I once saw a clever college advertisement that read something like this: “Your teachers this year will be: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, John Milton, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot.” If, as I did, students receive a degree in the humanities without reading these authors, they have been defrauded.
Today it is common to describe a liberal-arts education as training in purely formal skills such as “critical thinking and reasoning,” but the real masters of that tradition are the Great Books. Logic, along with rhetoric and grammar, are necessary and important tools in a liberal-arts education (and would that more liberal-arts colleges today taught even these), but by themselves they tell us nothing about reality itself. The Great Books are characterized by powerful imaginative and intellectual forms that guide, test, deepen, and enrich our knowledge of reality.
A true liberal-arts education, therefore, is not freestanding or contentless. It is constituted by what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “tradition of inquiry,” which is recorded, expressed, articulated, challenged, revised, and continued through the Great Books.
- Nathan Schlueter Liberal education vs liberalist education