This November, political scientists will have an invaluable opportunity to undertake a case study in the effect of liberal education and liberal arts colleges on the rationality, integrity, and tone of our political discourse. I have in mind, of course, the Virginia 7th District contest between David Brat, Professor of Economics at Randolph-Macon College, and his colleague, Jack Trammell, who teaches sociology and directs the Honors Program at the same institution. If liberal education indeed has a salutary civic impact, shouldn’t it be on display over the next few months in Eric Cantor’s (soon to be) old district?
Published over a decade ago, Josiah Bunting III’s An Education for Our Time presents the plan of dying, septuagenarian billionaire John Adams, a descendant of those Adamses, for a new institution of higher learning to be built in eastern Wyoming. The broad goal is to provide a unique liberal education. In addition to studying classics, serving abroad, and mastering the outdoors, and classical and modern foreign language requirements, the College will also edify the character of its students through emulation by reading great biographies and engaging in deep historical learning that will form 1/3 of the curriculum.
There is no tuition. The school will operate as best it can free of any regulations from federal or state governments. SAT scores will not be considered for admissions. Grades will matter, but of greatest significance is character, or rather, the committees in each state that evaluate applicants will look for those young men and women who have demonstrated independence by taking risks under difficult circumstances. By this, Adams wants students who have been willing to pursue the good in the face of mockery.
“There was a palpable silence in the class,” a professor writes, “as I talked about the 620,000 people who died, the 4 million slaves who were liberated, the President (in my opinion, our best President) who gave his life for this cause” (134). He continues:
They were really feeling it now, as was I. My voice nearly cracked. M, L, L, and A were moved almost to tears; M actually had to excuse herself from the room to take a breath in the lobby. As she was leaving, P said, “This makes me so sad that they had to go through this.” Then B added, “But thank God they did.” Silent nodding throughout the room. … After something of a moment of silence, we launched into a discussion of Chesnut’s diary. I was stunned by their reaction: they loved it! … I think Chesnut’s diary satisfied some of the curiosity they had about the ‘other’ perspective on slavery, but still, they were struck by the sympathy she had for the slaves she witnessed at auction … . I was struck, over and over, about how active and imaginative their readings were: seizing on suggestive moments in the text—was she unhappy, depressed, longing for liaisons with other men, antislavery, fully on board with secession?—to offer informed (and sometimes quite provocative) readings of Chestnut’s “inner life.” I was also struck by how much sympathy the women in the class—especially the black women—had for Chesnut” (134–135).
“‘Jack,’ E asked. ‘Are we the best class you ever had?’” The professor’s written response: “They are shaping up to be” (132). His comments are all the more moving because, by this point in Earl Shorris’s The Art of Freedom, you know that the professor is working with a ragtag collection of bright and ambitious, but downtrodden, inner city adults—not clever undergraduates at an elite institution.
It all started during a golf outing on the plush courses of northern Maine (summer, I presume) among Bowdoin president Barry Mills and Thomas Klingenstein, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute, that I guess Mills would like to have back. That day at the links, or rather Mills’ public recollection of it, launched a National Association of Scholars’ 363 page study of the curriculum and education offerings of Bowdoin College.