Letter to the Editor: Liberal Education

Re “Outside criticism sparks dialogue on liberal education,” by Zoe Hu, Sept. 22: Ms. Hu’s article cites Vice Chancellor Al Bloom’s puzzlement that ...

Sep 28, 2013

Ms. Hu’s article cites Vice Chancellor Al Bloom’s puzzlement that people like me “who claim to believe in the effectiveness of a liberal arts education should have so little faith in its adaptability and strength.” Reading that, I thought of the title of one of my essays, “With Friends Like These, Who’ll Defend Liberal Education?” There I criticize John Sexton’s manifesto for his “Global Network University.”
Are NYU administrators who claim to advance liberal education really its true friends? Or are bright, well-intentioned students who believe them being misled? Words like diversity and engagement aren’t answers, if diversity lacks depth and engagement lacks tension. People with liberal educations don’t only keep in mind other people’s customs and norms; they interrogate and challenge them — as well as their own.
To put it differently, a true liberal education shows you that the world isn’t a flat place where everyone respects everyone else and goes shopping. It teaches that the world has abysses, opening at our feet and in our hearts, and it confronts them through what the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “The Great Conversation” across the ages about enduring challenges to politics and the human spirit.
Every culture and religion has ways of naming and coping with those challenges, but many of those cultures and religions are being disrupted or dissolved by global tides of financialization, corporatist control of work and consumer marketing. Today's casino-like financing of what is termed “development” would have horrified Adam Smith, as would the kind of marketing that's ever more intrusive and intimate, groping and goosing the supposedly sovereign consumer as a narrowly self-interested, impulse-driven individual.
Liberal education asks us to take a step back from all this and think of ourselves as citizens who can decide together, through deliberation, not dollar-chasing, on courses of action that will advance certain social goods in common that we cannot achieve by ourselves. Instead of rushing to ride and serve the juggernaut in exchange for a nice salary, liberal education asks us to engage in rigorously critical thinking and in deep reading and conversing with literatures that plumb the depths I've mentioned.  Doing that might even help to renew certain aspects of the ancient cultures and religions that are being disrupted. A liberal education in college education should enhance your capacity both to criticize and to renew society while you're traveling whatever professional or other path you choose.
Liberal education also teaches us to be tolerant, but not relativist: As our search for truth broadens and deepens, we don't accept that any system is as good as any other. We interrogate and sometimes challenge a lot of what passes for multi-cultural engagement, especially if it's driven mainly by a desire to ride the golden riptides that are dissolving both old cultures and our republics and democracies.
Acquiring this kind of liberal education during four years in college takes hard work – even in the United States, when a student is also struggling to pay for an apartment in Manhattan’s East Village with a roommate from a very different culture or social class. If liberal education’s self-professed champions in New York aren’t teaching students from affluent suburbs to engage classmates from the South Bronx, they won’t teach real cross-cultural, cross-class engagement just by changing the scenery.
Let me propose that you’re getting a real liberal education in Abu Dhabi if: first, you’re learning Arabic there in the heart of the Middle East; second, you’re learning, for example, about the physical and legal conditions in which roughly 70 percent of Abu Dhabi’s residents who are migrant workers live; third, you’re taking all this to the touchstone of the humanist Great Conversation about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit; and finally, you’re acting on it in one of the outreach organizations that sophomore Geo Kamus mentioned in his article, Volunteerism in Abu Dhabi Broadens Perspectives.
If you’re doing that, great. But it can’t be just talk.
In saying this, by the way, I’m not “fixated” or “sly,” as The Gazelle’s article states. I’m posing a real challenge! I say more about Abu Dhabi in an essay published on from which my Times article was condensed.
James Sleeper is a lecturer of Political Science at Yale University. Email him at
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