Volume 4, Number 1b
Essential Texts and Know Thyself
by Patricia Cook Tutor
St. John's College, Annapolis, MD
Self-knowledge is the least common denominator of the most diverse assertions about the goals of a liberal arts education. Meaningful self-knowledge includes a well-informed awareness of the human condition. We may not agree on how to pursue human self-understanding, how to detect it, quantify it, or evaluate it; but it is and always has been the sine qua non for any education that deserves the name liberal. I want to argue further that there is an essential content that is integral to liberal arts education, no matter how we define it. This content illuminates both the nature of the liberal arts and its educational goal. To the injunction, "Know thyself," it is that essential content that lets us answer the question, But why?
All of us are familiar with the sort of self-understanding that we might seek from psychological counseling. From this vantage point a case can be made, even to thoroughgoing pragmatists, for the meaning and worth of liberal arts education. The goal of counseling is insight, whether for relief from emotional distress, or for more general self-improvement, such as increased professional efficacy. Insight is the medium for this endeavor as for any related ones--from the self-help book, to the weekend leadership seminar, to the freshman year experience course, to analysis in the psychiatrist's office.
So long as we operate strictly at the level of behavior and instinct, self-determination eludes us. Insight, however, makes it possible to choose and control what we do. It transforms behaviors into actions.
The relevant insight can take many forms. Who one is certainly involves one's upbringing, one's relationships, and one's physical inheritance. Often, insight aligns our emotions with our reason, concerning all that we have inherited. Things may have always felt a certain way to us, but our reflection upon them adjusts or corrects the way those things seemed. Sometimes, insight means simply making explicit what is implicit. Before we have insight, we operate on the basis of assumptions, beliefs, and the common sense which Mark Twain defined as the sum of all prejudices acquired by the time that we are teenagers. Our insight yields the possibility of choosing to act differently in the future, when we recognize the substance of our pre-reflective assumptions and when we understand why we felt and acted as we have. This self-knowledge is the essence of any kind of freedom that is possible for human beings.
But the grounds of self-knowledge cannot be merely personal, because as persons we are undeniably products of civilization and culture. One might even want to say, with Aristotle, that society almost entirely constitutes the human person. We are made from the political circumstances of our lives, which are also a portion of our inheritance.
And while cultural pluralism is visible throughout American life, all of us participate in some way in the foundational values of the American Republic. We obey its laws; we practice its ideals. The United States Constitution epitomizes these ideas that make us who we are. It is the ideas themselves that hold our legacy.
The ideas of the American founders and their political writings are rooted in the Western tradition. This complex and polemical tradition bears such things as the meaning that the American founders finally accorded to property; the value that they attached to autonomy; and the significance that they assigned to the will of a people. The tradition underwrites the preeminence that the founders accorded to the rule of law. It provides the source for what the founders understood about human nature.
We are products of this tradition as much as we are inheritors of our family traits. If self-knowledge ultimately liberates us, if liberal arts education begins with insight into who we are, then it is minimally necessary for liberal arts education to include some knowledge of the Western tradition, particularly what influenced the American founders. How could we begin to understand the American position on property without reading Locke? What makes sense of the American insistence on individual autonomy other than an acquaintance with literary portrayals of tyranny, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, and some knowledge of Kant? How could we take for granted the Constitutional claim for the equality of men without knowing its Stoic and Christian antecedents? What sort of happiness do we suppose the founders meant to vouchsafe for them and us if we have never encountered Plato or Epicurus?
Without some acquaintance with the thinkers whose ideas deeply affected the American founders, we have no access to liberating self-knowledge. Liberal arts education itself implies a minimal canon. In our educations we must encounter the set of texts that contain the history of conversations about the fundamental political ideas which define us. Exactly which texts to include need not be controversial, because the tradition is richly dialectical, and we can find our core ideals in numerous genres. They are often expressed in reprise. The best canon will provide students with the most thorough understanding of themselves through their political heritage. The deepest, most sustained encounter has the greatest potential for genuine liberal education.
Despite the political flavor of this argument, the canon itself is not essentially political. Think of Jefferson reading Dante. Consider Madison reading Isaac Newton. Nor does this version of liberal arts education aim in any direct way at civics. Liberal arts education ought never to be pursued as a mere training for citizenship.
Self-knowledge, which is the inevitable by-product of the study of one's intellectual inheritance, is what liberates us from servility to unreflective behaviors and unacknowledged alliances. Liberal arts education brings insight. Insight brings the freedom to choose one's responsibilities and to assume them.
Direct personal responses to Patricia Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click HERE for first essay
LiberalArtsOnline is an occasional email essay on the liberal arts, provided as a public service of the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.
The comments published in LiberalArtsOnline reflect the opinions of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Center of Inquiry or Wabash College. Comments may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author(s), LiberalArtsOnline, and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College.