Thoughts on the Liberal Arts Program in Economics and History

In Full Archive by Nathan Lewis

Naturally, you have noticed that I am offering what amounts to an alternative to the typical four-year undergraduate education today, what I’ve called the “Liberal Arts Program in Economics and History.” I think it is a little shocking for most people to even conceive that a single person could replace, and be superior to, the entirety of the typical university today. What about a football team? Realistically, about 90% of people will dismiss the idea from the start. Of those remaining, 80% will be interested in the idea, but won’t do anything. They will agree — with enthusiasm! — that college today means paying way too much money to support a parasitic administrative cadre, so that their children can be brainwashed into “progressive” dogma while wallowing in a sewer of debauchery; the old-fashioned term for all the things their parents told them not to do. But, they sign up for it anyway. So, I am ultimately talking about the 2% of people (potential students and their parents), who look at what is available, and decide that they would rather try something new and promising, than experience near-certain failure at the steadily-deteriorating and now-collapsing institutions extant today. Who knows — it might be awesome.

In more practical terms, this is one of the few places to formally study the Classical economic tradition today, and perhaps the only one that incorporates its most contemporary and sophisticated expression, finally embracing the entirety of economic complexity beyond the “prices, interest, money” box that tended to limit, and ultimately distort, the mid-century Classicalists.

And, it is a lot cheaper — a quarter the price of other private institutions, and that without any subsidy or endowment.

I admit that it is a little late in the admissions cycle to be starting such a thing. But, I have an intuitive confidence that the right people will show up somehow.

In Higher Learning in America (1936), Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, wrote that universities in his day had four goals:

1) Liberal Education — to train citizens and leaders for the nation

2) Academic Education — to train researchers and professors for the university

3) Professional Training — to train students in specific work skills for the market.

4) Political Education — to train government and quasi-government workers for the state

The last three can basically be summed up as “vocational training,” since the Academic is simply vocational training for the university, and the Political is vocational training for the government. We now have — as was true in Hutchins’ day too but much more now — another sort of Political Education which basically amounts to “progressive” brainwashing, from which most never recover. The Liberal has elements of vocational training, since the skills and abilities cultivated from this course are certainly useful in career, and employers have long recognized that. The U.S.’s best colleges are all “liberal arts” colleges, such as Harvard, where you can’t major in business or hotel management.

Universities these days have more and more of a vocational focus, and for good reason. Math, science, engineering, computer science and other technical fields are essentially vocational training. For the most part, the university is pretty good at teaching these things, although still vastly overpriced. The person who goes through a course of technical training is, for the most part, competent in that field of knowledge. The social sciences and humanities, former home of the Liberal Education, have been so degraded, dumbed-down, hollowed-out, eroded by “progressive” indoctrination, that they hardly have any value at all — indeed, in many cases, they have negative value; you would be better off avoiding it altogether, than expose your mind, even cautiously, to that sort of pollution. I long thought that certain fields, like history, have been relatively immune from this deterioration, but people involved in those fields tell me that the rot has invaded there too.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to vocational training. Future scientists should be trained in chemistry or physics; future computer programmers should learn to program computers. Future doctors or pharmaceutical researchers should study microbiology. Future businessmen must eventually master business. Future university professors must gain the credentials to be able to play the expert/specialist role. There are “college alternatives” that amount to vocational training — for example, the idea, promoted by Peter Thiel and others, that you could just take four years and start a business; maybe several. Whether you succeed or fail, you will learn something, which might be more valuable than spending your time with the dialogues of Plato, or, far worse, the argle-bargle of Derrida. You might even become as rich as Peter Thiel. But none of this contributes toward the loftier goals of education in the West, known as the “liberal arts” — literature, moral philosophy, government, history, spirituality, art and music. People long ago concluded that these things were necessary for a society to govern itself; without them, a nation would fall into bondage.

People who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
John Locke (1632-1704)

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Oliver DeMille has said that professional training today “teaches people when to think” — when they are at their assigned task, of writing legal contracts for mergers and acquisitions, or designing microchips, or prescribing drugs, they are an exemplar of mastery and expertise. But, when they step outside their professional role, they can become almost helpless, unthinking, uncomprehending, aimless without some kind of external guidance, easily herded by the mass media and advertising in whatever direction their controllers desire. They wouldn’t know what to do with Liberty if it were handed to them; consequently, it is quickly taken away. “Bondage” in the form of literal slavery is uncommon today; but their student debt, credit card debt, auto debt, and housing debt is packaged and securitized, and sold in the market as bonds. The question is not really “vocational or Liberal Arts education”, since everyone needs some vocational education. Even those born into wealth, who have no need to work in the typical sense, must nevertheless learn to live with, manage, make use of and grow that wealth, which is not a simple thing to master. It can be far more complicated and demanding than working at a job. Many fail. Thus, the question is whether to add some other kind of education to whatever sort of vocational education one might receive.

I am using the term “Liberal Arts” in the broadest sense, to mean philosophy and literature; and “philosophy” in the broadest sense, to mean: thinking about things. It can mean reading Thomas Aquinas, but it can also mean reading, thinking about, and discussing a book that recently arrived here: Catastrophic Care: Why Everything We Think We Know About Healthcare Is Wrong (2013), by David Goldhill, a book that is, for most people, definitely not “vocational.” It certainly qualifies as “training citizens and leaders for the nation” — leaders not necessarily in high office, but within society. Liberal Arts usually means “Great Works.” This means: good works. You can’t read everything, so obviously you want to read the best things. Just as Aquinas, for us today, exemplifies the best of Christian thinking before the modern age, so too might Goldhill represent the best of today’s thinking about some of our pressing problems. Although science and technology have improved, we have perhaps not made so much progress in other areas. We read Aquinas not because we care about the history of religious thought in his era, but because he might be better than most anything from our era — a time that is not characterized by spiritual accomplishment, as perhaps you have noticed. We read the writings of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor of the second century, one of the noblest people ever to lead a nation (and also highly successful at the task), because we might find ourselves in a position of leadership too sometime, or at least, we might know what to hope for from those who are. If you read Shakespeare, and really learn to savor and enjoy it rather than treating it, as most people do, as an uncomfortable foreign language to be suffered through until you can get back to your regular diet of fart jokes and car chases, you might see that most television and movies today really are garbage, and finally turn the damn thing off — to liberate yourself, you could say, from Hollywood distraction, and be your own governor. And if you can’t quite get into Shakespeare, then you can certainly enjoy Dickens or Tolstoy, which puts the entirety of twentieth century “literature” in an unflattering light. Novels have been on the same course of decline as art, music, and architecture. Civilization needs its stewards, and also creators and improvers. It is, in the end, nothing but ideas in people’s heads, expressed in activity and form; imagine what results when those ideas are no longer in anyone’s heads.

At the very least, the “Liberal Arts” are necessary for a person to make sense of the world about him, and to contribute in a fashion beyond his vocation. Peter Thiel is actually an enthusiastic Libertarian. He managed, like Benjamin Franklin, to educate himself; apparently, he finds this a valuable thing to do. He is consequently able to contribute in ways beyond Paypal-inventing. People who fail to get an education beyond the vocational at university, and don’t manage to do so later with the demands of work and family, often feel this lack keenly. I noticed this recent comment:

I graduated with highest honors … I was great at working the system but I was not educated.
I could see my daughter doing the exact same thing, and I wanted more for her.
Ashley Slaten, 2017

The United States is founded and designed on the principles of Classical Liberalism. To be maintained, beyond the simple inertia of custom, then a number of people must understand the principles of Classical Liberalism. This is true even if you believe those principles to be faulty; one must understand their potential errors and weaknesses, a level of understanding that is yet another step beyond learning the principles themselves. By the 1920s, some people came to the conclusion that the problem with the Liberalism of the late 19th century is that, in maximizing freedom, it maximizes the freedom of corruptors to corrupt your society. They were talking mostly about Marxist communism, which had then enslaved the people of Russia, plunging it into horrors that made even the worst excesses of the Czars seem like mild dalliances. Without study and experience — education — in these matters, the well-trained degree-laden professional can do little but watch, anxiously, uncomprehendingly, and ultimately, passively.

What about art? Certainly that is superfluous? Yet, the reason why the great civilizations of the past had great art and architecture is because they loved great art and architecture; and were willing to spend money on it. You might say that the people with money and power — not artists — also had a love and understanding of great art, and could distinguish from other sorts of ugly rubbish labeled “art.” If “artists” in fifteenth-century Florence could get away with selling a can of shit — a literal can of shit — for big money, do you think they would have bothered with mastering the practice of rendering exquisite human figures from blocks of unforgiving stone? Of course not. An entire generation of artists would have stampeded into the shit-can business. If we want our things in the future to be not only useful but beautiful, we had better study things of beauty; and the people who appreciate art and beauty had also better be among those with wealth and power. Even today, plenty of money is spent by those that have money to spend. They spend hundreds of times more than the wealthy merchants of Florence or Amsterdam. They just don’t get anything for their money, while Florence produced Michelangelo and Amsterdam gave home to Rembrandt, plus dozens of lesser but still marvelously skilled artists, whose contributions express the peaks of human accomplishment even centuries later. It was not too hard, if you were a successful merchant in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, to support great art. You could just imitate others. Commissioning one of Rembrandt’s disciples to paint a portrait of your wife was just Keeping Up With The Joneses. But today, it is not so simple.

In the end, our university system today really reflects the expansion that happened after WWII. It was a bit of a historical anomaly. I expect that “higher education” will, in general, be shrinking going forward, in favor of more overt forms of vocational training, perhaps undertaken at an earlier age (the old-fashioned apprenticeship typically begun around age 15), or training by employers themselves. The portion of the population that undertakes a real course of study in the “liberal arts” tradition — a more philosophical and literary realm that tends to be non-vocational — will be pretty small, perhaps under 10%. That is, probably, all that it should be. In the nineteenth century, for example, even the sons of wealthy families often did not have an education beyond their years at Eton and Harrow, but entered immediately into careers in the military or into some form of business. Universities were often for bookish sons ill-suited for more manly endeavor, and often led to a position in the clergy.

So, if most people are not attracted to this sort of thing, it is probably best that they are not; it reflects a sort of rugged practicality that characterizes civilizations in their prime. It would be wonderful if a lot of people actually did take their “college years” and instead spent them building real businesses, even getting rich in the process. An overemphasis on higher education is, actually, a recognizable symptom of a nation in decline. In “The Fate of Empires” — still one of the most popular pages on this website — John Glubb reviewed the life cycle of over two dozen empires, and found that their decline was characterized by an “Age of Intellect”:

XVIII The Age of Intellect We have now, perhaps arbitrarily, divided the life-story of our great nation into four ages. The Age of the Pioneers (or the Outburst), the Age of Conquests, the Age of Commerce, and the Age of Affluence. The great wealth of the nation is no longer needed to supply the mere necessities, or even the luxuries of life. Ample funds are available also for the pursuit of knowledge. The merchant princes of the Age of Commerce seek fame and praise, not only by endowing works of art or patronising music and literature. They also found and endow colleges and universities. It is remarkable with what regularity this phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire, divided by many centuries. In the eleventh century, the former Arab Empire, then in complete political decline, was ruled by the Seljuk sultan, Malik Shah. The Arabs, no longer soldiers, were still the intellectual leaders of the world. During the reign of Malik Shah, the building of universities and colleges became a passion. Whereas a small number of universities in the great cities had sufficed the years of Arab glory, now a university sprang up in every town. In our own lifetime, we have witnessed the same phenomenon in the U.S.A. and Britain. When these nations were at the height of their glory, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge seemed to meet their needs. Now almost every city has its university. The ambition of the young, once engaged in the pursuit of adventure and military glory, and then in the desire for the accumulation of wealth, now turns to the acquisition of academic honours. It is useful here to take note that almost all the pursuits followed with such passion throughout the ages were in themselves good. The manly cult of hardihood, frankness and truthfulness, which characterised the Age of Conquests, produced many really splendid heroes. The opening up of natural resources, and the peaceful accumulation of wealth, which marked the age of commercialism, appeared to introduce new triumphs in civilisation, in culture and in the arts. In the same way, the vast expansion of the field of knowledge achieved by the Age of Intellect seemed to mark a new high-water mark of human progress. We cannot say that any of these changes were ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

We are, if anything, in the waning light of our “Age of Intellect”; no longer expanding the universities, or serious about study (except for certain technological fields).

The point is: this is not, and should not be, for everyone. It is for those that really are interested in Liberal Arts education in general, and Economics and History in particular, and who see that they aren’t really going to find what they want in a common university today.

If you are going to spend four years at a “college” anyway, why not make it as productive, satisfying, valuable, and meaningful as possible? What if, twenty years from now, you didn’t conclude (as most honest adults do today) that college “is mostly a waste of time,” but instead, were able to say with honesty: “It was the most valuable and rewarding time of my life”? If we did make that our goal, what would we do to achieve it? And if you did do that, wouldn’t other people also find it valuable? If you could say to a potential employer: “I worked hard and learned an enormous amount,” rather than, “I jumped obediently through the requisite hoops to get my vocational union card, and also had a good time,” wouldn’t they be impressed? They went to college too, you know. Besides, actively training your mind, expanding your understanding, mastering a set of intellectual skills, building a foundation of knowledge, and developing the beginnings of wisdom and discretion, might actually prove useful in a career, and personally rewarding throughout your lifetime. There would still be plenty of time to have fun too. But, that won’t be so important, because … there are more important things.

The modern university, with its departments and specialists, is actually a product of the latter nineteenth century, and built on a Prussian model. Before then was the “college,” which was characterized by a single course of study (no departments), in which all of the professors participated in the whole course of study (no specialization). The course was almost entirely a course of literature, mostly in Latin and Greek. They didn’t teach Shakespeare, or poetry in those days. It was assumed that you had already mastered your own native language. I don’t think we really need to read Virgil in the original Latin today, although some people are indeed pursuing that path. Some are even reviving the medieval idea of the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). As foreign as this notion is for us today, it might still be better than what most college students get, and maybe they will discover some buried treasure there. Our own president could use a little help with his grammar, logic and rhetoric.

The idea of a single course of study, shared among all professors and students, has been regularly revived among education reformers. Mortimer Adler, a prominent university reformer in the middle twentieth century, came to five conclusions about his ideal college:

1) It will have no overt vocational training.

2) It will have no electives (one course of study).

3) There will be no departments or specialization. Each member of the faculty will participate in the entirety of the course of study.

4) No textbooks, only original works of high merit.

5) No written examinations, especially true/false or multiple-choice, only oral exams.

The Prussian-inspired “university” is certainly bigger, but it is not obviously better at turning eighteen-year-olds into better men and women than the small liberal arts colleges that came before. They were truly small — in 1800, most had less than a hundred students, many less than fifty. Harvard, established 1636, was the largest, with a total faculty of thirteen. Yale (founded 1701) had less than ten. Their graduates, many of whom were among the Founding Fathers of the United States, were extraordinarily well educated. The original “universities” such as Oxford consisted of a collection of “colleges,” each with a different focus, but each without departments or specialization within themselves.

But even before this model of the “college” was the model of the single mentor. Elite English boarding schools, at the high-school level, are known as “Public Schools.” This was originally to distinguish them from “private schools,” which meant sending your child to be educated by a single mentor, typically at their home. The princes of Europe were not educated in “public schools.” They had their own private mentors. Marcus Aurelius recalled:

From my great-grandfather, [I learned] not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home,
and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180), Emperor of Rome

This model of a single mentor exists today, among homeschoolers. Today, 2.2 million children in the U.S. are being educated by their parents, and for the most part, quite well educated. Statistically, the average homeschool student tests at the 87th percentile on standardized exams — obviously, thirty-seven points higher than the average student of public and private schools. University admissions departments have noticed this. “There’s a new path to Harvard and it’s not in the classroom,Business Insider said about homeschoolers in 2015. The article quotes:

“The high achievement level of homeschoolers is readily recognized by recruiters from some of the best colleges in the nation,”  education expert Dr. Susan Berry recently told Alpha Omega.

“Schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Stanford, and Duke University all actively recruit homeschoolers,” Berry said.

This result is achieved by Mom and Dad — any old mom and dad, who are concerned about education, and in the midst of work and family duties. When both parents had no college degrees, their homeschooled children scored at the 83rd percentile. When both had college degrees, they were at the 90th. In effect, the model of the single mentor and a small group of students — expanding in time to multiple mentors, just as Harvard and Yale originally did centuries ago — is homeschooling at the undergraduate level. Outside of the technical/vocational fields, it can easily be better at this than Stanford or Harvard, especially since that bar is so low today. Certainly many homeschoolers think so, including myself: already accustomed to a high standard of education, they are looking for a better solution than universities can provide.

That is probably enough about this topic for today. I am sure I will continue with it soon.

 

And, in truth, we yet see, that nothing can be more ingenious and pleasing than the children of France;
but they ordinarily deceive the hope and expectation that have been conceived of them; and grown up to be men,
have nothing extraordinary or worth taking notice of: I have heard men of good understanding say,
these colleges of ours to which we send our young people (and of which we have but too many) make them such animals as they are.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), “Of the Education of Children”