John Agresto grew up in a “fairly poor Brooklyn family that didn’t think much about education” and “in a house almost without books.” His father, a “day laborer in construction,” had nothing against higher learning. He just thought that a union dock-worker job was a safer bet for his son. Agresto did “almost no childhood reading.”
Yet he went on to earn a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University, to teach at prestigious colleges and universities, to serve as acting chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and to lead the New Mexico campus of St. John’s College. How did a boy who barely read anything become president of a college whose curriculum consists almost entirely of Western classics, from Aristotle’s Ethics to Tolstoy’s War and Peace?
As Agresto, who now runs an educational consulting company, explains in The Death of Learning, a nun gave him a book. He was in the eighth grade, the nun was one of his teachers, and the book was Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam. Tarkington isn’t “great literature,” he writes. But Penrod and Sam, a book “about things that never happened,” had an effect in Agresto’s neighborhood, in the form of a club modeled after the one created by the book’s main characters, complete with initiation rites, war cries, and a flag. A “work of someone else’s imagination, written down in a book” had “pierced… everyday street life.” Agresto was hooked on reading, which makes it possible “to possess someone’s mind.” Tarkington had, in a small way, expanded his idea of what was possible and sharpened his real-world insight. Agresto went on to read and teach the Greeks, Shakespeare, and other “extremely dead” geniuses. The Death of Learning defends liberal education as a form of demanding engagement with such writers. And at the core of the process is the experience Agresto had with Tarkington, of reading authors to “make their minds live in ours.”
But Agresto doesn’t dismiss those who wonder, “What’s the use?” He acknowledges that “liberal education has always seen itself in the camp of the cultural and intellectual, in the realm of thought more than action,” and he has little patience for defenders of liberal education who glory in its uselessness. Agresto’s vision of education is democratic and American in the best sense. It recognizes that the liberal arts are not the exclusive possession of elites who can afford not to think about their practical use. “Sometimes the children of the Brooklyn poor,” he writes, “find their way into the liberal arts more easily than the children of the Hampton leisured.”
America, a “nation of progress and production,” is more apt to respect the part of the intellect that helps us build rockets than the part that helps us appreciate Mozart. This isn’t much of a problem for Agresto, who believes the case for professional and vocational education needn’t rest solely on employment prospects. He sees a range of additional benefits to education in such programs. “How about persistence in understanding?” he writes. “How about attention to detail? How about seeing the interworking of cause and effect?” Moreover, American founders such as Thomas Jefferson were learned and practical. Jefferson, he writes, had “no trouble combining his liberal learning with the serious study of everything from agronomy to viniculture.”
What is a problem for Agresto is that liberal educators are failing to make a strong case for liberal education. This failure seems to have contributed to a decline in liberal education, as measured by the sinking demand for several liberal-arts degrees. History degrees made up 1.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in 2019, the lowest share in the 70 years for which we have records and well below the 5.7 percent peak in the late 1960s. Similarly, English degrees made up about 1.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2019, another nadir, and sharply down from 7.5 percent, in the early 1970s. Agresto notes that English is now outranked in popularity by “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies.” And it’s not even close.
Much of this decline is beyond the control of universities. Interest in humanities degrees dipped considerably after the financial crisis of 2008 and never recovered. The trouble begins before a student sets foot in college. In 2015, according to the Higher Education Research Institute, well over half of incoming freshman reported spending an hour or less per week on reading for personal interest. For a liberal-arts professor, that makes for a tough crowd. Americans over the age of 15, according to the American Time Use Survey, spend less than 16 minutes per day on personal reading (and about three hours watching TV).
Universities aren’t helping themselves, however, when they hire hyper-specialized professors whose Ph.D.s are proof mainly that they have “bored down deeply into a small area.” And they aren’t helping themselves by teaching politicized courses that cut down great thinkers as racists, or sexists, or homophobes, and caricature the world outside the university as racist, or sexist, or homophobic. And they aren’t helping themselves by encouraging their students to learn not so much from texts—what can they teach about justice, or goodness, or beauty?—as about them, the context into which authors and their distinctive ideas can be made to disappear. It’s rhetorical overreach to say, as Agresto does at one point, that the “liberal arts have died…by suicide.” But he makes a convincing case that the institutions are bleeding, in no small part, from self-inflicted wounds.
Defenders of the liberal arts would do well, Agresto thinks, to focus on their most easily understood aim of making students “smarter about things that matter.” That aim demands a kind of radicalism. People who wish to distinguish between slogans and solid truth need to “search out arguments and reasons rather than rest on received opinion.” Yet, Agresto reminds us, the attempt to liberate ourselves from received opinion can easily transform into sloganeering itself, an opportunity to tear worthy things down or to show how clever we are.
Becoming smarter about things that matter therefore demands a kind of conservatism. People who wish to distinguish between slogans and solid truth need to grasp that “civilization and culture didn’t spring up yesterday” and that wisdom isn’t the exclusive property of the rising generation. To think well about our present, we need to know as much as possible about “the ground from which our current culture and current problems grew.” Declaring that our constitutional system is broken, for example, requires understanding how it was supposed to work. That’s easiest to see in works like the Federalist Papers, written when the Constitution “still needed to be rationally argued for and defended.”
Radicalism and conservatism meet in the aim of “possessing the minds of those whose views and insights are different, even profoundly different, from our own.” Reading Plato can inspire radical doubts about democracy. Reading the Gospel of Matthew can inspire radical doubts about the way most of us live. At the same time, Agresto argues, liberal education can cultivate moderation because it “encourages us and our students to look back with openness and respect for possible guidance,” to notice that the problems we confront are rarely unprecedented, and to see “the most important questions from many sides.” Liberal education, Agresto bets, will more often be a “brake on” rather than an accelerant of dangerous enthusiasms. We should want democratic citizens to have the opportunity to possess the minds of great thinkers and writers, the better to possess their own minds, so that the next demagogue finds them hard nuts to crack.
Despite Agresto’s demoralizing title, he actually believes the decline of liberal education is “in part reversible.” Agresto urges us, among other suggestions, not to limit ourselves to the hope, vain in the short term, of changing “woke” departments. Liberal-arts advocates need to seek out allies among their colleagues in “business, law, medicine, and the sciences.” Those colleagues “often appreciate what [liberal-arts teachers] have and can do in raising up thoughtful, careful, and knowledgeable” graduates. Educators can also find allies—and donors—among those touched by liberal education, from alumni to adult learners drawn to executive seminars in the great books. The liberal arts have such allies because a liberal-arts education addresses the desire to know about the most important things. And this desire, The Death of Learning teaches us, is hard to kill.
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