Bonfire of the Humanities: The Moorings of Academy Adrift

We must choose between a commitment to the unmeasurable things that bring us refinement and solace, such as beauty, or the destructive path of pure pragmatism and economics, which engender apathy and narcissism.

All Souls College, Oxford University, Oxford, UK (Skowron/

Editor’s note: Anthony E. Clark, the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, recently delivered the last of four talks on various topics related to important historical and social issues, such as religious freedom, religious exchange between cultures, and religious conflict. In his final lecture, delivered on November 29, 2018, the date of C. S. Lewis’ birthday, Dr. Clark delivered his talk on the decline of interest in the humanities and traditional Liberal Arts. Clark, who is a historian of imperial China, recently travelled to Oxford University to study the writings of Bl. John Henry Newman and to prepare his concluding talk, which he delivered to a full audience at Whitworth.

Cicero (106-43 BC) defined a good talk as one that accomplishes three things: 1) It must be truthful; 2) It must be pleasing; 3) And it must call us to action. I expect that for most of us, discussing the current deterioration of the humanities in the Academy cannot be construed as “pleasing,” but this is perhaps not the time to prioritize “entertainment” as how we define “pleasing” – we now confront overwhelming changes in the day-to-day culture and operation of colleges and universities, and it is time to re-evaluate where we are going.

In this, my concluding talk as the Edward B. Lindaman Chair, I shall act as a historian of the past who is speaking directly to the future, something that would have intrigued Edward Lindaman (1920-1982), though I won’t be saying much that Lindaman would have agreed with. He was a Futurist who believed that science will perfect the future of humanity; I am a rationalist who believes that science, as it is now venerated as a source of higher salaries and a better and utopian future, is part of a paradigm that is slowly destroying humanity. My talk tonight may seem a bit bleak – but I am interested in saying something that is more meaningful than motivational, so I’ll offer some remarks about why the humanities matter now more than ever, as we stand beside what I see as the “bonfire of the humanities” . . . as our world somewhat apathetically watches books being replaced by screens that are occupied more with social media and video games than with the wisdom of our human past. History has observed crowds of convinced ideologues waving fists through the smoke of burning books. I’ve lived through two eras of college culture: one during which the word “job” was seldom spoken, and another during which the word “learning” is uttered even less. Just as books were destroyed for their “dangerous” ideas in the past, the humanities are being destroyed today for their apparent uselessness in gaining wealth and power.

Most of what we now call “universities” and “colleges” no longer appear to offer students a genuine and rigorous version of the Liberal Arts as they were created and expected to function – indeed, most of the Academy no longer understands what is meant by a “Liberal Arts” education. By the time I finish speaking tonight, everyone here might legitimately accuse me of being “unreasonable,” but there may be something to say in favor of unreasonableness. The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself; therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”i Anyone, such as myself, who proposes a largescale return of the entire system of higher education to the traditional Liberal Arts might accurately be accused of being “ill adapted to the world.” If I am “ill adapted,” then I am by Shaw’s definition “unreasonable.” But then, I wonder if I am thus progressive? And we all know that in our present intellectual climate, being progressive is in vogue. So, I shall attempt to address two areas tonight: First, I’ll briefly disclose why I am, like so many of my contemporaries who teach at a university, deeply concerned over the “bonfire of the humanities,” and second, I’ll suggest what I hope our university professors and administrators begin doing to restore a genuine Liberal Arts education to the curriculums and classrooms of today’s Academy. The classical understanding of a “muse” was the nine goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology – all daughters of Zeus, who presided over the arts and sciences. Today, we refer to a “muse” as a person or personified force who inspires the work of an intellectual or artist. Tonight, my “muse” shall mostly be the ideas of the great English professor and cleric, John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who in my estimation described best the correct character and goals of a university.

Already by the early 1990s, discussion of “the university in crisis” had become mainstream, especially among professors – we are notoriously known as gripers and naysayers. We are known to be “lost in the clouds” of our respective disciplines, and are not infrequently complained about among university administrators because all we seem to do is complain about them. We mostly deserve these criticisms. The Yale historian, Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), wrote in 1992 that, “University-bashing seems to have become a favorite indoor sport, the modern academic equivalent of the anticlericalism of the eighteenth century.”ii Near my own desk are several books that illustrate the recent cottage industry of lamenting the “crisis” of higher education, and especially the humanities, bearing such titles as: Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education; Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education; The Moral Collapse of the University; In Defense of Humanism: Value in the Arts and Letters; and Higher Education in America: Killing the Spirit.iii Christian universities, too, have become fodder for this industry of educational crisis, seen in such books as: The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief; Should God Get Tenure? Essays on Religion & Higher Education; and The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education.iv And the so-called watch-dog of higher education in the US, The Chronicle of Higher Education, has continued to feed its readers of diet of crisis and drama about the state of colleges and universities for more than a decade. One recent article was entitled, “The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed. Now What?”v Ironically, one of the results of having received a genuine Liberal Arts education according to John Henry Newman is the ability to see things historically, and thus avoid the trap of getting “overly worked up” and crisis-mongering.

That said, by spending only a few minutes paging through any one of the books I just mentioned reveals how alarmed people are about the collapse of the humanities and their replacement with shoddy research and meaningless student assignments. Page Smith’s very widely read book, Higher Education: Killing the Spirit, argues that, “the vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless,” because professors and students who once read classics, and studied art and history, are now saddled with “busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.”vi Smith continues to assert: “It is dispiriting; it depresses the whole scholarly enterprise; and, most important of all, it deprives the student of what he or she deserves – the thoughtful and considerate attention of a teacher deeply and unequivocally committed to teaching; in short, it robs the student of an education.”vii I’ll now say what I suspect shall be my first truly unpopular statement tonight; among the most criticized aspects of the modern academy expressed in these books is the disordered view that students should be the first priority of a university. This is like saying that by wearing a warm coat one can force the weather to cool. Students may be why classrooms exist, but the quality of students can only be as great as the teachers who stand in those classrooms.

I spent part of my summer researching, reading, and resting at Oxford, and there is much to be said about how Oxford has succeeded at being one of our greatest universities. For several historical reasons, Oxford became the destination for many of the medieval world’s greatest thinkers, who published their ideas and the fruits of their research. As Father John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, recently said of Oxford, the university housed the best scholars, which in turn, “attracted the most talented and ambitious students.”viii As John Henry Newman rightly suggests, students should not be prioritized at a great university, but the first place at any good institution must be reserved for the professors, whose work generates a kind of intellectually and spiritually creative air that the students may breathe. In a correctly ordered university, students breathe better air precisely because their professors have been provided the context within which to produce such an atmosphere that young minds are given access to thinkers who have already been greatly formed.ix I do not say this because I am a professor who simply wants to be prioritized, but because Newman is correct. What attracted students to Oxford was not its expensive new recreation facilities or its competitive tuition, but rather the renowned reputation of its scholars. Good professors produce good students.

My point, then, before I get to the main themes of my talk, is to frame my remarks within an awareness that we do live in a time that carries great anxieties about the challenges universities now confront, and what still exists of the Liberal Arts. I’ve read many critiques of the humanities – many are written by humanities professors – and I recognize that criticism often leads to constructive change.x There are some, however, who would like to see colleges and universities disappear altogether, insisting that higher education is “overpriced and irrelevant, and that universities merely serve to guard the privileges of the privileged.”xi I will argue otherwise; I will argue that such views are motivated more by the current failures of universities to offer a genuine humanities education than what a true humanities education provides. Poignantly, it is often scientists who better understand the value of the humanities than so-called humanists. Among scientists there is a popular saying that, “Science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurus rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”

I’ll turn now to what the humanities are as they were created under the nomenclature of the Liberal Arts, and what a Liberally educated student should appear like after she or he has graduated from a Liberal Arts college or university. I shall attempt – hopefully not too late – to pour a little water over the bonfire that continues to consume the authentic humanities. If I were now sitting here in the audience, hearing this very talk, I would likely be thinking: “What is Professor Clark really talking about here? What is being said between the lines? And, does he view himself as the only enlightened member of the faculty here at Whitworth?” Let me say at the outset that I am now talking about the entire Academy, not just this institution, and that many of my remarks are collated from discussions I’ve had with my colleagues here on this campus. But even so, I graciously accept the criticisms of those here who might disagree. This talk is an example of what universities were created for – the spirited engagement of minds that work together for a better understanding of what is true and right.

What, then, are the Liberal Arts? It is a universal sense that society is improved by the education of its members; John Henry Newman admitted that a genuinely ordered education serves not only persons of a particular creed, but all of humanity. Thus, the foundations of a Liberal Arts education need not only include religious persons or religious texts. In the West, the so-called Liberal Arts education emerged as the most effective method of teaching minds how to think rationally and critically, and how to master the subjects that engender a genteel and pleasant manner that will make the graduating student a better citizen in society.

Countless colleges and universities identify themselves as “Liberal Arts” institutions, claiming that their general education courses impart this form of learning. This term is not merely a loose idea, however, that can be applied to any course of study; the Liberal Arts are a craft, not merely a general sense or ethos, which should be learned before, or in addition to non-Liberal Arts disciplines. The very concept of the Liberal Arts derives from the Medieval Christian notion of artes liberalis, which include seven areas of study. “Liber’ means “free,” or even to “make free.” The seven atres liberalis exist in vital contrast to the artes mechanicae, or courses of study pursued for practical and economic purposes. These non-Liberal Arts courses of study are the vocational arts, which have unfortunately become the mainstay of most institutions. Thus, the more a university dedicates itself to these vocational and practical arts, the further it moves away from the Liberal Arts. Let me be more clear: university courses or programs that are invented and structured to help students “get a job” are not part of the Liberal Arts. They are part of an entirely different category – they are part of the “mechanical, or vocational arts,” that should be taught apart from or after one has mastered the Liberal Arts. To be accurate, the Liberal Arts include such subjects as grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and after learning these, one begins the study of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. During the Medieval era, when the university and the Liberal Arts were invented, it was after learning these Liberal Arts that one seriously undertook what was known as the “mother of all learning” – theology.

I should pause here and acknowledge my deep sympathies for students here who are paying steep costs for their education. I imagine an institution that provides both a genuine Liberal Arts education, after which the necessary skills for gainful employment are mastered.

The title of my talk tonight is centered on what I view as the “bonfire of the humanities,” so I will now, at last, turn to Newman’s ideas of what a Liberal Arts university education is comprised of, which of course centers on what we now understand to be the humanities. Everything I say from this point will revolve around a central assertion: “Knowledge is capable of being its own end.”xii Again, whenever a university or college curriculum is structured primarily to prepare people for a particular skill or a particular employment, it is no longer a Liberal Arts institution. One of the most common complaints lobbied against a college education today is that what it teaches is “worthless if it doesn’t get you a job.” Until recently, the worth of a college education was not valued as a “preparation for employment.” Newman wrote that when one receives an authentic Liberal education, “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in … I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.”xiii Newman suggests that, “to advance to useful arts is one thing, to cultivate the mind is another.”xiv

Cicero, like John Henry Newman, understood that the common end of the Liberal Arts is the attainment of truth. Indeed, the attainment of truth is embedded in the DNA of the humanities and the Liberal Arts, and to jettison truth from the academic enterprise is to abandon the humanities and Liberal Arts altogether. Let us remember the mottos of our world’s most-respected universities, which include the Latin word veritas, or “truth”: Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, or “Light and Truth”; Harvard’s motto is simply Veritas, or “Truth”; and Oxford’s motto might seem outrageous in this secularized era, which is Dominus Illuminatio Mea, or “It is God who enlightens me.” Objective truth, as Newman describes it, is that which if, “there were no individual man in the world to know them or to talk about them, would exist still.”xv To pursue knowledge for its own sake in order to attain truth, then, is the craft of the humanities and Liberal Arts. Cicero, like Newman, would never criticize the pragmatic arts, however, nor would they scoff at what we call the “STEM” disciplines. But, the Liberal Arts are foremost inclined toward seeking knowledge with no other aim than to better know ourselves and others . . . as human beings. “After the calls and duties of our animal existence,” Cicero states, an education dedicates itself to “the search after truth.”xvi Supporting Cicero’s definition of a Liberal education, Newman attunes his attention to the term “liberal,” which “is opposed to servile; and by ‘servile work’ is understood . . . bodily labor, mechanical employment, and the like, in which the mind has little or no part.”xvii One can be assured that she or he is receiving a Liberal Arts education when her or his time is spent in leisurely study and reading; “liberal education and liberal pursuits,” Newman recalls, “are exercises of the mind, of reason, of reflection.”xviii

The insistence that an education must be merely “pragmatic” and “lead one to fruitful employment” has had a commanding influence over the Western psychology for a long time – since at least the seventeenth century, in fact. The so-called “purpose of a college education” has been discussed by two very opposing thinkers: John Locke (1632-1704) represents the view that an education’s aim must be utility, and Newman represents the view that an education’s aim is to attain knowledge, and not to acquire a mechanical skill. Locke apposed the Liberal Arts, preferring that an education be centered squarely within the domain of what he termed “useful” skills. In his essay on education, Locke wrote this of the humanities: “Reason, if consulted with, would advise, that their children’s time should be spent acquiring what might be useful to them, when they come to be men, rather than that their heads should be stuffed with a deal of trash.”xix And of the so-called “useless” training in poetry – Locke refers to this as a “pleasant air, but a barren soil.”xx The litany of denunciations against reading the classics, studying poetry, and wading through the life-changing ideas expressed in philosophy, history, and theology have continued unabated since Locke’s critique, and finally we see now an era that has become, as Newman describes, largely “condemnatory of any teaching which tends to the general cultivation of the mind.”xxi Locke’s opinion that a Liberal education is “trash” carries some currency among many people, even today.

Before I briefly outline what a Liberal Arts humanities education looks like in practice, I should note how Newman describes a Liberally educated person. This provides us with a portrait of what someone should look like when she or he receives her or his college degree. John Henry Newman describes the Liberally trained intellect as one that:

. . . cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and knows how its path lies from one point to another.xxii

In other words, a Liberal Arts education is not built upon a curriculum intended to prepare one for employment, but rather consists of an education that develops a person’s understanding of humanity and behavior as a human. It is an education that prepares one for life rather than for the details of making a living. St. Augustine (345-430) summarized this ideal when he said that, “It is the duty of a good education to arrive at wisdom,” rather than to arrive at a high salary and a large home.xxiii

Newman’s work, The Idea of a University, is a substantial tome, and it took me several months to read and digest it. I’ll now attempt to reduce what must be read in its entirety . . . to a few short lines. A Liberal Arts education includes many elements, including, as I’ve already said, grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and within these categories one would be exposed to the important study of language. But I’ll discuss only two areas of study that occupy most of Newman’s writing on what a university teaches: literature and theology. Theology is so essential to one’s learning that it permeates the entire process. I’ll begin, though, with Newman’s description of literature as a central component of the Liberal Arts. As much as I prefer the field of history before all others, I am forced by reason to prioritize literature and theology above history. One of Aristotle’s most famous lines relates to his view of literature, or poetry, as compared to history. He wrote that, “Poetry tends to speak of universals, history of particulars.”xxiv While my own discipline provides the details of what has happened in our human past, only literature can express – express is the best word to use here – what it is like to be a human being in that past. Newman puts it another way. He writes that, “Literature is to man in some sort what autobiography is to the individual; it is his life and remains.”xxv And in in another passage, he comments on the works of diverse cultures, suggesting that “on the whole, all literatures are one; they are the voices of the natural man”; that is, a collective humanity that shares the same temptations, successes, and failures, no matter which nation, tribe, or worldview she or he belongs to.xxvi As I’ve already proposed, only through the Liberal Arts, with their emphasis on literature, can we so deeply explore what it truly means to be a human being.

Making a case for theology as a necessary component of a Liberal education is perhaps more difficult in today’s academic culture. Newman, by the way, did not submit that theology be taught only at Christian institutions; he contends that theology must be taught at all institutions that claim the name “university.” Of the numerous objections petitioned against theology, perhaps the most common is that it “has nothing to do with knowledge,” since, according to post-Enlightenment sensibilities, what is presently understood to be “knowledge” can only be derived from the “evidence of our senses.”xxvii To this argument, Newman responds that in a genuine Liberal Arts education, knowledge cannot be limited only to the natural order, which is observed through the senses alone, but is completed by the supernatural order, which is comprehended through the mind. To view “knowledge” only by means of the senses is to abandon the humanities as a source for gaining it, because the heart of what humanists do is study areas beyond the capabilities of the pure senses. And furthermore, Newman challenges those who deny the place of theology at a university with the simple question: “How can we investigate any part of any order of knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order?”xxviii In this brief question, Newman challenges two assumptions of those who deny the place of religion at a university. First, since religion seeks, or claims, to understand all aspects of knowledge, then why would one wish to see such an important line of inquiry stifled? And more to the point, Newman exposes the vulgar hypocrisy of an institution calling itself a “university” that does not teach theology. To be called a “university,” by its very name – universitas – is to claim to teach universally, that is to teach and research all branches of knowledge, including theology. Few things nourish a Liberal education more than the study of theology.

I should add one last remark to my description of the kinds of areas a humanist explores – one must study widely before she or he can be considered widely educated, and to be overly laden with an education of mere details is to fail at attaining a Liberal education. Newman insists with force that: “. . . you must be above your knowledge, not under it, or it will oppress you; and the more you have of it, the greater will be the load.”xxix A Liberal Arts education teaches one how best to process, and advantage from, all one learns in college. Knowledge is a heavy burden, and as Newman says, “unless you are its master, (it) will be your tyrant.”xxx


I now approach my conclusion, and I’m conscious of those who object to my argument that the humanities have always been, and should always be, the core of any college or university. I’ve already quoted John Henry Newman’s definition of a Liberally educated person, wherein he said that such an education makes one calm, collected, and unperturbed when faced with challenges and unexpected or unwanted change. Newman said that one trained in the humanities is thus at ease in a moment of crisis, because she or he “ever knows where it stands, and knows how its path lies from one point to another.” In other words, only one who has studied the human condition, the human soul, and the human past is able to recognize that wherever we are now, we have likely been there before. We humanists, it seems, must now justify our existence by making a compelling case for the value of the Liberal Arts. In an essay recently republished in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Oxford classics professor, Justin Stover, argued provocatively that, “there is no case for the humanities” in the modern Academy, not because the humanities aren’t important, but because the way we make cases today – by means of statistics, data, and measurable outcomes – are incapable of evaluating, and supporting, what the humanities are and how they function.xxxi In fact, if a case for the humanities is demanded, the person demanding the case clearly does not understand what the Liberal Arts are.

I’ll return now to Newman’s point that the Liberally educated person cannot be perturbed. I realize with great clarity that we now exist in an era in antagonism with the humanities, but we who traverse through the precincts of academics know that trends and fads afflict the Academy with as much force as any other place in society. For nearly two centuries, the entire Western Academy admired the intellectual theories on rhetoric, logic, and pedagogy of the sixteenth-century French Huguenot, Petrus Ramus (1515-1572). Until the seventeenth century, “Ramism” had largely formed how a Liberal Arts education was imparted, but like any fad, Ramism eventually faded away to be replaced by other fads, such as Baconism and Cartesianism.xxxii The intellectual preoccupations of today will, no doubt, evaporate into new ones within a few short decades. It seems that now universities are expected to be, as Justin Stover describes, “science labs, innovation incubators, professional schools, engines of meritocracy, agents of social change, and guardians of equality.”xxxiii But as commendable as all these expectations and ambitions are, humanists apprehend that none of these is part of a Liberal Arts education. As Stover puts it, “they are tasks for high schools, research labs, institutes of technology, apprenticeship programs, activism workshops, and the like.”xxxiv While there is certainly a place for these concerns in discussions at a college or university, to be named a “Liberal Arts” institution, the humanities must remain at the very heart of what is taught and studied, and not the temporary vicissitudes of passing ideologies.

And what of our current academic landscape, which has transformed an Academy once fueled by the classical humanities into one that is now run by what Stover calls, “an economic engine,” more concerned with filling student seats than with what intellectual ideas and new publications have issued from its classrooms, libraries, and faculty offices?xxxv Fewer complaints are uttered today by professors more than those against the so-called “corporatization” of the Academy, and when the economic solvency of an institution has become the main fixation of university administrators, something is terribly amiss. But history again comforts us. When the English poet, essayist, and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), visited Scotland’s University of St. Andrews in 1773, he discovered a situation that might sound familiar to us today as many colleges and universities are closing due to insolvency. (Side note: no rational person would deny the importance of economic solvency, but would only perhaps its centrality in the context of a university.) St. Andrew’s was founded in 1413, so it is among the world’s oldest and most revered institutions, but by the time Johnson had arrived it had less than one hundred students and what had “consisted of three colleges,” was “now reduced to two.”xxxvi Johnson lamented the sight of seeing this once grand Liberal Arts university, “pining in decay and struggling for life.”xxxvii The reason for its near collapse was that a rising social attitude in Scotland had made economics more important than education, and as Johnson mourned: “It is surely not without just reproach, that a nation, of which the commerce is hourly extending, and the wealth increasing . . . while its merchants or its nobles are raising palaces, suffers its universities to moulder in dust.”xxxviii Johnson’s warning then was that when a nation’s priorities center more on profit than knowledge, its universities, and the minds of its people, will no longer profit intellectually. But Scotland’s interest in the humanities returned, and today St. Andrews is known again for the distinction of its Liberal Arts faculty, and has a total enrollment of nearly 8,000 students. All of the most famous universities in history became famous for their reputations in the Liberal Arts, and I suggest that humanists will be better served by returning to the trenches of sound teaching and publishing. As Stover puts it, “Scholarship has built institutions before and will do so again.”xxxix

I began my talk tonight with Cicero, and I shall conclude with two remarks related to C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), who in many ways served as the second muse as I contemplated what I might say of the “bonfire of the humanities” that we are now witnessing in the Academy. As you will recall, Cicero defined a successful talk as one that is truthful, pleasant, and calls us to some important action. I’ve labored to be truthful, and to argue in favor of truth throughout everything I have said; and you are the judge of whether this talk is “pleasant”; now I shall offer a modest proposal regarding how we can emerge from what I see as the vulgar professionalization of the Academy. Without the authentic Liberal Arts, centered as they are on the traditional humanities, we will remain intellectually adrift; our moorings are in what Newman has defined as a “Liberal education,” and to return there we must do what one must always do when she or he decides to return to a better place. We must simply turn again toward those moorings of the authentic Liberal Arts, and set our anchor there once again.

I was recently at Maglalen College, Oxford, where I walked through the colonnade of New Buildings, where C. S. Lewis lived while teaching there. A young man named Donald Whittle, the son of a Methodist minister, has written a delightful anecdote about his first encounter with Lewis at Magdalen after he had arrived to study there. Whittle’s father was, as many Christian parents today still are, worried that his professors and fellow students might draw him away from his religious beliefs, but when he heard that the famous Christian convert, C. S. Lewis, was at Magdalen, Donald’s Methodist father was quite relieved. His austere and teetotaler father was no doubt surprised, however, when his son recorded his first meeting with Lewis at his New Buildings residence. Young Whittle, himself a devout Christian, wrote this of that first encounter with the brilliant author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia:

I was very excited therefore to receive an invitation at the end of my first week from Lewis himself. I was asked to go to his rooms after Hall to discuss firewatching arrangements at the college. As I got near the door I could hear a certain amount of laughter and was amazed to be greeted by CSL – ruddy of complexion, smoking his Wills Gold Flake (cigarettes), in a Harris Tweed jacket, downing a pint of beer. In the corner of the room were two barrels – for beer and (hard) cider. My diary for that day records: “He offered me three glasses of beer. Jolly decent chap.” I began to realize that my picture of the world would need to be adjusted.xl

What Whittle encountered when he arrived at Oxford was not what he expected, and as he put it, “. . .my picture of the world would need to be adjusted.”

My first recommendation, then, is that the Liberal Arts ethos of expecting and embracing the unexpected is again given its rightful place in the Academy, and that one’s years at college or university are encouraged not to be merely years of “preparation for employment,” but rather years of being adjusted into a new and more refined human being. Part of the Liberal education is exposure to great minds, minds that have matured from long years – or decades – of refinement in classrooms, laboratories, and libraries. When Donald Whittle met C. S. Lewis, he entered into a relationship that only an authentic Liberal Arts university can provide – exposure to industrious, thoughtful, and ambitious scholars who model what it looks like to be an educated person.

A great university is far more valued for the intellectual conversations that occur on its campus than the information it imparts. Father Jenkins describes well what a university community of scholars and students appears like: “Objections give rise to conundrums, which through conversations and reflection, generate insights and these insights in turn generate a new, illuminating perspective on the question that had not been anticipated.”xli Jenkins’ main point here is that new insights emerge only within a community wherein people gather in the same place together – not “connected” through computers . . . places where people confront spontaneous questions asked within spontaneous discussions, questions that “had not been anticipated.” I shall state clearly now that merely entering into a relationship is not good enough for a university. A student must, as Jenkins continues, learn her or his most valuable lessons when she or he, “observes how a seasoned scholar addresses a problem, wrestles with an objection, formulates a creative solution,” for much of learning at a university is, “simply being in proximity to those who do the activity at a very high level, observing astutely and incorporating those observations into one’s practice.”xlii A Liberal Arts university was never intended to be a treadmill toward economic comfort; it is where, as Newman suggests, again, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life.”xliii

I’ll end here with one last mention of C. S. Lewis, and how I connect a line he wrote with something only the humanities can discuss with ease – beauty. Beauty is something that, like almost everything truly worthwhile in this life, cannot be measured and quantified in the way that the Academy has begun to evaluate learning. Beauty and learning are both things that are largely spoiled when we attempt to measure them; measurement almost always distracts one’s attention away from the thing being measured. I find Christmas one of the most beautiful times of the year, and it falls in the dead of winter. It is a delightful respite from the melancholies of darkness. C. S. Lewis understood the power of beauty . . . and the power of Christmas. When the kindhearted faun, Tumnus, revealed to Lucy, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that he no longer wished to turn her over to the White Witch, he confesses to her that Narnia had fallen under the witch’s power, and that, “It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”xliv A life without the beauty of Christmas, at least for me, seems unendurable. The former editor of Image, a leading journal on the topics of art and literature, Gregory Wolfe, wrote a book in 2011 that he entitled, Beauty Will Save the World.xlv I like this title very much; it is precisely the kind of assertion that a humanities person would make. Though, disagree with Wolfe’s inclusion of one word in his book title – “will.” He is correct in affirming that beauty is an ointment that cures many wounds. But, will beauty save the world? I’m not sure it will, but I’m certain that it can save the world. Humanity is now, I believe, at an important crossroad – we have encountered crossroads before – and here we are again at another one.

I would like suggest that we are now at one of the most decisive moments in our collective history; we must choose between a commitment to the unmeasurable things that bring us refinement and solace, such as beauty, or the destructive path of pure pragmatism and economics, which engender apathy and narcissism. Will we choose to support the enduring and humanizing arts of the humanities, or allow the authentic Liberal Arts to be replaced by an eternal and soul-diminishing winter? When I imagine a world without the humanities, I see a world without poetry, without dance, without art, without history, without theology, and without beauty. These are the topics of the humanities, and these are what give to us human beings the Christmas we crave in the leafless, flowerless, and dark months of winter.

I’ll quote C. S. Lewis one last time to conclude my final talk as the Lindaman Chair: “Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”


i George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (New York: Brentano’s 1903), 238.

ii Yaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 12.

iii See Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990); Charles J. Skykes, Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1988); Bruce Wilshire, The Moral Collapse of the University (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989); Richard A. Etlin, In Defense of Humanism: Value in the Arts and Letters (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and Page Smith, Higher Education in American: Killing the Spirit (London: Penguin Books, 1991).

iv See George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); David W. Gill, Ed., Should God Get Tenure? Essays on Religion & Higher Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); and Peter M. Mitchell, The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015).

v Eric Hayot, “The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed. Now What?”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 July 2018.

vi Smith, Higher Education in American, 7.

vii Smith, Higher Education in American, 7.

viii John L. Jenkins, CSC, “The Idea of a University Today,” Address Delivered at Oxford University, 12 June 2018.

ix See John Henry Newman, The Idea of the University (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999), Discourse V, Section 1.

x See for example, Justin Stover, “There Is No Case for the Humanities,

And Deep Down We Know Our Justifications for It Are Hollow, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 March 2018.

xi Jenkins, “The Idea of a University Today.”

xii Newman, The Idea of the University, 94.

xiii Newman, The Idea of the University, 93.

xiv Newman, The Idea of the University, 235.

xv Newman, The Idea of the University, 246.

xvi Quoted in Newman, The Idea of the University, 96.

xvii Newman, The Idea of the University, 98.

xviii Newman, The Idea of the University, 98.

xix John Locke, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” in The Works of John Locke in Four Volumes, Vol. III (London: H. Woodfall, et al, 1768), 55.

xx Locke, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” 109.

xxi Newman, The Idea of the University, 145.

xxii Newman, The Idea of the University, 125.

xxiii St. Augustine, The Soliloquies of Saint Augustine (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1910), 55.

xxiv Aristotle, Poetics, transl. by Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 12.

xxv Newman, The Idea of the University, 206.

xxvi Newman, The Idea of the University, 207.

xxvii See Newman, The Idea of the University, 24-25, and 30.

xxviii Newman, The Idea of the University, 25.

xxix Newman, The Idea of the University, 127.

xxx Newman, The Idea of the University, 127.

xxxi See Justin Stover, “There Is No Case for the Humanities: And Deep Down We Know Our Justifications for It Are Hollow,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 March 2018.

xxxii For more on Ramism, see Walter J. Ong, SJ, Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, from the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

xxxiii Stover, “There Is No Case for the Humanities.”

xxxiv Stover, “There Is No Case for the Humanities.”

xxxv Stover, “There Is No Case for the Humanities.”

xxxvi Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (London: A. Strahan, 1791), 9.

xxxvii Johnson, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 15.

xxxviii Johnson, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 10. Also quoted in Stover, “There Is No Case for the Humanities.”

xxxix Stover, “There Is No Case for the Humanities.”

xl Quoted in C. S. Lewis at Magdalen (Oxford: Magdalen College, 2013), 6.

xli Jenkins, “The Idea of a University Today.”

xlii Jenkins, “The Idea of a University Today.”

xliii Newman, The Idea of the University, 93.

xliv C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: The Folio Society, 1996), 24.

xlv Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014).

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.


  1. This essay is like a crocus blooming through the snow.

    God bless you Professor Clark for giving witness to the beauty of a liberal education.

    Thank you thousands-by-ten-thousands!

    And as another faithful Professor, Anthony Esolen has shared: “May we all be conformed to the beauty of Christ.”

  2. Not just winter but nuclear winter shrouds many centres of learning. Value versus Price. Tactile versus Digital. Human versus Robotic. Truth versus Indifference. To which might now add that domain of the illogical and the surreal ‘identity’.

  3. Wonderful article Dr. Clark! I’ve been trying to convince my daughter and son-in-law to send their kids to Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, California, a Catholic college that follows the tradition of Bl. John Henry Newman. From the TAC website describing its curriculum: “There are no majors, no minors, no electives, and no specializations. The four-year interdisciplinary course of study makes use of the original writings of the great philosophers, historians, mathematicians, poets, scientists, and theologians of the West. Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Euclid, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Einstein, and especially St. Thomas Aquinas are among the authors read.
    There are no textbooks. There are also no lectures in the classroom. The curriculum is a sustained conversation in the form of tutorials, seminars, and laboratories guided by tutors who assist students in the work of reading, analyzing, and evaluating these great books. Students develop the lost tools of inquiry, argument, and translation — in critically reading and analyzing texts, in mathematical demonstration, and in laboratory investigation.”

  4. Splendid! Thank you so much. May this essay be broadly circulated. I have already forwarded it to several people who will greatly appreciate its wisdom.

  5. Thank you Dr. Clark what a wonderful talk. The great Professors I had in my college days were great because of their depth and breadth of knowledge and of their insistence on personal discussions; Their siting of references for me to learn more, their sense of humor and their readiness to thank me for teaching them something new about the world made their pedagogy true dialectic and a part of who I am as a professional and person. The bad ones were so myopic, dismissive and dictatorial and lacked curiosity.

  6. Yes, but…the bonfire of the humanities is also fueled by political correctness: the race / class / gender obsession of the cultural Marxists, Critical Theory bafflegab, and the “dictatorship of relativism”. Genuine study of the classics of Western Civilization is carefully suppressed, forbidden territory for students and faculty alike. This intellectual deterioration on the part of many professors leads sensible students to avoid the humanities and concentrate on STEM fields and business. Why pay big tuition bucks for brainwashing? If humanities departments want to regain public respect, attract good students, and contribute to society, Job One is to rebuild depoliticized authentic Western Civ survey courses with a solid Great Books foundation.

  7. I am looking forward to delving later tonight into this article of which I only just read the first two paragraphs. I am already reminded of something I once learned of that I never could quite grasp. William (Bill) Weld was a very liberal governor in my state of Massachusetts and set the stage for many of the social progressive positions of the state Republican party etc. I always found it odd that this man received his A.B. in the Classics at Harvard graduating Summa Cum Laude and yet it appeared to have no affect on his belief system. I think that for some time now even liberal arts was sold as a way to proceed to a study of the law or economics without any special moral significance or advancement. Interesting Wled defeated John Silber, a Democrat who had served as Chair of a philosophy department who appeared much more conservatively inclined in social matters. Very unlikely we will again see two people trained in the classics/humanities vying against each other for a political seat.

  8. … Finally had a chance to finish reading the speech. If a serene and excellent love of wisdom (apatheia and arete) is the goal and as the psalmist says – the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom – then theology must certainly be included in the humanities. Thank you Dr. Clark for this talk – I had a major change (loss) in my life a few years ago and have been since a bit lost; and being trained in philosophy (only with an undergraduate degree) I have been feeling called lately to make this and the humanities more a part of my daily life and I gleaned from your piece a way to begin (or return to where I started out).

  9. I think it is ironic indeed that this article came out the same day the college fix by wealthy individuals came out. You know I once knew this wealthy, middle-aged individual who flaunted her Stanford diploma every chance she got, and yet at a local all-county, high school art exhibit she was so dismissive and vociferous about all the work on display declaring, “My 10 year old can draw better than this…” My wife and I tried to explain to her how to look at the art piece and the artist’s possible intent but she would have none of it, everything had to replicate nature in a STEM fashion or it was wrong. I realize she was a social studies major but I wonder if the reason she went to Stanford was for the privilege of making others feel less intelligent and if she gleaned nothing from her college education. Oh well, as stated the true purpose of a good liberal arts education is civil discussion and open minded-debate.As Pascal once stated, “Eloquence … persuades by sweetness, not by authority… Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure and that they feel themselves interested, {They in turn will be} more willingly to reflection upon it”.

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