If Italian humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio wrote true when he said, “We call those studies liberal, then, which are worthy of a free man: They are those though which virtue and wisdom are either practiced or sought, and by which the body or mind is disposed towards all the best things,” then liberal education is worthy in itself, for its practices and ends are united. But the task of the critic or philosopher is to make the assumed explicit, to draw out beliefs so they may be subjected to reason. The above cannot be assessed helpfully in a brief essay such as this. Accept then that the studies we call liberal, truly undertaken, are for the student self-fulfilling.
But very few people in the United States are liberally educated. And many of those that think they’ve been given such an education get something worse than useless, and the public knows it. And so the liberal arts have earned a reputation for vulgar and unearned elitism. Whether a cultural echo of Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, or because of the fame whores—apologies, “champions of free speech”—and their fights on college campuses, a not insignificant portion of the American public has the idea the nerds have been up to no good. The youth have been corrupted, the old order questioned into oblivion. These eggheads even demanded—and got—the taxpayer funding Socrates was refused at his trial. And what do they do with it but actually corrupt the youth? There has been a violation of terms, somewhere, of some social contract.
The fact that liberal education does shape society means there must be a way it should shape society. Throw out for this moment what has been done, and consider instead what might be done. Colleges and departments and teachers and students devoted to the studies we call liberal do not have to be elitist parasites. Instead, they can be the rational preservers of a particular moral and cultural order that the normal citizen, occupied with commercial and local interests, can receive as assumed and participate in by happenstance.
So, consider an analogy drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Of course it is always a risky business to play with allegory near the Lord of the Rings, whose author emphatically denied such readings. But we are making no claims of Tolkien’s intent. It is, however, basically consensus to hold his Shire and hobbits as a kind of ideal or normative bourgeoisie. Hobbits are portrayed by Tolkien as a folk earthy if not quite grounded and of common sense if not always sensible. They think often on their next meal, and pipe, and pint of ale, and are quietly industrious and loudly leisurely in an agrarian and craftsman, even gift, economy. They live in and for the comforts of close community with minimal state interference and no obviously coercive power dynamics. The political organization of the Shire, such as it is, is the result of tradition, convention, and land ownership, and hobbits, small as they are, largely seem to both know and like their place.
No part of hobbit life would be possible were it not for the Dúnedain. In the long years between the Wars of the Ring, these “men of the West,” largely unnoticed and unthanked, patrolled the wildlands that bound hobbit country. They are the descendents of the ancient men of Westernesse and heirs of the royal houses of Arnor and Gondor. Aragorn, their chief, is of course the returning titular king of the final book in the trilogy. The Shire falls within the bounds of his ancient realm, so the Dúnedain preserved it from external threats, and thus in the long view fulfilled their royal responsibilities and maintained their right to rule. It is by their intervention that the scary stuff of legends—Dark Lords and orcs and trolls et al.—are merely the stuff of legends for the average working hobbit.
Merry and Pippin say as much, marveling in the aftermath of the fight for Minas Tirith that they have called a king “Strider” and now live among the great:
“Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.”
“No,” said Merry. “I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”
The hobbits of the world are many. One might reach for Mass Man, when feeling misanthropic, to describe the materially focused greater part of Americans, but hobbits will do as well for most. These Americans are folk in search of comforts and stability, nostalgic would-be citizens of an older commercial republic that has disappeared ere now. When in Middle-earth the eyes and swords of the men of the West were turned to face Sauron the Dark Lord, when they left their posts at the borders of hobbit country, then the fallen wizard Saruman, whose mind ever dwelt on gears and metal, slipped into the defenseless Shire to wreak havoc. Our national inquietude is no longer merely the nervous energy of a people on the make; something has slipped in past the defenses and left us with no narrative, no shared reality or identity to find pride or fellow feeling in. And no confidence to know one another as co-citizens.
We find ourselves, morally and culturally, facing the ethical impasse described by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his lecture “Is Patriotism A Virtue?” On the one hand there is “an account of morality which has enjoyed high prestige in our culture. According to that account to judge from a moral standpoint is to judge impersonally”—that is, to judge as an individual so isolated from circumstance as to theoretically eliminate all that makes us persons. It is the modern liberal’s ideal of justice between abstracted rational moral agents. It is whatever law framed that perfect first exchange of goods in the state of nature. But on the other hand there is the account that claims “it is an essential characteristic of the morality which each of us acquires that it is learned from, in and through the way of life of some particular community.” In this account the same only partly-chosen contexts and given things that make us into persons also inculcate our moral sensibilities.
These are in many ways incommensurate visions of moral agency. But within whatever space there is to toggle in between them we might find an arrangement in which the liberally educated may, without drinking hemlock in submission to it, support the social order. They must recognize they possess a responsibility to their neighbors to maintain the cultural inheritance that provides the framework for everybody else to function. The distraction of the Dúnedain in our world, letting whatever is our Saruman in, came when study ceased to be about the reception, preservation, and transmission of the wisdom of the past—“we ought at least to pass on carefully the books we have received from those who have come before us to those who will come after, keeping them whole and uncorrupted, and in this manner we will usefully serve the interests of posterity and give past generations at least this one recompense for their labors,” said Vergerio—and became instead focused on the individual’s personal discovery, that experience of the philosophic moment when what was before merely assumed or received undergoes rational scrutiny, to be chosen or discarded. Philosophy only being possible from inside a tradition, that abandonment soon made its actual work impossible, wisdom well lost, and criticism for criticism’s sake, the tearing down of what ruins were left, became the occupation of “liberal arts.”
The celebrated English educator Thomas Arnold said in defense of classical education, “Expel Greek and Latin from your schools, and you confine the views of the existing generation to themselves and their immediate predecessors: you will cut off so many centuries of the world’s experience, and place us in the same state as if the human race had first come into existence in the year 1500.” That’s about what has happened—though our recollection of human origins hardly gets back to 1776. The gatekeepers of education have confined the views and smogged the vistas available to everyday folk who will never be educated beyond what is given to and expected of them.
Instead, as the Dúnedain kept the bounds of the Shire, preserving space for the singing of simple songs and the drinking of simple beers, so too ought those given the gift of the liberal arts, this great conversation ringing down through the ages of the West, preserve and protect that inheritance for their fellow citizens. The virtues and ideals of our history, the ethics of our culture—and it is one that can be possessed by all who lay claim to it, who submit to it, regardless of origins—create and inculcate the moral imagination by which we all first live until such a time as we can subject them to a kind of reasoned investigation. But to give people an ideal of reasoned investigation and “critical thinking” without solid ground on which to stand, is to tell a drowning child, or a drowning hobbit, to swim better.