Leon Katz on the value of a liberal education

I’m a big fan of the idea of having personal boards of directors: people who care enough about what you’re up to that you keep up-to-date via email or the occasional lunch date. They can offer feedback, advice, intros, whatever — the most important thing is that you, the person with the board, gets used to reporting to them. It’s a form of managing up: taking advantage of what you can learn from people older, smarter, and/or more experienced than you.

My solo great books project has a couple of people on the “board of directors,” but none of them are aware of their role. Maybe a better way is to refer to them as the intellectual ancestors of the project.

Leon R. Katz is one such person. A professor and public intellectual with a long academic career (including at St. John’s College!), he’s a big fan of education by great books alone. I just read a piece that makes the case for liberal education. I wrote at the beginning of “Why Read Classic Books?” that I expected to come back to this question a lot. Here, then, is a summary of his argument. Readers interested in going deeper can check out Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times.

To start, Kass delineates education from professional training. The medical and legal fields are the classic examples here, but Lambda School, my day job, stands out. We do vocational training — we don’t grant a degree and we don’t claim to provide an education in the traditional sense: we teach programming and data science and then help you get hired.

He also separates education from mere familiarity with the history of ideas. Knowing Plato, Shakespeare, or Darwin is necessary but not enough. If, as the cliche goes, liberal arts teaches you how to think, the history of thought should not be mistaken for thinking. This both explains the usefulness of the Great Books (I’ve said before that, taken together, they’re an unparalleled telling of human imagining and inventing) and showcases their limitations. They can be a catalyst, but they won’t think for you.

Finally, Kass says, education is not critical thinking. Sharpening one’s intellect is all well and good, but critical thinking is an instrument. Tools must be used.
So — if all of that is what liberal education is not, what exactly is it?

Kass defines a liberal education as what I call “applied thoughtfulness,” which is exactly the sort of pithy summation that lends itself to being misunderstood. Kass describes it as encountering a contradiction and seeking to understand it. “Thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns,” he writes, is unlikely to always be clear and straightforward, but we ought to be always “in quest of what is simply true and good.”

He encourages us to be less concerned with removing the uncertainty quickly and more concerned with understanding and engaging with it. Trying to explain away the contradiction, or coming up with a perspective that explains away the contradiction is, Kass says, the easy way out. Sitting with that discomfort, that contradiction, is where you discover interesting things. Human affairs, for better or worse, usually involve judgements on what’s good and bad, or what’s good and better.

In a pleasantly action-oriented sense, that goes against the stereotype of the ivory tower academic, Kass describes a liberal education as that which encourages a habit of thoughtfulness. If people do logic puzzles to prepare for the LSAT, liberally educated folks find themselves in situations where they can be thoughtful. Kass doesn’t seem to think that a liberal education is something downloaded into students’ brains, but rather a muscle that can be strengthened or neglected. The choice, he might say, is ours.

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