Near the end of my college days, an editorial called “In Defense of Liberal Education” appeared in the campus paper. It contained sentences like “Diversity is in vogue wherever the many rule or wherever power belongs to the mediocre” and “Liberal education is anti-democratic, shunning what is vulgar and variegated in order to perfect the few best souls through intense study of the few great books.” The editorial wrapped up as follows:
There is not enough space here to supply an adequate roadmap for a liberal education. But a good procrustean rule of thumb is to doubt everything modern, which means all philosophy, literature, art, and music less than 180 years old. . . . But wherever one begins, one must ultimately turn to the exceedingly difficult works of Plato and Aristotle. . . . The liberal education aims to produce the whole human being, who possesses everything of genuine worth, who lives in truth rather than ignorance, and whose soul has come to rest. . . . The word diversity . . . stems from the word divert, which means “to turn aside from a course or direction,” “to distract,” and “to amuse or entertain.” Diversity is as false, fragmentary, and shallow as liberal education is true, whole, and deep. Let us not be diverted from what is good by what is fashionable.
I was going through some papers earlier today and found the letter I wrote in response to this, which the paper published:
The most surprising of the many errors in L.I.’s column is his careless derivation of the word “diversity,” which is related far less to “divert” than it is to the Latin diversitas, “difference, disagreement.” I am amazed that I. finds distasteful one of the most fundamental principles of liberal educationlistening to those who disagree with youbut seems not to mind making public errors that could be avoided by spending two minutes with the Oxford English Dictionary. And I.’s injunction to “doubt . . . all philosophy, literature, art, and music less than 180 years old”this includes, incidentally, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and every word published by Dickensis simply bizarre.
Most upsetting, however, is I.’s definition of the aim of liberal education as the production of a “whole human being . . . whose soul has come to rest.” I think an education that produced a soul at rest would be horrifying. A liberal education should produce a soul always in motion, always striving, always reachinga soul trying every day to be better than it was the day before.
Maybe I. feels that Plato and Aristotle are sufficient weapons with which to battle the confusion of the modern world, but I for one lack his confidence. I have read Plato and Aristotle (in English and in Greek), and I still need all the help I can get. I hope I. will forgive me for including the work of women and minorities in my search for viewpoints that will challenge me rather than pat me on the back. I. has chosen Plato and Aristotle as the end of his liberal education. They are the beginning of mine.
If only I were still smart enough to be that vicious today.