Servile Oblivion and the End of Education

Liberal education is the individual assimilation of cultural memory: we recover the historical and metaphysical ground of our being by studying the accumulated riches of the past. This humanly essential undertaking, which every generation must begin anew, is worthwhile both for its own sake and for its fruits. It orders our lives towards goodness and decency, rescues hard-won truths from oblivion, and makes it possible to discern meaningful signals within the general noise of time. What is more, it produces open-souled learners, “whose culture is alive inasmuch as it makes an effort to renew itself, increase itself, and keep up to date,” in Primo Levi’s words. Like the Roman god Janus who looks back and forward simultaneously, liberally educated individuals face the future with inner vitality because they are nourished by the life-giving past.

The grand goals of liberal education—the cultivation of independent minds, of flourishing individuals and whole and healthy communities—are profoundly humanistic. Today’s universities, however, are driven by lesser imperatives. Liberal education—and especially its core, the humanities—has been largely eclipsed by programs of study that promise more immediate rewards. Business, law, nursing, applied sciences and other sorts of technical training offer marketable skills (a crucial selling point for universities as the higher education bubble continues to deflate), while the multitude of critical studies courses now found at all colleges and universities yield a payoff denominated mostly in the moral currency of social justice. Unlike the liberal arts, no one would think to pursue any of these programs because they are intrinsically worthwhile or integral to a good human life. Rather, it is their proclaimed economic or political utility that makes them attractive to students. The acquisition of instrumental skills, serviceable to oneself and to society, is the new criterion for the value of a university education. The liberal arts have been replaced by servile ones. But at what human cost?

For the past two summers, New Haven’s Elm Institute has offered a student seminar entitled “What Are The Humanities For?” The readings, most decades old, remain fresh and surprising. James Stockdale reveals in “The World of Epictetus” that studying the Stoics at Stanford helped him to survive seven years of captivity in Hỏa Lò, the Hanoi Hilton. Jonathan Rose’s “The Classics in the Slums” includes testimonials from early twentieth-century English colliers and laundresses, “kindled to the point of explosion” by books borrowed from the libraries of the Workers’ Educational Association. Machiavelli sheds the day’s muddy clothes at the door of his study and is “received with affection” in “the ancient courts of ancient men.” In “Across the Color Line,” W. E. B. Dubois summons “Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” Organic images abound in these essays and aphorisms. Salvador Dalí teaches the paradox that “Everything that is not tradition is plagiarism” because only art nourished by the “blood of reality”—by the essential accumulation of richly oxygenated life that circulates in the tradition—can be truly original. Noting that “the primary mission of a university is the transmission of a precious heritage,” Roger Shattuck’s “Nineteen Theses on Literature” compares the inherently conservative institution of education to “our gonads … the most stable and protected element in the body.” For all of these authors, the classics pulse with spiritual potency.

How does one enter into this vital and saving heritage—or rather, how does it enter into us? Professors are now largely disinclined to ask this question of themselves or their students. Humanities faculty increasingly present the tradition that lifted Helen Keller out of isolation and ignorance, and that filled Richard Wright with “nothing less than a sense of life itself” as he labored to leave the Jim Crow South, as a seedbed not of personal growth and cultural renewal but of misogyny and racism. The classics are widely supposed not to awaken and instruct, but to demean and marginalize. They are by no means to be lovingly implanted in young souls, but pressed through a steel mesh of criticism, so as to extract object lessons in inequality and injustice. Beauty, an art historian recently informed me, is a concept tainted with whiteness; studying Aristotle, I heard an Ivy League classicist confess at a conference, infected her with virtually ineradicable racism. That is all ye know and all ye need to know. Little wonder that enrollments have plummeted and programs are collapsing across the humanities: the professoriate has burned the crop and is busily salting the fields.

The collapse of liberal education has been a long time coming. By 1984, Wendell Berry felt it necessary to observe in his essay “The Loss of the University” that faculty no longer understood that “the thing being made in a university is humanity.” They had ceased to speak or teach the “common tongue” that for millennia had formed “responsible heirs and members of culture.” “When we call a tree a tree,” Berry writes, we are “at once in the company of the tree itself and surrounded by ancestral voices calling out to us all that trees have been and meant. This is simply the condition of being human in the world, and there is nothing that art and science can do about it, except get used to it.” But in the contemporary university, a “deafening clatter” like the din in Plato’s Cave—the clamor of the present, of criticism and politics—drowns out the ancestral voices of the human world. How can one get used to the resonance and rootedness of being human, much less draw life through deep cultural conduits, if the common human condition is no longer perceptible?

A liberal education may be compared to the trunk of a tree from which it is possible to branch out—the “tree of Life,” in H. J. Massingham’s words, “whose roots went deep into earth and whose top was in heaven.” “The history of modern education may be the history of the loss of this image,” Berry writes. Built on “the pattern of the industrial machine,” the contemporary academy “resembles a loose collection of lopped branches waving about randomly in the air.” This kind of image is very old. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates compares the ordinary crop of citizens to domesticated plants; in the Republic, he compares philosophers—exemplary individuals, whose worth cannot be assessed by conventional measures—to weeds. In both cases, human beings are understood to spring from the soil of shared experience, preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. But the philosopher grows from strange and wild seed, and draws a peculiar nourishment from the sediment of civic tradition.

Plato’s Phaedrus extends the botanical analogy to inner experience. The soul of the human being who leads an examined life is a lush garden sprouting from kernels sown deep in psychic humus: articulate impressions gleaned from full attentiveness to the whole range of human experience. But few seeds—and those only of unremarkable stock—fall into constricted minds, while thin soil makes for a poor garden. Is not the rich loam of the educated soul the residue of past harvests that have decayed into a substratum of memories consisting more of deeply felt impressions than detailed knowledge? The industrial model of education becomes possible only when the organic character of human life, of individual growth and social renewal, has been forgotten. And the terrible cost of that forgetfulness is individual emptiness and sterility: the Dalíesque plagiarism of human wholeness.

The philosopher Stanley Rosen once told his students that he could not understand the fuss about artificial intelligence. “We’ve got plenty of artificial intelligences,” he says, “I’m looking for real ones.” Real intelligences are deeply rooted in the organic accumulation of human life. Today they are thin on the ground, crowded out by people who have lost a vital connection with the pulse and ferment of reality, and whose minds are filled with a jumble of fruitless abstractions and social constructions. This loss impoverishes all who feel the sweet, inevitable pull of the call to become real flesh and blood human beings. Worse, it condemns many of those who have never yet felt this call to “run nameless through the innumerable multitude” (in Kierkegaard’s words), living life in ignorance of their true and unrepeatable names.

While the crisis of liberal education has dramatically intensified over the past few decades, it goes back at least to the nineteenth century. “Every living thing can become healthy, strong and fruitful only within a horizon,” Nietzsche observes in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874). But, far from providing a quiet enclosure in which the young can become “finished, ripe and harmonious personalities,” the modern university offers only a “noisy pseudo-education,” which paralyzes rather than quickening individual development—which, in fact, “sees its advantage in preventing your becoming ripe, in order to rule and exploit you unripe ones.” Modern education produces sterile and weak personalities, who have forgotten how to feel and think deeply and fruitfully—a “race of eunuchs,” in Nietzsche’s memorable phrase.

The university has as little use as ever for weeds, although the terms of serviceability have changed in ways Nietzsche probably didn’t anticipate. Elite schools now judge applicants almost as much by demonstrated commitment to community service as by their academic potential, and students themselves have learned to demand that the curriculum be relevant not only to the contemporary economy, but  to any number of causes under the umbrella of social justice. What is more, they increasingly insist on being shielded from the provocations of the tradition. It is as intolerable for them to open their minds to Huckleberry Finn as it was for the tender shoots of Athens to be disturbed by Socrates’ soul-searching questions. The present purpose of higher education is apparently to protect conventional wisdom against any incursion of the actual sort.

The overvaluation of the servile arts is in fact a defining feature of modernity. George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) that “in our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics.” The following year, Josef Pieper delivered two lectures—“Leisure, the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act”—in which he described “the so-called ‘political invasion’” of all spheres of human existence as a consequence of the “total claim of the world of work” in modern life. For Pieper, the industrial model of education—the smothering of the liberal arts (and thus of academic freedom in the deepest sense) under the demand that teaching and learning be judged exclusively by the criterion of “social service” or contribution to “the functional nexus of the modern body social”—is merely a special case of the totalizing impulse of the modern ideal of work, and of the radical devaluation of non-instrumental knowledge that this impulse entails.

Pieper mentions in this connection several landmarks on the path of modernity: Bacon’s declaration that “knowledge is power,” Descartes’ replacement of theoretical philosophy with a practical kind that promises to make us “the masters and possessors of nature,” and Marx’s assertion that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point is to change it.” To these examples we may add Adam Smith, who similarly measures philosophical adequacy not by truth but by efficacy—specifically, by intellectual output as reflected in the rate of increase of the “quantity of science.” “Like every other employment,” Smith explains in The Wealth of Nations, philosophy serves “the progress of society” and acquires its form from the division of labor. “The principle or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens,” it is further subdivided so that “each individual becomes more expert in his own particular branch, [and] more work is done on the whole.” Absorbed in this way by the world of work, philosophy loses its essential character and becomes “professional.” The wholeness of contemplative vision, which was the hallmark of the quest for wisdom in ancient and medieval times, gives way in modernity to productive science and narrow professional specialization.

The modern ideal of work is so pervasive that it distorts even explicitly theoretical activities. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant is exemplary in this regard. Pieper cites Kant’s disdain for Plato’s playful philosophical eroticism, his preference for the philosophical Arbeit of Aristotle, and his description of philosophy as “herculean labor.” For Kant, philosophy is exclusively ratio, the labor of discursive thought—an intellectual posture that leaves no place for pure, receptive contemplation, which St. Thomas associates with play. But if knowledge is just work, if it is wholly uninformed by intellectus or intuition, then there is nothing given about it. And here we come to Pieper’s most essential insight, one that takes us to the heart of the educational crisis of our age: that the total claim of the modern ideal of work closes us off from the humanly indispensable gifts of the real, existing world.

Pieper’s guiding intuitions clarify what he means by the surprising assertion that leisure is the basis of culture. One is “that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes from something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift.” The mind that conceives of its activity exclusively as work closes itself off to the divine moment of intuition—the moment in which spiritual and intellectual beginnings are revealed with the force and clarity of what Plato called a hermaion (‘gift of Hermes’): a godsend. Another is that “man, of his very nature, reaches out beyond the sphere of the ‘human’”—that he is by nature erotic, and strives for a wholeness available only through transcendence of the ordinary workaday world. A third is that “education concerns the whole man.” The core of education is the liberal arts: pursuits that serve no obvious end beyond themselves and issue in no immediately practicable result, but that are no more useless than the good and the true, their essential concerns.

It follows from these intuitions that education is impossible in the absence of leisure, which is not to be confused with the many shiny commodities that are marketed under the same name. Leisure—scholē in Greek, the root of the word scholar—is an active receptivity to the whole of creation, a contemplative opening of the soul to “life-giving, existential forces that refresh and renew us.” It is leisure that Kierkegaard recommends when he counsels us in The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air to learn how to listen in stillness and silence to the harmony and unconditional obedience of everything in nature, how to shut out all human “chatter” and “simply to fold up all your plans into less space than a period and with less noise than the most negligible trifle—in silence.” In its basic modes—philosophy, poetry, prayer, the time-out-of time of the religious festival—leisure is the wellspring of individual and societal vitality. It is the basis of culture because it is the sine qua non of human wholeness, and culture is simply the social expression of the aspiration to wholeness.

Aristotle observes in the Politics that war is for the sake of peace, business for the sake of leisure. A society that prioritizes war or work above all else provides means without a conception of the ultimate end they are supposed to serve. The confusion of ends and means is the fundamental error of modernity in general, and of the industrial model of education in particular. It is true that human beings have always struggled to appreciate the value of leisure: Adam and Eve spurned a blessed life of light gardening. But to forget about leisure, to cease to educate individuals in and for leisure, is to neglect that which gives our existence form and meaning. The withering of plants torn from the soil suggests something of the sterility and despair that afflict human beings when they no longer concern themselves with the useless goodness that alone makes sense of the utilitarian world.

“Is it possible, from now on,” Pieper asks, “to maintain and defend, or even to reconquer, the right and claims of leisure in the face of the claims of ‘total labor’ that are invading every sphere of life?” He calls “demonic” the historical forces that are today progressively closing down the public spaces in which the sacred experience of leisure is still possible. It is perhaps some consolation that the battle we are fighting is but the latest in a war that began thousands of years ago. For, while the meaning of leisure is accessible in the classical tradition, so, too, is the hostility it evokes in hyper-politicized human beings. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon indignantly dismisses the city Socrates calls “true” and “healthy”—a city characterized by an abundance of leisure and fellowship—as one fit for pigs. Plato would not be surprised to learn that the tradition that flowed from his stylus evokes a similar indignation in today’s bright and ambitious young Glaucons. As Pieper observes, poetry and philosophy are fundamentally strange and disturbing. They spring from, and seek to communicate, the shock of wonder—a shock that seems to threaten the soul, and even to undermine its capacity to know, just insofar as it shakes, disturbs, and confuses it.

To sober, practical minds, philosophy and poetry seem mad; to individuals capable of being moved by mysteries “ever-flowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible,” they also seem divine. But poetry and philosophy, art and music cannot break open and take root in souls that have not been taught how to read and look and listen in silence, patiently awaiting and anticipating the dislocating shock of wonder. The virtues that are required to learn from the classics are cultivated only by habitual exposure to the classics. The survival of the liberal arts—of education as such—depends on the existence of teachers who treasure the precious inheritance of the past and are allowed to transmit it to their students. This is a hard truth, for if present trends continue, such teachers will all but vanish from American colleges and universities within a generation. Still, the humanities will not be entirely extinguished. Quietly sustained by individual readers and writers, artists and poets, the vital tradition will shelter underground until it someday sprouts in new forms.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:


  1. I am afraid that I detect a hint of elitism. The classic model of the liberal arts degree was to prepare the children of the rich to be gentlemen or to go into Law, Politics, or the priesthood. I studied a very practical scientific field in college. I am glad I did. My family was not rich and there was no family business waiting for me. However, I have read the philosophers, historians (all sorts), theology, biographies, logic, rhetoric, and many other fields on my own.

    1. his point doesn’t seem to be that there is no value in practical instruction. rather that an education is profoundly incomplete if that’s all it amounts to. that you have independently studied the non-essential on the side is great, but the fact that you had to do it that way, or were disinclined to get it from the university points to a failing on the university’s part. and being that your family was not rich, does that not seem to suggest a lower quality of education (the practical and narrow as opposed to the more holistic that you were forced to cobble together on your own) for the middle and lower classes for whom a college education represents an enormous investment not to be squandered lightly on things you don’t strictly need to know, vs. the wealthy for whom the tuition means much less?

Leave a Reply