A throat clears, a voice murmurs. The hurried words beat against my eardrum in staccato indignation, toppling, as notes often do, into and through each other. I fear that I’ve misheard.
“Can you repeat that?” I ask into my cell phone.
William Deresiewicz replies, “Homi Bhabha is a malevolent buffoon.” Bhabha, director of Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center and known as a cerebral post-colonial theorist, moderated “20 Questions,” an on-campus forum with Deresiewicz to discuss the latter’s infamous Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.
“[Bhabha’s] treatment of me is a violation of the principles on which he stands,” Deresiewicz continues, contrasting Bhabha’s dedication to the liberal arts with the hostile reception the author received on campus. The tension between Deresiewicz and Bhabha points to growing factions within a community of academics that is trying to validate the humanities. Perhaps this division was best demonstrated when faculty on the event’s panel defended Harvard’s emphasis on training future leaders—training that, Deresiewicz believes, comes at the expense of students’ souls.
“What gives me pause, and what gives other people pause, is when you go on to fault us for failing to ensure that all of our students develop souls, and that they do so on a four-year schedule that might be better called ‘No Soul Left Behind,’” stated panelist and English professor Amanda Claybaugh to Deresiewicz.
The audience—consisting primarily of Harvard affiliates—jeered at this allusion to Congress’s 2001 No Child Left Behind mandate. Deresiewicz shifted in his seat and gave a tight-lipped smile.
“What happens when you try to institutionalize what should be a fundamentally individual process?” she asked. “If we make it clear to our students that what we’re trying to do is help them build souls, does soul-building become yet another box to check for them?”
During the past six months, universities have speculated about Deresiewicz’s suggestion that parents should not send their children to Ivy League schools. Are his claims retaliation against being denied tenure at Yale? Are they deliberately controversial to increase book sales? Regardless of his potential motives, Deresiewicz’s claims should prompt us to examine education’s original purpose. Are universities responsible for building students’ souls? Or does it suffice, as Professor Claybaugh implied, to expect that students do so independently, on the periphery? The answers may lie in the philosophical lexicon.
Civitas, Liberate Our Animus, Please
Marble and upright, three columns pierce through the atmosphere with stony indifference. They are as strong and broad as Atlas’s shoulders. They will not shrug. They adorn the porch of a thatch-roofed building, home to wooden boards covered with layers of wax and instructions for enkuklios paideia, “education in a circle.” A young boy, his olive skin paled by a sickly hue, stands near the boards as the instructions demand. Metal rod in hand, he inscribes summaries of the texts from which his teacher reads aloud.
Aristophanes’ comedies, the Stoics’ self-discipline, Virgil’s verses. Three hundred and sixty degrees of what will become the Western canon seared into the fatty fiber of the wax, into the class’s collective consciousness.
After his teacher pauses from reading, the boy begins to recite what he has been writing. His voice is confident, even entitled. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: the boy’s father is, after all, the empire’s leading rhetorician. Still, the other students furrow their brows, pierce their lips, and strike their palms—clapping hesitantly at first, but with increasing force—as they come to accept that their peer can give life to the dead’s thoughts. The boy’s confidence is so surprising, in part, because it belies a heart that pumps blood too feebly to enliven his limbs, cheeks, mouth.
It promises a future of oratory that will likely not arrive.
How tragic, the teacher silently muses, that the boy will die so young. He has such a way with words.
* * *
Nearly three decades later, Seneca the Younger rests limp in a bath. His limbs are dark brown leather, cheeks charred, mouth blistered. Gaping slits zigzag across his wrists to form a crossword puzzle.
The young boy-turned-statesman has severed his own veins.
Minutes before, the Roman Emperor Nero, accusing Seneca of conspiracy against the government, forced his former tutor to commit suicide. Seneca submerged himself in burning water and grabbed a blade. The teacher’s predictions are, for better or worse, correct.
Yet, while Seneca’s body erodes, his words remain: like the texts solidified in wax, they are written into the larger pedagogical narrative.
* * *
The narrative begins, ironically, with a mathematical concept. “Education in a circle,” as its name suggests, emphasizes interdisciplinary knowledge. The Hellenistic Greek model consisted of the Quadrivium (the four scientific artes of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) and the Trivium (the three humanistic artes of grammar, rhetoric and logic). A pupil of “education in a circle,” Seneca learned both the Quadrivium and the Trivium. After a brief stint replacing his father as the Roman Empire’s designated rhetorician, he sought to instill in others his own passions for reading, speaking, and writing.
His first student, however, was also his last. Nero was ambitious, bright, tyrannical, and, above all, Rome’s future ruler. Seneca was well aware that his lessons would leave impressions on the vulnerable and powerful mind of Mark Antony’s grandson—impressions that would shape his governance. It was while instructing Nero that Seneca attributed to education a specific purpose: civic virtue.
You have been wishing to know my views with regard to liberal studies. My answer is this: I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making. Such studies are profit-bringing occupations, useful only in so far as they give the mind a preparation and do not engage it permanently. One should linger upon them only so long as the mind can occupy itself with nothing greater; they are our apprenticeship, not our real work. Hence you see why ‘liberal studies’ are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a free-born gentleman. But there is only one really liberal study,—that which gives a man his liberty. … If you inquire, ‘Why, then, do we educate our children in the liberal studies?’ … Because they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue.
In the above excerpt from Moral Letters to Lucilius (65 A.D.), Seneca defined the education he gave Nero as liberalia studia: liberal studies. Though he kept the interdisciplinary nature of “education in a circle,” he expanded its function for the student as a Roman citizen. By rejecting “money-making” and “profit-bringing occupations” as ephemeral uses of the mind, Seneca distanced education from socioeconomic goals. Nero is rich enough, his rationale may have been. He should occupy his mind with philosophical enlightenment rather than monetary pursuits.
Seneca’s mention of the “free-born gentleman” instead linked education to its linguistic derivative, libertas: freedom. This term, however, denoted a class restriction. Nero is rich enough, Seneca’s rationale may actually have been. He can afford to occupy his mind with philosophical enlightenment rather than monetary pursuits. While the “free-born gentleman” was “worthy” of liberal studies, the Roman slave was not. As a result, he was forced to engage in technical skills through an “apprenticeship.” Seneca’s words reflect a narrow interpretation of membership in the citizenry. Yet it also highlights his concern for the citizen’s interior. (Nero’s, unfortunately, may have been too marred for redemption.)
Seneca plainly identified the purpose of liberal studies: to “prepare the citizen’s soul for the reception of virtue.” During Seneca’s time, every facet of the citizen—including his soul—was under the dominion of his legal guardian: the civitas, or state. Therefore, by aligning the phrase liberalia studia—instruction for citizens— with animus, soul, and virtus, virtue, Seneca implies two responsibilities for the state: it must provide pre-professional training to sustain servitude; and it must provide liberal studies to sustain free citizens, like Nero, as they develop virtuous souls.
Seneca, it appears, mandated that no citizen’s soul could be left behind.
Thank Lewis Almighty, We Are Free At Last!
Ripped notebook pages, abandoned poems, and scribbled margins tower on a black cherry desk. Underneath the pile is a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
The clutter, desk, and glasses belong to Professor C. S. Lewis, who is running late. A stoic man, waiting for Lewis in the navy armchair across from the desk, is growing impatient. He sighs, adjusts his legs, and takes a long drag from his pipe. A blue halo shrouds his vision but when the vapors dissipate he sees Lewis, disheveled and breathless, walk through the doorway.
Lewis is grateful to see his friend and fellow author, J. R. R. Tolkien. It has been a long, arduous day. His students, he worries, aren’t fully appreciating British literature. Close-reading Hamlet with them is as soul-sucking as the poison that slew Gertrude. Tolkien forgets his slight annoyance at the tardiness, reassures Lewis with a coarse pat on the shoulder, and accompanies him to the reserved seminar room in Magdalen College. It is Thursday night, and, as tradition dictates, time for the Inklings, Oxford’s informal literary circle that discusses narrative fiction.
For the next few months, the Inklings transition in focus from fantasy to reality: Lewis’s developing philosophical treatise, inspired by his classroom woes, becomes their primary concern. They debate the educator’s role, revisit the Greek canon, and add numerous documents to the pile on the black cherry desk until it is nearly toppling. Prodded by Tolkien to publish the stacks of lined paper, Lewis sends a bound manuscript to Oxford University Press. In 1943, The Abolition of Man lines library shelves. It is, remarks contemporary professor Peter Kreeft 50 years later, “one of the six books to read to save Western civilization.”
What does our savior proclaim? Lewis’s doctrine, drawing heavily from Saint Augustine’s outlook on education as a spiritual journey, is a defense of natural law and value theories in education. According to natural law theory, the moral standards governing human behavior are universally recognizable by reason. Value theory also upholds this universality; all humans, it proposes, have inherent systems of moral classification. Together, the two theories advance the notion that every individual is capable of developing virtue. This development, however, requires an impetus: education.
Through both philosophical constructs, Lewis revised Seneca’s original mandate for the state—specifically its “citizen” qualifier—by removing the socioeconomic restrictions previously associated with liberal studies. Observing education’s capacity to transform “any student” from an “unregenerate little bundle of appetites” into a “good man,” Lewis dismissed citizenship status as irrelevant. Every person, if properly taught, is capable of reason—and, therefore, of freedom. Every student, if properly taught, is capable of distinguishing between good and bad. Just being human is qualification enough to be “worthy” of Seneca’s freedom. Lewis, accordingly, made the state accountable for all souls’ moral welfare: if all souls are free, he maintained, then all souls deserve a liberal education. And a liberal education is a moral one.
A pre-professional education, on the other hand, is an immoral one. Or so Lewis argued. Like Seneca, he objected to “profit-bringing occupations,” especially those that were highly specialized. “If education is beaten by training,” he warned, “civilization dies.” But his objections to “training” slightly differed from that of Seneca. For the latter, a pre-professional education—an “apprenticeship”—did not fully “engage” the mind; it was consequently inferior, even reserved for the slave. Lewis agreed with this. But his understanding of the slave was far more expansive. Training, he thought, was a kind of intellectual servitude. In “aim[ing] to make not a good man, but a good banker, a good electrician, or a good surgeon,” it focused on the wrong “good”—a bad “good,” if you will. Obtaining careers replaced the pursuit of virtue as education’s purpose, and with that, the state instilled its citizens’ souls with degraded values.
Lewis’s understanding of intellectual servitude penned a climactic chapter in the pedagogical narrative: he wasn’t just concerned with what was being taught, but how it was being taught. For this reason, he also criticized a more insidious training, that of rote memorization:
The very power of [textbook writers] depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.
The inclusion of the “English prep” textbook was not arbitrary. “English prep” was the moniker British students gave to Martin Ketley and Alex King’s 1939 The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing. In fact, “The Green Book,” as Lewis referred to Control of Language, appeared in many university-level courses, including Lewis’s own: “English Language and Literature.” Given that Lewis lamented the power of a textbook used in his own classroom, the above excerpt can be read almost as instructions for educators—Lewis included—to instruct beyond the textbook. Help students realize that “ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake,” the directions could begin. Second, help students question the assumption that what they read is infallible. Finally, the final step may caution, help students recognize that controversy adds complexity and nuance.
“The soul grows by learning,” Lewis noted in his chapter “Men without Chests,” quoting Saint Augustine. How were students’ souls free to learn—to grow—if they were motivated only by work in textbooks like Control of Language? Lewis seemed to ask. How were they virtuous, for that matter? Freedom was a prerequisite for virtue, so it wasn’t enough for the state to provide a liberal arts curriculum if it didn’t also provide a way for students to engage with their education and grow. Education needed an intermediate between the state and the student’s soul.
The Yard is void of tourists in September 1846. John Harvard’s left shoe has not yet grown gold enough to entice crimson-clad visitors. Leaves escape trees like droplets, forming a red and orange sea for students to part. The sun beats down on Harvard Hall, and its penetrating rays pour through the window panes into a room where Swiss biologist Louis Agassiz speaks, in hushed awe, about magnolias converting light into sustenance.
Agassiz is new to the faculty. The baby-faced European’s arrival, about 100 years before Lewis’s publication, signals Harvard’s institutionalized focus on the student’s soul, which comes in the form of geology and zoology courses, not the typical “English prep” courses associated with liberal studies. It comes because Agassiz’s approach to science diverges from the contemporary one.
He relies heavily on language. For instance, during every lecture, Agassiz urges students to “soar with Plato” so they can grasp the “intellectual and moral qualities which are so eminently developed in civilized society.” The verb “soar” evokes images of flight, and rightfully so. The freedom promoted by liberal studies should enable a mental flight from pre-professionalism and textbooks and towards “intellectual and moral qualities.” There is a relationship between intellect and morality, Agassiz implies: with the former, you can get the latter.
It’s not to say that Agassiz neglects geology and zoology. These are, after all, the subjects that Harvard hired him to teach. At the end of each lecture, his students still leave with notes about “Comparative Embryology” and “Deep Sea Dredging.” Yet contained within these notes are references to works such as Ralph Cudworth’s 1678 The True Intellectual System of the World and John Norris’s early 18th-century An Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intellectual World. By supplementing science with philosophy, Agassiz makes liberal studies relevant to all academic disciplines. And perhaps most importantly, he makes himself one of the educational intermediates that Lewis would imagine.
* * *
Twenty-three years later, Agassiz’s former student, Charles W. Eliot, clutching The Republic, retreats into an alcove. The busts of past deans and portraits of dignified alumni peer down at him in solemn expectation. Filling the gallery next door, rows of anxious students bow their heads over course books in an assembly line of memorization. If only facts could travel, like product parts, in a progressive succession from one student’s mind to another. A floorboard loudly creaks as a student attempts to tiptoe towards a nearby bookcase. His fellow workers trace his steps with critical, narrow eyes. The assembly line is disrupted, and the student treks the walk of shame back to his desk.
Though the Gothic library will be demolished in 1913 for stately Widener Library, Gore Hall is, in 1869, the work location of choice for faculty and students alike. Eliot lounges, rear against crimson carpet, back against painted wall, and opens the philosophical dialogue. The old print’s stale odor agitates his nose with each turned page, but he continues turning. He has soared with Plato. He wants every Harvard student to do the same.
A few months prior, the Harvard Corporation invited Eliot to become the university’s 21st president; at 35, he also became its youngest. With signature briefcase and weathered copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in hand, he left his employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for a new office across the river.
It is only a matter of days until he will occupy this new office and deliver an inaugural address.
Eliot has spent far too many solitary hours determining the speech’s content and structure. His eyes, groggy and strained, have scanned the university archives for lecture transcripts, the philosophy department for annotated readings, and his own correspondence for phrases to recycle. Every research session ends with him returning to a letter he had earlier written to his cousin, Arthur T. Lyman:
The Puritans thought they must have trained ministers for the Church and they supported Harvard College—when the American people are convinced that they require more competent chemists, engineers, artists, architects, than they now have, they will somehow establish the institutions to train them. In the meantime, freedom and the American spirit of enterprise will do much for us, as in the past.
Back now beginning to ache from the stiff wall in Gore Hall, Eliot places a weary palm on the bald patch forming near the bottom of his gelled, brown locks. What words can adequately convey his new vision—his “spirit of enterprise”—for Harvard?
* * *
Eliot’s 105-minute address, published in abridged form as a two-part article in The Atlantic Monthly called “The New Education,” used a war metaphor in place of flight. But Agassiz’s lofty sentiment still remained.
“We are fighting a wilderness, physical and moral,” Eliot noted, “and for this fight we must be armed.” Proper armor, he specified, was realizing “education’s ultimate utility.”
This last phrase was an important addition to the pedagogical narrative’s glossary, because it signified a divergence in applied ethics. Eliot agreed with Seneca about education’s theoretical function to hone free, rational, and virtuous souls. His question, instead, was of application: what was the most morally correct action to take in order to hone free, rational, and virtuous souls?
A Transcendental Unitarian, Eliot’s explanation of “ultimate utility” was unusually spiritual. While he did subscribe to John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism—maximizing pleasure for the greatest number—he did so with a twist. The pleasure he sought to maximize included fulfillment, human dignity, and self-reliance. Basically, moral development. To Eliot, applying “ultimate utility” at Harvard translated into courses that would “reveal to [the student], or at least to his teachers and parents, his capacities and tastes … his way to happy, enthusiastic work … to usefulness. For the individual, concentration and the highest development of his own peculiar faculty, is the only prudence.”
Eliot’s syntax ushered in a transition from earlier pedagogical traditions. The possessive pronoun “his” modifies nearly every noun. It’s not just “capacities and tastes,” or the “way to happy enthusiastic work,” or “usefulness,” or “peculiar faculty.” It’s his “capacities and tastes,” his “way to happy enthusiastic work,” his “usefulness,” his “peculiar faculty.” Never before had the liberal studies taken such a keen interest in the student as an individual. A nondescript and abstract “higher” faculty had always been the concern. When Seneca wrote of “occupy[ing]” the mind and “engag[ing] it permanently,” he referred to all free men’s minds at once. But, Eliot realized, no two students’ minds are alike.
Returning to the question—What is the most morally correct action to take that hones free, rational, and virtuous souls?—it is clear that Eliot provided an answer: an action that facilitates the “highest development of [one’s] own peculiar faculty.” Simply put, students should pursue what they are good at because what they are good at is good for their souls. Eliot had essentially laid the foundations for a Harvard that left no soul behind—and no individual talent behind, either.
* * *
It could be argued that Eliot’s “own peculiar faculty” mantra was immoral. That it bordered dangerously close to the “training” that Seneca and Lewis so detested. This is partly true.
Eliot’s earlier letter to his cousin Arthur championed an institution that would train, among other professions, “competent chemists, engineers, artists, architects.” And the “highest development of [one’s] own peculiar faculty” certainly reads like a jargon-heavy call for specialization. And it is, in a way. Students perfect a specific discipline so they can embark upon specific—and useful—paths. The adjective “highest,” though, differentiates Eliot’s vision from mere “profit-bringing occupations.” It suggests that the specialization helps fulfill a higher purpose to which Eliot alluded at the end of his address:
[F]or the State, it is variety, not uniformity, of intellectual product, which
is needful. As a people, we do not apply to mental activities the principle of division of labor; and we have but a halting faith in special training for high professional employments. … What amount of knowledge and experience do we habitually demand of our lawgivers? … This lack of faith in the prophecy of a natural bent, and in the value of a discipline concentrated upon a single object, amounts to a national danger.
This emphasis on the state’s need for a “variety” of “intellectual product” indicates that education has evolved into a sort of social contract. Previously, Seneca had acknowledged the state’s obligations towards the citizen’s soul. Lewis pointed to the state’s obligations towards all souls. Adding to his predecessors, Eliot recognized the individual soul’s obligations to the state. Specialization’s higher purpose, therefore, was to facilitate collective development. Education’s “ultimate utility” lay in this mutually beneficial relationship.
It’s no surprise that inscriptions of Eliot’s writings decorate Harvard. “Enter
to grow in wisdom,” the outside of Dexter Gate reads. “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind,” the inside instructs students before they try to disentangle their feet from ivy and leave the Yard, though remnants of woody evergreen will forever stick to the soles of their Converse. Eliot made Harvard what Agassiz had been in the classroom: the intermediate between state and soul.
The Sheep Who Cried Wolf
In Book 1, Chapter 3 of his Metaphysics, Aristotle introduces readers to the concept of telos, a good’s purpose, goal, or final end. Education’s telos is to actualize an individual’s capacity for intellect and liberty. To understand education’s end is to understand that “the end we are seeking is what we have been doing,” as Aristotle elaborates on in the Nicomachean Ethics.
That is, education’s end is attained through its pursuit. The means is the end.
As such, education’s telos is not to mass-produce “excellent sheep,” but rather to shepherd virtuous wolves: unrestrained by academic fields or career paths and free to graze on vast knowledge to nourish their animi.
And so, to Professor Claybaugh, I say: language matters.
How we talk about education confers meaning and purpose. Harvard’s tacit mission statement, as instituted by educators like Agassiz and Eliot, is embedded in a philosophical lexicon that values soul-building. Given this legacy, perhaps Harvard could do more to avoid producing graduates whom Deresiewicz labels as “smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost.”
To Deresiewicz, I also say: language matters.
You sat at the heart of the Ivy League establishment, in the fires of academia’s most urgent debate, and students whom you critiqued took you seriously. So seriously, in fact, that you prompted a reflection that resituated your assertions within a long intellectual tradition. But perhaps our unspoken conversation—as an excellent sheep meekly crawling toward Wall Street, should I say “transaction”?—is incomplete without reciprocal reflection. Reflect on the words you use to describe students similar to those you used to teach.
In other words: would an excellent sheep, meekly crawling toward Wall Street, cry wolf?
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons / Wellcome Images, John Filmer