Charette: The Art of Conserving

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The term “liberal” is one everyone is looking to claim as his own. Scrambling for advantage in some grand linguistic ruck, there are the classical-liberals, the neo-liberals, and, of course, the American liberals. In the United States, as Swarthmore students well know, “liberal” indicates political leftism, marching upward from the French Revolution and onward from FDR, to Johnson, and, now, President Obama. However, the “liberal” in liberal arts education has no resemblance to some hazy political dogma. At least, it shouldn’t.

I say this at the same time that many folks in conservative circles are sounding the “higher education bubble” alarm. Watching tuition missile four times faster than inflation, the fiscally prudent warn that college investment returns are stagnant, at best. I’ll agree that government needs to be disinvited from the student loan party. I’ll agree that many students really are happier and better served through vocational training, on-the-job experience, or professional school. Nonetheless, I’m a student who yawps about the merits of a good, old-fashioned liberal arts education. Maybe liberal arts are a consumer good. Certainly they are a gift. Furthermore, I suspect that the fruits of a liberal arts education are, interestingly, conservative in nature.

Last night I sat down and read Russell Kirk’s, “Decadence and Renewal in Education.” Kirk, along with William F. Buckley and T.S. Eliot, put modern conservatism on the map (of course, that map was burnt and beguiled in the aftermath of WWII) . Kirk writes that higher learning is the quest for academic curiosity, personhood, and the soul. This, I believe, is the crux of the liberal arts. If colleges and universities abandon these principles, they may be churning out decadent degrees and, perhaps, even good students. But they are not conserving the dignity that underlies the great human pursuits. We may joke that the unyielding question, “What does it mean to be human?” stutters on, semester after semester, like a broken record. But the question of essential humanity has been relevant long before and long after those now antique record players occupied coffee tables.

Kirk, I suspect, would be mostly happy with the Swarthmore credo. Say what you want about Swat, but we definitely resist careerism. If Swarthmore receded into the Crum woods tomorrow, the economy would chug along, or at least not proceed any slower than its present state. Even so, this concept of conserving the liberal arts, or, as I think of it, “the art of conserving” serves a usefulness more profound than dollars and cents (even when, as Ron Paul informs me, those dollars are backed by gold). The liberal arts fashions graduates with leadership, patience, insight and wisdom.

Bertrand Russell once proclaimed, “I have never called myself an intellectual, and nobody has ever dared to call me one in my presence.” I wonder then, what are we to call ourselves at Swarthmore? Intellectuals? Those pseudo-academics Woody Allen build a career out of mocking? What I do know is that we cannot act as some eerie Politburo of knowledge, nor can we entirely negate the past. Swarthmore may technically be a “closed” campus, yet what we learn—good or bad—spills on into Pennsylvania and the world. Aware of our task as leaders and thinkers, we cannot be complacent with a smattering of postmodern syllabi that focus less on constructing human history and more on dismantling it. Yes religion, policy, philosophy, gender theory, sociology, and literature are vast bodies that call out for dissection. As a lackluster science student, probing a poem or political treatise is the type of lab experiment I live for. Close-reading, scrutiny, discomfort, and doubt are all stepping stones of a thoroughly liberal education. And along this academic adventure, we must conserve the philosophical biggies: the soul, grace, morality, the good life. We should dive deeply into our studies, but not lose ourselves in analytical obscurity. This, I think, is Kirk’s imperative and the command of a liberal, free-thinking education.

Undoubtedly, there are those at Swarthmore who do not share my zeal for libertarian economics, Ronald Reagan, or sweater vests. But surely we can raise a common toast in the name of academic truth-seeking. Civilizations of old are not perfect, but when they are not models of truth, at least they are models of man. We can shrug the tablets of old in some Nietzschean frenzy, yet just because there is rarely anything new under the sun doesn’t mean we ought to curse the sky.

Progressivism, or the historical seed of progressivism that sprung up at the turn of the last century, hitches its hopes on progress. Progressives idealistically march forward, whether chasing “Change we can believe in” or some other bright new dawn. Yes, I consume current events. Yes, I orient myself in the present, for no other reason than because refreshing my Drudge Report tab is a handy procrastination method. What I really crave, though, isn’t all that new. Or maybe liberal learning is like a used car—new to me. The great books don’t have a clean, leathery aroma, but they’re functional and good if you know what you’re shopping for.

The late Allan Bloom, in his watershed 1980’s bestseller The Closing of the American Mind mourned the loss of his charmingly provincial American students before the 1960’s shakeup. Unlike their peers in Britain and France, American college freshmen were rather obtuse, rather unaware. American kids hadn’t yet encountered Shakespeare or Kant, and, hence, were an unsullied audience. Europeans made their peace with Plato’s dark cave. The American college cohort had never heard the world framed in such terms and were eager to stumble or grope their way into the sunlight.

As Bloom remarks, “The old was new for these American students, and in that they were right, for every important old insight is perennially fresh.” I raise a toast to what is freshly old and anciently fresh. I hope to situate myself in the grand, ongoing scheme of the liberal arts. That’s a definition of liberalism all Swarthmore students can embrace.


  1. As a student interested in postmodern theory, I would argue that recent theorists are interested in that it means to be a human, and a good human at that. They just take fewer things for granted. The scholars that you cite only had to consider Western white men with economic capital and the capacity for reason. You said civilizations are a model of “man” and it is specifically this type of man that was represented. Most theorists now grapple with the fact that there are other viewpoints. Our population is not homogenous. Not everyone is white, not everyone is male, there is no universal, abstract, transcendental viewpoint that is the “right” way to see the world.
    Postmodernists believe that truth is complex and fragmented, and always in flux. They want to problematize grand narratives, so when you say “we must conserve the philosophical biggies: the soul, grace, morality, and the good life” I want to ask, the good life for who? What is morality? What is the soul? Which soul? A religious soul? A Christian soul?
    I don’t believe that there is an essential humanity, but I think there is room for both of us on this campus. There is certainly value in reading Shakespeare and Kant, but there has been much said since then. Our preoccupations have changed throughout the ages, and textual criticism has reflected that. We are asking different questions now, and I don’t think they are less profound or less worthy of serious study than the ancients.

  2. Danielle,

    An eloquent defense of a weary and moth-eaten attack on American tertiary education post-1960s that could use some updating. I certainly appreciate your conciliatory tone, but I would like to see you push beyond Allan Bloom, trenchant as he is, and address what these questions and conservative educational values mean today.

    Bloom was critical of the advent of multiculturalism in the academy’s offerings and attitudes, and questioned the departure from classical and great books education. Every civilization, he remarked, has always thought of itself as the center of enlightenment, with barbarism increasingly setting in in concentric circles around it. It has always seemed to me that Bloom had already sketched the answer when he asked the question, why should the Western academy be any different? But he abhorred relativism as a puny substitute for the universal, and thus saw nothing undesirable about repeating the chauvinism of civilizations past.

    This, however, is not the part of Bloom’s argument that I’d like to see further developed and updated (by such a cogent writer as yourself). The problem is in the assumption that such classics like Shakespeare, to take your example, do indeed hand down to us some essential lesson about what means to be a person, to do good things, to have a soul. For the better part of the twentieth century, this assumption grounded Shakespeare criticism, and would have informed Bloom. Since then three decades have injected new thinking and interpretation into Shakespeare studies, however, and we have now come to more fully understand the ambiguities and complexities of the texts.

    At his most prescient, of course, Shakespeare gestured toward the wonderful interiority, depth and unruliness that would be modern consciousness. Yet we have also noticed recently that his plays evince less hallowed characteristics of Western thinking and ideology, and that in them we can see much that points toward the exposure of patriarchal ideological machinery or, say, an awareness of the fragility of gender.

    The point is not that Shakespeare is either inherently subversive or hegemonic, but rather that he cannot be turned to, cited or invoked to uphold or “conserve” the things we find dear. Perhaps the only true constants of Shakespeare are his unfailing misogyny and his penchant for penis jokes–and yet we still read him not always for his wisdom but for his capacious rendering of human thought, expression and discourse.

    You see, even if education remained leashed to the classic works of exclusively dead white men, education would not be the same as it was when most interpreters were still chasing secularized versions of Christian concepts like grace, soul, etc. Deconstruction is not destruction, as you erroneously suggest, but rather it alerts us to a mechanism that was at work when Bloom and his buddies were reading classics and is still at work now, albeit recognized and sometimes corrected for. Namely: what we find in a text has as much to do with what we are looking for as what is there.

    I’d like to see you, Danielle, take up some of these points in future columns.

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