretive reading and analysis indeed lie at the core of the liberal arts curriculum. Rather, the most compelling reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is the distinct claim that the historical, aesthetic, philological disciplines of the traditional liberal arts curriculum
cultivate the qualities of moral judgment, common sense (sensus communis), and taste.1 It is not only that the Western tradition has understood the distinctively human element of civilization to consist in the acquisition and exercise of these qualities, but also that they actually constitute the pre-critical conditions for human rationality itself. Put most simply, then, the best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing, both in terms of human reason and of human moral being in the world. It is also the most compelling because it is perfectly attuned to our own cultural moment.
Cultivating moral judgement, common sense, and taste
There is perhaps no single aspect in which a liberal arts education is more obviously unique than in its telos— the acquisition of moral wisdom or judgment. Earlier thinkers such as Plato or Aristotle would have called this virtue phronesis, practical wisdom. While our own culture is preoccupied with a plurality of incommensurable educational goals—rational mastery of a subject, technical proficiency, the ability to calculate, to deduce, or to process data—the ideal of a liberal education has always been wise and responsible action in the world. Phronesis thus unites the theoretical and the practical goals of education; we might say that it is the good sense to know what to do with truth. Honed through imitation and continual practice, it is the skill of living a good human life in the world.2
The question arises, however, if the liberal arts are primarily academic in nature, how does such an education cultivate this virtue of practical rationality? The most direct answer is that they do not and cannot do so on their own. Acquiring the skill of living wisely in the world takes practice— real choices, real actions, real consequences.3 However, the liberal arts provide irreplaceable imaginative resources for acquiring this skill. In fact, imagination is perhaps principal among these resources, for the poets and historians have bequeathed to us the great gift of literature—narratives historical and fictional—where one may observe the lives of the wise and the foolish, experiencing those lives vicariously by entering imaginatively into their stories. Through the study of literature the student gains the kind of experience in life necessary for moral formation that his or her young age does not permit. Hence, what one lacks in lived experience he can glean from literary experience. Cicero adds a further dimension to our understanding of this imaginative effect of literary experience in his famous oration Pro Archia Poeta. “All books are full, all words of the wise are full, and all history is full of examples,” he writes; “I have always kept these images in view when serving as a magistrate, shaping my heart and mind after them by meditating on their excellences.” For Cicero the study of history and literature afforded by a liberal arts education not only instructed him but compelled him boldly to act for the common good of his community. The experience gained from the liberal arts provides narratives for making sense of one’s own life and directs one’s affections toward what is good and noble and true. Potent resources indeed for acquiring moral wisdom.
Sensus communis is closely connected to the skill of moral judgement. Although we often render this Latin phrase with the familiar words common sense, it is necessary to recall something of the technical meaning these words carry over from the art of rhetoric in order fully to appreciate their importance.4 Of course, we use the phrase common sense all of the time to mean an intuitive understanding of how to get along in the world, often contrasting it with academic or specialized knowledge.
(In fact, one is at times tempted to conclude that common sense is precisely the one quality many academics are lacking.) Although the ordinary meaning of the phrase is not identical to its technical sense, it happily flows from it. In classical rhetoric, sensus communis actually refers to that shared understanding of the world that a rhetorician can rely on when crafting his oration. It is not something he must prove, nor even that he will often state. Rather, it is that shared body of assumptions that invisibly bind together a group of people and, as writers from C. S. Lewis to Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrate,5 actually make moral reasoning possible in the first place. Since this quality was first marginalized and then suppressed during the Enlightenment, it is difficult for the contemporary reader to appreciate just how important the acquisition of common sense was to educators in the classical world.6 Aristotle notes in the Ethics, for example that the conscious transfer of the culture’s body of shared assumptions is one of education’s primary objectives.7
As a quality intentionally cultivated by the liberal arts curriculum, sensus communis is best characterized as a studied sense of the wisdom and insight (and indeed the prejudices and presuppositions) of previous generations. As such, it awakens us to that indefinably familiar atmosphere that breathes through the pages of the stories, shapes the historical narratives, and inflects the language of a people at a given place and time. It develops a conscious sense for what is commonly, though implicitly, held to be true. Common sense is thus closely related to what Edmund Burke famously coins the moral imagination in his Letter Concerning the Recent Revolution in France, and sounds remarkably like that distinctly human faculty-the chest-whose loss C. S. Lewis laments in the first part of The Abolition of Man. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur also seems to be invoking this sense of the common, when he speaks of the insight into life acquired via the “long detour” among the literary and imaginative works of humanity.8 He argues that what seems to be a detour is actually the obligatory path we must take if we are to understand ourselves and our culture. Failure to take this detour, to run along this path, is to guarantee the short-circuiting of self-knowledge. Interestingly, Ricoeur’s detour among the historical, aesthetic and philological disciplines is actually the well-worn path of the liberal arts curriculum—the study of history, literature, poetry, and language. The liberal arts connect us to our historical tradition by cultivating a sense for what is held in common throughout the history of that tradition.
The development of taste is something of an aesthetic analog to the cultivation of common sense. While it is not only artists who need to cultivate taste, reflection upon their experience is helpful in understanding its foundational importance. For to become a musician, fine artist, actor, or poet, is to take the long detour via the aesthetic achievements of humanity. The cellist works through the instrument’s received repertoire, the fine artist makes master copy after master copy, the actor rehearses the same lines countless other actors have performed for generations. I suppose we grasp intuitively the role tradition plays in the pedagogy of the arts. Lest we fail to recognize its significance, however, it is important to see that the specific claim of the arts in this regard is that creativity and artistic sensibilities are formed by attention to tradition. Picasso, to cite a somewhat dated but brilliant example, is highly original (to many of his time shockingly so); yet, without the tradition of European masters, there would be no blue paintings, no Guernica. Again, we grasp all of this intuitively; but how often do we fail to reflect upon the actual process of artistic formation when we wonder over much that is crass, tasteless, or vulgar in contemporary culture? The development of aesthetic taste, like the development of the adult palate, is formed by experience. As common sense is a studied sense for
the commonly held truths of a culture, taste is a sense for what is fitting or decent that is cultivated over time and experienced in the arts.
The liberal arts are more timely than timeless.
I asserted above that the most compelling reason to pursue a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing. To understand why this makes the liberal arts relevant to contemporary culture it is necessary to place our cultural moment within historical perspective. The last century witnessed a series of radical upheavals in the cultural and intellectual life of Western civilization. While one is tempted to think here only of cultural developments—the world wars, the advent of the nuclear age, or the sexual revolution—the intellectual landscape changed forever as well. Most importantly in this regard is the abandonment of what some intellectual historians have termed the Enlightenment project.9
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.