A Do-It-Yourself Liberal Education

A Do-It-Yourself Liberal Education
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In the name of social justice and diversity, students at elite colleges are casting aside the very works that probe those topics so deeply. The central authors of the Western tradition—from Plato and Aristotle to Mill and Orwell—are no longer part of the required curriculum in the social sciences and the humanities.  Their absence carries a high price.

It means liberal-arts students are no longer liberally educated. They are not historically literate or well-versed in such uniquely Western achievements as free speech, government by consent, rule of law, secure property rights, and religious toleration. That don’t understand the rarity or fragility of those achievements, the struggles needed to secure them, or the ways they protect ordinary citizens from tyranny.

One cost of this ignorance is now painfully obvious. Free speech is imperiled on campus, burned at the stake of other values deemed more important: “social justice,” “inequality,” and “oppression.” The campus warriors overlook the crucial question: Who decides?  

To understand the other losses inflicted by this cultural shift, it helps to remember a once-popular but now forgotten name from mid-century America: Clifton Fadiman.

Fadiman served as a friendly, knowledgeable guide to the world of liberal education, a maître d'hôtel for that rich banquet. He played that role at a time when many Americans wanted to improve their education and appreciated a helping hand. Many, like me, lived far from good bookstores, far from universities. Beyond reading Shakespeare and “Huckleberry Finn,” we didn't know where to begin. Fadiman showed us.

His most lasting achievement was "The Lifetime Reading Plan," a book meant for Americans who wanted to educate themselves and so enrich their lives. That guide, now in its 4th edition, is still immensely valuable.

Intellectuals looked down their noses at Fadiman and his ilk, dismissing them as "middlebrow." Whether their brows were middle, high, or low, these egalitarian educators were doing important work. They were skilled guides for anyone with a library card and a thirst for learning.

Fadiman and others, like Encyclopædia Britannica, which published the Great Books, revealed a great truth: With a little guidance, you can do a lot to educate yourself, and you can do it at any age. Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan does that. The Kirkus review of the first edition captures its flavor well:

“[Fadiman] sees, in the books and writers he has chosen, the tools not only of self-enhancement but of self-discovery. … This is not a reading plan for the scholar, but for ‘everyman‘ -- the high school student who can go no farther in formal education, the college graduate who has bypassed the treasures of literature, the average layman who is reasonably literate, but needs a refresher on things half experienced in the past.”

With its snappy introductions to each work, the book is “a project that captures the imagination and fires the ambition,” in the reviewer’s words. Look at the authors featured on the cover of his first edition:

  • Joyce
  • Chaucer
  • Shakespeare
  • Homer
  • Voltaire
  • Defoe
  • Faulkner
  • Dante

I’d wager that honors students majoring in English literature  at top universities could not pass a serious exam on their works.  The same could be said for the classics Fadiman listed in social sciences, history, and philosophy: Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, and more.

Today's students and professors would complain (with justification) that the list needs to be more inclusive. The 4th edition does that and deserves a thumbs-up for it.

Still, any serious plunge into the greatest works of Western literature must begin with Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, and Melville. As the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, puts it:

The striking thing about Fadiman’s first Reading Plan isn’t what it leaves out, but what it manages to get in. He covers, among other greats, Plato and St. Augustine, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Twain, Tolstoy, and Thomas Hobbes, Yeats, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot. Each entry is bite-sized, but like a portrait on a postage stamp, it renders vivid detail within a small space.

Fadiman not only picks great writers, he picks their most important works. That's especially valuable for prolific authors such as Anthony Trollope, who wrote faster than most of us can read.  

Fadiman was, in a sense, a familiar American type. He sold self-improvement. But not all self-improvement is alike. Fadiman was selling serious intellectual engagement, not how to win friends and influence people. He believed that sustained reading of quality books was the high road to such improvement. He was right.

Casting aside that heritage, as students at Yale, Reed, and other institutions are doing with moralistic flourish, is a lethal, self-inflicted wound on their education. The knife has been twisted by humanities faculty more interested in theories of imperialism than in reading Conrad’sHeart of Darkness.” As the headline atop a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Peter Berkowitz said: “What’s the Point of a Liberal Education? Don’t Ask the Ivy League. Few top colleges explain their purpose to students. They want to talk gender and inequality instead.”

Gender and inequality are vital topics, but to study them seriously requires a background in history, philosophy, sociology, politics, and economics. Today’s students lack it—and think they don’t need it. But how would they even know if they haven’t read foundational thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Tocqueville, and Mill—or Lincoln’s second inaugural address. They haven’t heard of the Scottish or French Enlightenments or wrestled with the profound questions they raise. Lacking that background, and told by faculty that this legacy is more oppressive than liberating, they are clueless about roots of America’s constitutional freedoms.

The readings on Fadiman’s list are a useful antidote. Through them, one can learn from “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold once wrote, “and through this knowledge, turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” 

If America’s universities won’t do that, they have abrogated their core missions, just as they are failing in two others: protecting open discourse and encouraging diverse viewpoints.

Painful as those shortcomings are, they need not stunt your own education. Follow the path Fadiman and others have blazed. Their fundamental message still rings true: To gain a liberal education, what matters is not the degree on your wall but the books on your bedside table, or your Kindle.

For a list of the books recommended in Fadiman’s 4th edition, go here. Nearly all are available free online at Project Gutenberg (here).

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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