Wonder, Courage and Toughness of Mind: A Review of John Agresto, The Death of Learning

April 2023

John Agresto, The Death of Learning. How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do About It. New York, N.Y.: Encounter Books, 2022. 239 pages including 6 appendices and index.

Liberal arts learning is dead. But was it murder, or suicide? John Agresto concludes the latter: higher education itself has killed it, in “one of the most intellectually criminal acts of the ages, the modern equivalent of burning the libraries of antiquity.”

Yet to begin with his verdict on the corpse risks distorting the generally optimistic tenor of the book. Agresto argues that liberal education can and must be resurrected, because he holds firm in his faith that “the universal desire each of us has to know” which Aristotle singled out as characteristic of the human species cannot be extinguished. We are still “souls with longing,” a yearning that burns most intensely in students of high-school age, which is why Agresto ends the book with special messages first to high-school principals and lastly to high-school seniors in search of higher education. His target readership thus unexpectedly includes what we might call the Jordan Peterson demographic: the spirited youthful souls who against all odds still yearn to know the truth of things beyond mere “opinion.”

To this end, he undertakes his own spirited—i.e. tough-minded not sentimental—defence, reminding us that “the aim of liberal education has never been softness of spirit but toughness of mind.” Few defenders are better qualified for this bracingly muscular approach: schooled in political philosophy; 11-year president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe NM (like its partner St. John’s in Annapolis MD a byword for classical Great Books education); co-founding advisor, academic dean, and chancellor of the American University in Iraq; and well-published author, he brings unusual depth to the task.

Like most books in the genre including of course Allan Bloom’s Ur-text The Closing of the American Mind, Agresto’s short, highly readable book chronicles historically the sad demise of liberal education in America, cataloguing and analyzing its causes (Part I). Here and throughout, Stanford’s dismantling of its Western Culture curriculum in 1988 is the milestone largely motivating his defence and making Stanford itself “the byword for intellectual retreat in the face of the political takeover of the life of the mind.” Part II, “Redeeming and Reconstructing Liberal Education,” is however of more urgent interest, offering both philosophical and practical remedies.

The book’s six Appendices include two controversial essays that for me capture the heart and soul of the entire book. Appendix D, “Freedom and Truth in Higher Education,” originally a review in Academic Questions of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, agrees with the authors’ diagnosis of higher ed’s “administrative asininity and meanness” in clamping down on freedom of speech but disagrees with their cure of “free speech absolutism,” arguing that “truth” not “freedom” should be education’s central aim. Further, “civility,” understood not as self-censorship but the laudable virtue of “moderation,” is central to liberal arts education’s for him crucially civilizing project. Appendix F, “The Politics of Reading,” offers a brilliantly simple primer of 10 “rules for reading” that will ensure we learn “from” instead of “about” our books: how to read with open-minded “wonder,” humility, and courage instead of through the grotesquely misnamed lenses of close-minded, arrogant “critical thinking.” “Wonder” versus “the critical stance” is the “dispute of serious consequence” we should be having about the very foundation of a true liberal education.

Throughout, Agresto’s main focus is to properly define and defend liberal education, because its “resurrection” absolutely depends on our first understanding fully “what good” such an education is and does. He has to prove its worth. Its apparent lack of “utility” in any practical or immediate way has always been the source of pragmatic, modern, materially prosperous America’s ambivalence towards it, hiving it off from “the practical, useful arts” into a special realm of its own as it never was for the American founders.

Agresto’s first task then is to take on the “soft and sentimental” would-be defenders who mistakenly insist that this very vice of “uselessness” is actually liberal education’s prime virtue. It offers “knowledge for its own sake,” claim these false defenders: proudly intellectual and academic not crassly practical and productive, it floats serenely uncorrupted by the real world of “doing” not “thinking,” of action not contemplation. Besides, the liberal arts produce “better people,” don’t they? “More sensitive, more understanding, more virtuous, more fully human”? Agresto will have none of it: “Pretentious platitudes such as these, expressed in today’s egalitarian age, are an excellent way to lose one’s audience.” Nor do the liberal arts simply offer higher skills (“clear thinking, careful reading, lucid writing”) that are “useful” for professional programs in law or medicine. Agresto deplores the streaming of students into academic vs. practical educations, arguing that at their best, these arts develop similar admirable habits of mind and character: “How about attention to detail? How about seeing the interworking of cause and effect? How about foreseeing unintended consequences or knowing that single causes can spawn multiple results? Or that one result can have multiple causes? How about order and discipline? How about knowing one’s capacities and limitations…? How about insight into the character of the world, both natural and human?”

In his definition, a liberal education is “a body of knowledge and skills that work to free our minds from being tied up with—or ‘enslaved’ to—other people’s opinions.” Everything depends on understanding the importance not so much of its skills, however, but of its substance or subject matters: “Do I want to know for myself something of the material universe? Surely the study of science in all its fields—physics, chemistry, atomic theory—will assist me. Do I long to know more about life and all living things? I should study deeply in biology, botany, genetics, evolution, and perhaps psychology. Do I want to know better how to deal with others as well as myself? Philosophy and ethics, politics and history will shed light. …Philosophy should lay out what justice or mercy or friendship or hatred is made of, or what we might see as noble…Do I need to see models of courage, treachery, magnanimity, compassion, cruelty, wise prudence, true ignorance? Here we have literature, classical studies, and history.” (Notice how foundational “longing to know” is to this entire catalogue. Unlike Allan Bloom, Agresto is too optimistic to consider even the possibility of souls without such longings. And notice that the sciences belong as a matter of course to “the liberal arts.”) A liberal education helps us move “from opinions to knowledge,” to “what might or might not be true.” It is “the seeking of knowledge about important [not ‘small’] matters through reason and reflection.”

How could the pursuit of such knowledge so obviously central to a meaningful human life have been so completely abandoned? Part I catalogues the historical causes: besides the sanctimonious “defences” of “knowledge for its own sake” that have instead alienated the general hard-working public, grad school professional research specializations have seeped down into undergraduate education, marginalizing its traditionally broad, sweeping core for narrowly specialized courses. Multiculturalism’s demand for racial, cultural, and gender “diversity” that now replaces “merit” as the goal of education; the resultant “almost unbelievable politicization of university life” at every level; the ubiquitous “denigration of the high” and “stigmatization of the ordinary”: each has its own trenchant chapter on what are now well-trodden grounds.

Now that the core mission of humanities departments has become the “critical” debunking of all such ideas as merit plus “the ordinary” as well as “the high”, “the broader culture, which had its doubts about the liberal arts even in the best of times, has now simply walked away and left the corpse to the victors.”

So, how to resurrect the eviscerated corpse? On its face, Agresto’s remedy is almost breathtakingly simple. We just need to read differently, such that we learn “from” not “about” our books. Part II gets to the philosophical heart of the matter, again, whether liberal arts education should be founded on “the delight of wondering” (shared by philosopher and poet, as Agresto quotes Aquinas on Aristotle) or on “the critical stance.” The Great Pretender on the current scene—the suicidal murderer of the liberal arts—is “critical thinking,” a term that for Agresto encompasses “historicism” as well as the race-class-gender-diversity fetishes of current ideological critique. (Like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, Agresto centrally takes on historicism throughout: while we should indeed try to “understand authors as they understood themselves,” we shouldn’t deflect our attention from their ideas to their historical circumstances as though the latter “caused” or “explain” the former. Historicism is a reductively distancing and patronizing “lens” we need to jettison because even “old” books speak to us now.) What passes for critical thinking or “criticism” is nothing but the relentlessly subversive denigration and stigmatization of all Western thought as chronicled in Part I. This “criticism” pre-emptively judges and condemns books, authors, and ideas as oppressive without any good-faith effort to understand them first, the reversal of how learning ought to be: “these evaluations, these items of critical thought, come after understanding, after reading and trying to comprehend” (my emphasis). This ultimately nihilistic “critical thinking” bears no resemblance to the truly critical thinking that liberal learning requires and fosters as exemplified in Socrates. For him, the freedom to skeptically question interlocutors and serious matters is not an expression of radical doubt but an attempt to understand fully in its complexity the matter at hand. True critical thinking “understands an author as he understands himself;” it is “analytic thinking, evaluative thinking, reason-based thinking, careful thinking, or perhaps, just simply thinking. Thinking that is clear, insightful, and even sympathetic—not suspicious or looking for ways to reject [biases and errors], but in search of what truths might be found based on reasoned argument.” Such “thoughtfulness” is indeed “the hallmark of the liberal arts.”

Only minds cleared to the extent possible of our current pseudo-philosophical “prejudices”—all our heavily theorized, politicized, reductive “lenses” or Platonic “caves” (Agresto’s metaphor) of opinions masquerading as truths—can revive the minds and thoughts of our authors. We thereby repay them “as only we can—by keeping them alive. Their bodies…may be dead, but they aren’t. And keeping the words and thoughts and works of great men and women alive is not only of the highest use for us individually and as a society but an act of repayment, of justice, to each of them.”

Regrettably, my attention to Agresto’s philosophical argument leaves me no space to discuss what many of you are probably most interested in: the practical reforms that could bring his educational reform or “resurrection” to pass. “Where Do We Go from Here?” (ch. 17) discusses curricular reforms: get rid of “theory” and secondary materials or textbooks to the extent possible for hands-on, small-group seminars always centered on a primary text such that students are not just “opining” on personal views; establish coherent “programs” not just a grab-bag of random courses. Solicit leadership from presidents, deans, provosts, alumni, trustees, “less woke” departments. Solicit donor money for targeted liberal arts programs. Look to existing Great Books courses on-line; to new initiatives like the University of Austin; to adult summer programs like those offered by St. John’s; to executive seminars abroad for businessmen. Parents and students should be skeptical of the unwarranted reputations of many colleges and universities; students should distinguish carefully between “core” and “marginal,” agenda-driven vs. disinterested courses, and not go for the easy As. (Etc.! sorry! You’ll just have to read the book.)

Most such reforms may however presuppose the great luxury of an educational system we simply do not have here in Canada: a mix of public and private, small and large colleges and universities generously endowed within America’s far more affluent and philanthropic culture. Agresto also has the luxury of ignoring our own (and possibly America’s) biggest problem: our teachers ed schools and teachers unions. They are intractably wedded to the intellectual vanity of being pedagogically hip, cool and cutting-edge in their fervently uncritical embrace of every latest iteration in the religious orthodoxy of “critical thinking” now at least 60 years old.