What to think of self-styled defenders of the liberal arts who refuse to take seriously the father of Western philosophy? That is the question raised by certain condemnations of Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore. Singapore’s censorship laws, argue the outraged, are inimical to the liberal arts spirit. A truly humanistic education demands political and academic liberty — especially freedom of expression.
Plato was one educator who would not agree. In the Republic, Socrates notoriously argues for extensive artistic censorship. Education, for Plato, was more than the exercise of the intellect; it was inculcation in the knowledge of virtue, preparing the student for a life ordered by the love of goodness. Therefore, says Socrates, morally ambiguous stories, like Homer’s, “must cease, for fear that they sow a strong proclivity for badness in our young.” Far from obstructing education, censorship went hand in hand with the pedagogue’s project of providing an ordered curriculum in the true, the beautiful and the good.
Likewise, the Middle Ages, an epoch devoted to the liberal arts, hardly conceived of them as license to study whatever one liked. Rather, the liberal arts curriculum was a strict progression from the foundations of learning — logic, grammar, rhetoric — to the sciences of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These studies were believed to train the mind’s essential abilities, laying the foundation on which all further endeavors could be erected.
The assumptions underlying these old, programmatic theories of education strike us as odd. We are used to thinking of the liberal arts as vaguely coextensive with the humanities, and we have emptied the term so far of its curricular significance that the so-called liberal arts colleges are the likeliest to boast minimal or nonexistent general requirements. This suits our liberal, democratic disposition. Why should anyone else be able to tell me what education means?
And yet: Is that not partly the point of education? Should we not trust our educators, not only to be more knowledgeable than we about their specialized academic provinces, but to be wiser, and to know better than we do what will make us wise?
Such was the role of the educator in premodern philosophies of education, and such is the natural relationship between teacher and pupil. The causes of its decline have been manifold: academic specialization, and the concomitant loss of a general theory of wisdom; the overeager application of egalitarian prejudices to education; and a lack of principle and courage on the part of administrators. But none of these causes was inevitable or stands as an immutable fact. Each was the outcome of human choice, and each is open to human re-evaluation.
Similarly, can’t something be said for that most reviled Yale-NUS policy, the ban against on-campus political parties and protests? Are we not we Yalies familiar enough with students whose learning comes a distant second to their social and political advocacy? I know I’ve been guilty of this fault, and I’m surely not the only one.
Yale would be a better place to study if liberalism (and reactive conservatism) could take a back seat to the liberal arts. There’s something topsy-turvy about devoting the bulk of one’s energies to politics during the short period of life when one is theoretically freest to live contemplatively — to ascertain (no easy task!) the principles to ground future practice.
And the same cart-before-horse mentality is what most bothers me about the current epidemic of anti-censorship indignation. Leave aside Plato’s arguments; look at human nature. Most societies have not been liberal. History would suggest that the common sense of humanity regards censorship as a natural function of government. If a commitment to freedom of expression is to be tenable, its advocates have to recognize this fact and admit that such freedom must follow from arguments produced by the kind of inquiry the liberal arts embody. By insisting on the opposite — that freedom of expression is a prerequisite for the liberal arts to flourish — opponents of the Singapore project do exactly what they want to avoid: they treat a political dogma as though it anteceded the life of reason.
This is not a comprehensive defense of Yale-NUS. Frankly, I have little zeal for a venture of which the primary motive seems to be brand marketing. Still, let me conclude by pointing out that Yale-NUS boasts something Yale College doesn’t: a robust core curriculum mandating serious study of literature, philosophy, political thought and the sciences, both social and natural. Students might not read de Sade, but they will read Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Confucius and the epic poets of ancient Greece and India. I wonder: which school has a better understanding of the liberal arts?
Bijan Aboutorabi is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.