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Liberal Education and the Quest for Truth, Freedom, and Greatness

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 11, No. 3.


America’s universities are collapsing into a miasma of postmodernism and multiculturalism. They have been approaching peak radicalization for several decades now, but in recent years the cultural left has pushed toward a complete takeover of our campuses. A hyper “political correctness”—with trigger warnings, safe spaces, micro-aggressions, censorship, and sometimes even physical violence—has enveloped our universities. Leftist professors, administrators, and students have created a stifling, anti-intellectual monoculture, and they are now attempting to remove the last pillars of the traditional university: free thought and free speech. Once those are gone, America’s universities will have become little more than seminaries of intolerance and indoctrination.

I have been a witness to this tragedy for the past thirty-five years, initially as a student and now as a professor, currently at Clemson University, where I teach political science and head the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. I came to intellectual maturity during the first wave of the academic culture wars of the 1980s. As a graduate student at Brown University, one of America’s most “politically correct” universities, I saw up close the hypocrisy, dishonesty, intimidation, and violence used by the campus left to impose its psychological and moral hegemony on students, faculty, and administrators.

As just one example, in 1987, during my second year at Brown, a group of student radicals broke into one of the grand old buildings on campus and defaced ten historical portraits of distinguished Brown personages from centuries past. These “social justice warriors” spray-painted one large white letter onto each portrait, visually adding up to the words “ELITE? WHO US.” Pathetically, as is typically the case with leftist vandalism on campus, the Brown administration did nothing to identify, much less arrest, expel, or prosecute the criminals. Although a few administrators and faculty members huffed and puffed about the incident, the general tone on campus combined with the inaction on the part of the school indicated that many were secretly supportive of this faux act of revolutionary violence.

What I saw at Brown in the 1980s was just the beginning. The leftist assault on higher education has become much worse over the past thirty-five years. Most universities today, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, are thoroughly politicized. Administrators and faculty have corrupted, gutted, and repackaged the idea of a liberal education to serve the ideological interests of the postmodernist and multiculturalist agendas. To the extent that the history and culture of the West are still even subjects of serious study in today’s humanities departments, they are there only to be “deconstructed” and condemned.

A helpful illustration of this situation can be seen in the field of literature. It is increasingly rare today for literature majors to graduate having read the great novelists, poets, and playwrights of Western literature, such as Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain, Hugo, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Instead, they are now required to read third-rate literature published in the past twenty-five years that serves the race-class-gender-sexuality aspirations of their professors’ anti-West “oppression studies” agenda. They are also required to take courses that explicitly push postmodernism and multiculturalism. To receive a bachelor’s degree in English literature from UCLA, for instance, students no longer are required to take a course in Shakespeare, but they are required to take three courses in gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, or postcolonial studies.1

At Yale, a group of students and faculty recently demanded that the English department “decolonize” the major by abolishing its required “Major English Poets” course (a course that covers Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, et al.) and replace it with a course concerned with race, class, gender, and sexual identity. According to one Yale student, reading “canonical” dead white males marginalizes and oppresses “non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.”2

That view, it is worth noting, was not shared by the radical African American writer W. E. B. Du Bois, who declared in his 1903 book Souls of Black Folk his affinity with the Eurocentric intellectual traditions of Western civilization, precisely so that he could temporarily escape the racism of postbellum America: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”3

Today’s universities would be virtually unrecognizable to men such as Du Bois and those who guarded the ivory towers of academia for 2,500 years. From Plato’s Academy in 4th-century BC Athens to the Ivy League in the first half of the 20th century, the core of Western learning was found in the humanities and liberal arts.

Broadly speaking, the purpose of what we call a liberal education was to expose students to a select body of accumulated knowledge and wisdom about the world in which we live. It was a journey of discovery in pursuit of the truth about the human condition, and it was an education in what we might call high culture. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold’s famous definition, it was an immersion in the best that has been thought, said, and done in order to elevate our lives above the ordinary, the vulgar, and the savage. Such an education would enrich the lives of young people as individuals while also preserving the achievements of the past and endowing to the future the wisdom of the past.

Tragically, with the exception of a few Great Books colleges and the Lyceum Scholars Program at Clemson University, the vision of higher education that once sustained the West for centuries now seems all but dead. The old-fashioned idea that the central purpose of a university is to lead the search for truth and to preserve and perpetuate all that is great in our civilization is now openly attacked, mocked, or simply eliminated.

In recent years, Yale and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have turned down gifts of twenty- and ten-million dollars respectively to teach courses on Western civilization. At Stanford, students recently voted by a 6:1 margin to ban the teaching of Western civilization from the university curriculum. As one student put it, such a course means “upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.”4

Serious scholars—those who are the intellectual curators of Western civilization’s repositories of knowledge and high culture—are now marginalized on our campuses. The sad reality is that very few people left in American higher education have the interest and courage to defend and perpetuate the humanities. In fact, we are fast approaching a period in which people qualified to teach traditional humanities courses will be virtually extinct. The few who still take the life of the mind seriously and spend their days reading old books with young people and discussing with them the ideas that have shaped Western culture for millennia—they will be strangers in a strange land.

What we are witnessing today on our campuses is akin to the Afghani Taliban bombing out of existence two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley nearly two thousand years ago—or ISIS fighters leveling Nimrud, a three thousand-year-old Assyrian city; and ransacking museums in Iraq and Syria, destroying their antiquities with sledgehammers. The efforts of leftist administrators, faculty, and students to remove Western civilization’s great works of literature and philosophy from curricula, to rename or tear down important historical buildings, to censor or ban certain ideas from college campuses, have the same effect.

Much is at stake in this battle of ideas. A civilization that does not know and appreciate its great achievements has lost its raison d’être. It cannot defend itself from enemies (external or internal) who seek to destroy it.

Needless to say, this vast topic deserves volumes. In what follows, we shall briefly indicate the nature and value of a liberal education and the central role it must play in higher education. Our particular focus will be on the part the great books of Western history play in enriching and ennobling our lives as individuals.

The Essence and Foundation of Liberal Education

A proper liberal education involves essentially three things: first, a quest to understand important truths about nature, human nature, and the necessary conditions and means for people to live and flourish; second, substantial knowledge of great works of philosophy, religion, literature, history, science, and the arts produced through 2,500 years of Western civilization; and, third, substantial knowledge of great deeds and projects men and women have undertaken in order to expand the boundaries of human freedom and flourishing. . . .

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1. Heather MacDonald, “The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity,” Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2014:

2. Heather MacDonald, “The Humanities and Us,” City Journal (Winter 2014):; Allison Flood, “Yale English Students Call for End of Focus on White Male Writers,” (June 1, 2016):

3. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903; reprint: Dover Publications, 1994), 67.

4. Tom Tancredo, “Banishment of Western Civilization at Stanford Shows Pervasive Cultural Rot,”