Liberal Education Is Applied History

Elia Pellegrini/Woman with clock

In February of 1869, Charles Eliot began the final overthrow of old Harvard. That was the month he published the first of a two-part rallying cry in the pages of The Atlantic. It was the culmination of years of work, including a tour across Europe’s most prestigious educational institutions, a venture on which he had staked his inheritance. In his articles, Eliot laid out the battle plan to transform America’s elite universities from custodians of a traditional curriculum steeped in the classical languages to institutions ready to create the next generation of American scientists, industrialists, and professionals.

Eliot had not only spotted his moment, but also his audience. Only four years earlier, Harvard graduates had gained the ability to elect members to the board of overseers, a privilege once held by officials of the Massachusetts state government and by local clergy. Eliot appealed not only to the powerful business interests in which Harvard alumni were increasingly well-represented, but also to the Transcendentalist ideals of self-realization which were increasingly popular in the mid-nineteenth century. “We are fighting a wilderness, physical and moral,” he informed his readers. The time of the “dead languages” was over, and the mission of national progress had fallen to the new industries and those in them. Later that year, Eliot became the youngest president in the history of Harvard.

The triumph of Eliot’s ideas was only possible because of the much broader, societal revolution that had already begun to change the values and goals of America’s national elites. What gets taught at universities and schools will directly impact a society’s power structure. Because of this, elites who participate in governance tend to favor the intellectual fashions that preserve the interests of those in power. These ideas in turn come to dominate and shape institutions of higher education. In other words, there is always a feedback loop connecting power and education, in both good and bad regimes.

This creates something of a paradox. While there are valid critiques of America’s elite educational institutions, the feedback loop between power and education means these institutions can never lead any useful reforms of education. After all, who would implement the reforms? The same academics and administrators who created the current consensus?

In reality, education under every regime is exactly as the regime wishes it to be. Therefore, the only way to change education is to change the regime. As Charles Eliot took the reins of power at Harvard, that change in regime had already occurred with the rise of industrial interests both in government and among the alumni of Harvard. Their values had once marked them as outsiders. But on the day Eliot assumed the presidency, they gained an important victory in the institutional landscape. American education would be utterly transformed as a result.

The Evolution of Harvard

History offers many examples of educational change brought about by regime change. The structure of elite education today traces its history to roots that, in their time, showed signs of great vitality. Harvard University, for example, serves as a representative for elite education in the U.S. Harvard’s prestige is largely due to it being the oldest and richest university in the country, but also comes from its profound influence on higher education curricula in general over the last two centuries.

However difficult it may be to get into Harvard, once a student begins their studies, the coursework is often shallow and undemanding. Grade inflation is pervasive, and since one’s grades are likely to be inflated anyway, a certain verbal facility—“bullshitting”—more than suffices to pass most courses, requiring little mastery of any challenging discipline. This condition is especially dominant in those fields called the “humanities,” which bear little resemblance to the rigorous studies that went by that name before the twentieth century. The telos of the Harvard undergraduate experience is no longer the formation of character. Most students now see a degree as a ticket into the upper reaches of the professional-managerial class.

This slow erosion of the curriculum has its roots in Eliot’s reforms, which he continued to zealously implement until the end of his presidency in 1909. Eliot’s own chemistry training made him keenly aware of America’s industrialization and he wanted higher education to better align with this trend. Eliot’s partiality to the philosophy of individual self-formation went hand-in-hand with influence from the utilitarian pragmatism popular in that era. These goals led him to insist on replacing Harvard’s prescribed curriculum with a system of electives. Over the course of his long presidency, he was quite successful in fulfilling this aim. By 1900, Harvard no longer had any required courses beyond the freshman year. As scientific specialization matured, Eliot’s successors introduced the concepts of majors and distribution requirements in 1914, giving birth to the modern system of U.S. higher education.

The history of the prescribed curriculum replaced by Eliot went back generations. Students read Latin, Greek, English composition, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, and theology. The entrance exam for 1869, the year Eliot became president, began with extensive exercises in Latin and Greek composition and grammar. Then came questions on history (such as “Pericles—The Man and His Policy”) and geography (students must be able to name the sources of the world’s major rivers). Finally, the exam presented arithmetic problems and questions about logarithms, trigonometry, algebra, and plane geometry—all of which would be difficult for any modern student, even with a calculator. Other topics, like natural sciences, philosophy, and theology, presumably awaited instruction at university.

This prescribed curriculum was not unique to the elite culture of nineteenth-century New England. American elites from the previous century held it in high regard as well.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his 15-year old nephew, Peter Carr, for whose education he had assumed responsibility upon the death of Carr’s father. The letter detailed Jefferson’s expectations for the boy’s studies, carried out to prepare Carr to enter the “public stage whereon [he] may begin to be useful” and so “pursue the interests of [his] country.” Carr would go on to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates and was instrumental in the founding of the University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s first criterion for Carr was that he should “encourage all [his] virtuous dispositions…and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise as a limb of the body does.” He advised Carr to begin his studies with ancient Greece and Rome, “reading everything in the original and not in translations.” Carr’s studies were then to move on to Greek, Latin, and English poetry. In philosophy, the young man was to read Plato and Cicero. Jefferson also encouraged him to master Spanish and French: Spanish, for its practical value in the Americas, and French, because later studies in mathematics, natural science, and modern history were all to be conducted in that tongue.

In addition to bookwork, Carr was to exercise for two hours each day, not by playing ball games, “which stamp no character on the mind,” but in a more practical manner: “I advise the gun,” wrote Jefferson. Young Carr was to make his gun “the constant companion of [his] walks” while building up a high level of fitness through walking. Muskets in the 1780s generally weighed about ten pounds.

Jefferson’s ideas for the proper education of a rising elite were normal for the era. The curriculum he proposed to his nephew had its roots in the studia humanitatis, or “study of humanity,” launched by the scholar and poet Petrarch and his humanist contemporaries during the Italian Renaissance. Working in early-fourteenth century Italy and France amid decadent universities and turbulent regimes, Petrarch pursued his famous revival of classical Greco-Roman letters in culture and education both through his own writing and by creating a network of collaborators across Europe. He wanted to create a fellowship of learned men with interests spanning philosophy, literature, and politics, along with influential patrons who could fund and promote his work. Over the next century, this network connected dozens of ruling courts and universities, first in Italy, then all of Europe.

These early humanities curricula aimed to shape the character and capabilities of political and cultural elites. The intentions of the humanists very much extended to the political sphere, in that stable regimes that governed well were seen as necessary society’s highest aspirations. The humanists wanted future elites who were competent in the linguistic arts needed by rulers, diplomats, and administrators. They did not understand the practical dimension in a reductive, utilitarian sense. Rather, they understood that statecraft and the cultivation of the soul are inseparable.

For these early humanists, the true purpose of education was not the development of particular skills for commercial ends, but to nurture the virtues and build up a student’s character. Institutio, as they called this framework, gave students the moral and intellectual qualities needed to live as leading members of a polity. Practical wisdom was the essential virtue of a good education. They saw the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, especially Greek political writing, as an indispensable resource to develop such wisdom. Institutio was not simply about the individual either: they cared greatly about architecture, art, and music that could harmonize with and support a person’s moral and intellectual endeavors.

By the late fifteenth century, this profound humanities curriculum had reshaped the education of European elites in both Protestant and Catholic countries. A century later, the Jesuits adapted it into the Ratio studiorum to guide their famous schools. The logic of the humanists’ program was to reverse-engineer the mechanics of past, high-functioning eras of civilization so that the educated elites could apply those lessons in their own societies. It worked, and the social effect was comparable to the Confucian ethical revival that began in the Later Zhou dynasty and ultimately underpinned the renewed societal flourishing of the Han dynasty. Just as Confucius and his followers applied lessons from studying the social technologies of the Early Zhou, the humanists studied and applied the lessons from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the dominant Christian traditions of theology. It lasted for centuries and was later the basis for all elite educational institutions in the New World.

Applied History For a New Regime

Petrarch created a curriculum for people willing to transform society and overcome what he saw as centuries of stagnation. His program taught students to read closely, think logically, write cogently, and speak persuasively. More importantly, it created a shared frame of reference among elites by imparting a mindset that enabled them to discuss social trends beyond immediate utilitarian concerns and prepare them for coordinated action.

An important aspect of Petrarch’s approach was that he made no attempt to reform existing institutions, such as the universities. That would come decades after his movement had gained influence and prestige. Just as today, he would have been ensnared by a quagmire of interest groups, all highly resistant to reform. Instead, Petrarch focused on developing his intellectual and cultural work, both personally and with fellow travelers. More important than fixing the dysfunction around him was educating a new elite who had the character to lead future reforms. Centuries later, the early founders and institutions that inspired Eliot did the same, establishing new scientific colleges with varying degrees of independence from the established, traditional ones. We can learn a lot from this wise strategy when thinking about the problems of today’s education system. Both Petrarch’s and Eliot’s reforms were only made possible by small groups that focused on their own private goals in learning and research, and cultivated intellectual cultures very different from those around them. Broader reforms only became possible once these had reached the right degree of maturity, and had found their natural bases for both students and patrons.

In the case of the “study of humanity” and of liberal education, the ethos they developed is one that we might call applied history. It is the study of everything students need to know to alter the course of history, informed by the goal of freeing them from the constraints of established narratives so that they can act on events as agents instead.

When Petrarch forwarded his humanist project, he believed Europe was the victim of civilizational amnesia. Deeply involved in the Renaissance rebirth of classical philosophy and literature, he obsessed over the relationship between contemplation and active life. His curriculum was about teaching students how to achieve this balance, regain the lost memory of their civilization, and carry it forward to future generations. Certain skills were necessary for this process. In order to engage with the intellectual output of antiquity, students had to learn the dominant languages of that era: Latin and Greek. And to engage with their own counterparts across Europe, students also needed fluency, or at least familiarity, with the languages of their own period. The result was a renewed intellectual culture that connected scholars from London to Florence. This was the fertile ground from which the liberal curriculum of education eventually grew.

Today we face a similar challenge to Petrarch, in that our institutions are no longer appropriate guides for navigating the chaos of history. To get the best of the future, we must train new elites that can replace these failing institutions with a new regime. But the tradition of liberal education we have inherited is all but dead, and substantially obsolete in its details. We no longer expect those trained in the liberal arts as they currently exist to be prepared to seize the course of history, as the curriculum was originally designed to do.

What kind of education prepares students to take the course of history into their own hands? The historical answer was to abandon the liberal educational paradigm in favor of developing expertise in a particular field. Through the twentieth century, the humanities and the so-called STEM topics (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) drifted apart, to the point where the fields largely no longer communicate. The social sciences, ostensibly replacing the humanities as bearers of ideological legitimacy, turned out to have neither the wisdom of the humanities nor the rigor of real sciences. The social sciences could not fill the vacuum left by our neglect of a liberal education.

Charles Eliot and other defenders of the current elective model of education argued that it would allow students to cultivate their private strengths without relying on a strict curriculum. But the ultimate result of stepping back from conditioning the minds of elites was that banks, private corporations, NGOs, and other institutions eagerly stepped in to fill the vacuum. These institutions are often involved in writing the educational scripts for what constitutes a desirable degree, course, and resume. The result is that students do not actually achieve new heights of self-realization. Instead, they join the upper-middle class.

Petrarch and his successors would shake their heads in despair. They saw no difference between teaching students the tools of self-knowledge and explaining their place in society. as well as what they should do with this position. Only once the student achieved this consciousness could they go on to break the mold in their own way.

Recovering the knowledge of the past was only part of the mission Petrarch and his colleagues were pursuing. Their admiration for the ancients was not based on their ability to merely pass on prior knowledge, but on their positive achievements. Studying the past was a way to give students a sense of destiny and of their place in the world, as well as of providing examples from which to learn. But the goal of liberal education was also to supply students with psychological and spiritual autonomy. The broad membership of an elite class must have confidence in their own judgments about truth and value, instead of relying on public acclaim.

Note how different this is from trade and professional education models. These seek to teach the practical knowledge and ideology of and for the productive middle of society that operates within an established order. Elites, on the other hand, must work both inside and outside the established order as they act on history. This also puts the student in apparent tension with the liberal curriculum’s focus on inheriting the traditions of the past. Although learning from them, the best students are not those whose ultimate loyalty is to tradition as such. Instead, they are those who cultivate the personal judgment and wisdom that let them break conformity with the past and make new contributions in their own right.

The work of cultivating elites has no set curriculum—either in Petrarch’s time or in ours. It’s often tempting to wholesale reinvent the programs of the past out of a sense of admiration, like some kind of totem that could let us replicate the achievements we admire most in history. But our context is very different from Petrarch’s, or even from Eliot’s. While America has deep roots in the classical heritage that make Latin or Greek worth learning, it also inherits modernity. The historical luminaries of our society wrote philosophy in French, translated science from German, and created poetry and literature in English. Spanish, Russian, and Chinese are now the languages that let us communicate with our spheres of influence in the Americas, and with our rivals across the globe. And in addition to the great religious traditions, an expanded wealth of knowledge about human evolution and our ancient past informs our sense of destiny in new and unique ways. The liberal curriculum of our own civilization is yet to be properly laid out.

What divides the liberal curriculum—both of the past and of the future—from the program envisioned by Eliot and his successors is its belief in the value of collective historical consciousness. Instead of homogenizing students, that consciousness reinforced the cultivation of individual abilities and contributions. It also had a universalistic impulse, believing that each society had its own chance to contribute to the greater whole of human knowledge and history. But unless a society’s best minds cultivated the right learning and character among themselves and the broader population, they would squander their chance and even lose what progress their ancestors might have made.

Our society’s institutions are buckling under the weight of accumulating dysfunction, and our higher education embodies the current regime’s neuroses instead of challenging them. Materially, we have the ability to shape history in ways few past generations could have imagined. But our historical consciousness is increasingly amnesic and the twin forces of learned collective helplessness and political conflict are crippling our ideas of what is possible. Whatever merits Eliot’s regimen of self-development might once have had, its evolved form has left our best students aimless.

We aren’t yet in the period of great reforms. The feedback loop still holds: applied history will only inform higher education when it also informs a new regime. But now is the time for private networks and seed institutions. Under these circumstances, it is Petrarch’s impulse that should inspire those who exit the universities and look for a different regimen by which to cultivate their souls.

Ash Milton is Contributing Editor at Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @miltonwrites.

Stephen Pimentel is an engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area working in machine learning and data science. He previously lived in the Washington, D.C. area and worked in national security. He can be reached on Twitter at @StephenPiment.