Conservatism and the Liberal Arts in the Twenty-First Century

While an undergrad at Eastern University, I had the great fortune of taking courses with Dr. Chris Butynskyi, professor of historiography and European intellectual history. And as a co-leader of our ISI chapter of The Montaigne Society, I was also privileged to work with Dr. Butynskyi, who serves as a faculty adviser.

I recently interviewed Dr. Butynskyi about his new book, The Inklings, the Victorians, and the Moderns: Reconciling Tradition in the Modern Age

Dr. Butynskyi’s rigorous book provides an engaging intellectual history of traditionalists, beginning in the twentieth century with figures like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, then stretching into the twenty-first century with advocates for Great Books honors colleges and classical K–12 schools and the like.

The focus of our discussion was the liberal arts and their relationship to conservatism. It took place over email. 

AB: Your book seeks to acquaint (or reacquaint) readers with seminal thinkers, ranging from Josef Pieper to Russell Kirk, who advocated for the liberal arts and who taught the classics of the Western tradition. I think our readers would be especially interested in how reading Russell Kirk has shaped you. Can you indulge us in a little personal history?

CB: My acquaintance with Russell Kirk’s writings came later in my academic career. Faulkner University’s Great Books PhD program introduced me to a number of the authors and works that shape my outlook and perspective, both as a historian and as a human being. I have the program, specifically Professors Jason Jewell and Ben Lockerd, to thank for my education in Kirk.

The first book I read was Prospects for Conservatives, and it articulates clearly a number of different ideas I discovered through the dissertation process (e.g., the permanent things). Kirk influences my pedagogy as well—namely his essays “Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer” and “Revitalized College: A Model.” I find his writing to be clear and thought provoking.

While I would not consider myself the same type of Catholic as Kirk, he challenges my perspectives in healthy and constructive ways. Aside from pedagogy, Kirk’s distinction between libertarians and conservatives opened my eyes both professionally and personally.

Along similar lines, can you tell us a little about your involvement with ISI: the annual Grove City symposium, etc., and why you are always pulling students into the reading groups?

I conduct all of my courses at Eastern in a seminar style. I have all but eliminated lectures from my courses in an attempt to give students an opportunity to engage with the texts directly.

The “reading group” model is one that poses difficulties, but I find it stimulates and engages students in a way that meets them where they are in ability and familiarity. My goal with these groups is to demystify the process and dynamic of expertise. I reinforce the notion that everyone does not comprehend at the same level and that this is acceptable. The more practice, like anything, leads to a greater level of proficiency, and hopefully pleasure in wisdom.

Given the parlance of our times, young people do not have an abundant number of productive examples in the manner of dialogue, disagreement, and discipline.

The Grove City College Intercollegiate Colloquium is something I look forward to every fall semester. Professor Andrew Mitchell does a wonderful job extending hospitality to schools and students who participate. He also creates a space for student discussions with faculty mediators. The campus is idyllic and the conversations are rich.

This is what the university is about—different people from different backgrounds who are all intellectually curious and wish to pursue wisdom. Our ISI reading group is another opportunity for students to become more familiar with the Great Conversation.

I began my relationship with ISI simply by signing a form indicating that I would serve as a faculty adviser. Since then, I’ve participated in a mini-conference on “Religion and Liberty” held at Eastern as well as other sponsored events, namely the wonderful conversations and meals I have shared with the speakers we host. My relationship with ISI has blossomed in ways I could not predict, and I hope it continues to branch out into more opportunities.

As a main reason for your own project, you write that “a necessity exists for men and women to keep the past relevant and translate it to their contemporaries—to reconcile the past with the present.” I find that conservatives often speak about preservation, but rarely about translating. Can you talk more about what this work of translation entails, and how that fits with the goal of reconciling past and present?

The idea of preservation often implies a resistance to change or progress—the desire to carry the baggage of the past into the present. In some cases, that is perfectly fine, even necessary, but I prefer to see the past and tradition in the way Kirk did: “Conservatism never is more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation” (The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot).

In both cases, translation connects the present to the past through an idiom and vernacular. It is not enough to simply preserve the past; each era has its own perspective, which affects the ideas and values that are released or maintained.

Translation is key to the creation of a common mind—one that transcends time and place. A historian needs to translate the past into the vernacular of his or her present. Lewis, Tolkien, and others translated pagan literature and the medieval mind into the twentieth century. If the translation of tradition occurs, reconciliation can begin. Since it is not a compromise between two ages, but a deeply rooted connection with life, it can continue to grow.

My concern is that too great a reliance on preservation may lead to statues and facades reminiscent of the past but no longer alive.

One of the most interesting pairings in your book is that of G.K. Chesterton and Martha Nussbaum. You write: “Chesterton and Nussbaum have different ideas on the definitions of social, political, and economic equality, but their overarching concerns align—the cultivation of imagination through a humanistic pedagogy.” Nussbaum, in advocating for cosmopolitanism, is often a boogeyman for many conservatives. Can you explain why you see Chesterton and Nussbaum as so fundamentally aligned, and also why you think this kind of alignment matters for the liberal arts and conservatism?

A line from Chesterton’s The Temple of Silence & Other Stories may be helpful here: “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”

Ideological alliances cloud the truth at times, and the discourse of wisdom should extend beyond partisan camps. It’s like Rousseau says about intellectuals—they would rather be wrong about their own ideas (knowing they are wrong) than concede that someone else is right. It is no secret that the liberal arts and conservatism are often seen as antiquated and possibly in jeopardy. In those “death throes,” proponents may view survival as the main focus, which can lead to a narrow purview.

I can see the hesitation toward Nussbaum from conservatives—her shared sentiments with John Dewey on social and education reform are progressive and secular, therefore she is the enemy. I do not see this as the most important aspect of Nussbaum’s philosophy, as she calls out feminist theorists (Judith Butler) and other postmodern figures on issues and is honest about her own personal struggles with philosophy and virtue. If the humanities and certain tenets of Western society are endangered, then one must seek alliances in the most unlikely of places—like the Elves and Dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

The quote I mentioned before from Chesterton speaks to the shared vision and concerns of both Nussbaum and Chesterton, namely the importance of free-thinking individuals steeped in the liberal arts who possess moral imagination. If we are to respond thoughtfully, we need to look for more points of reconciliation instead of division. Otherwise, we end up like Rousseau’s philosophers.

There seems to be very little benefit in that.

You note that the traditionalists you survey in your book “were often perceived as elitists because they desired a focused and accurate comprehension of especially those truths which humbled them and reminded them of their relatively small position in the grand scheme of things.” This posture of humility doesn’t seem to sit well with the “own the libs” mentality of many conservative justice warriors. Do you have any thoughts about how to steer young conservatives toward that kind of humbler, more gracious conservatism?

Our understanding of who we are needs to be more than mastery, more than activity. Conservative justice warriors and social justice warriors suffer from the same distraction—activity over contemplation.

Humility often comes from examination and reflection—something akin to Petrarch’s “Ascent of Mont Ventoux.” I would steer young conservatives away from this “own the libs” mentality and toward working on themselves in order to affect their programs, communities, and projects. They should seek to adopt a classically liberal approach and take heed from Nussbaum’s fear that we are pumping out marketplace drones concerned with capital and success at all costs, despite party affiliation.

It is important to seek out points of reconciliation because there always will be brutes on either side. This generation of young people, on either side, are raised in systems obsessed with assessments, outcomes, rubrics, and metrics. Humility and a life of the mind appears to be invisible, so measurement is difficult. How does one measure love or appreciation of wisdom or intellectual development?

While it is the harder path, and perhaps the less convincing, it carries with it a greater level of fulfillment.

You argue that the goal of the liberal arts tradition is the pairing of classical texts with “the continuity of an ever-expanding canon,” which together constitutes a great and enduring conversation. One of our shared favorite theorists, the historiographer Quentin Skinner, challenges the whole notion of intellectual genealogies that rely on a perceived (but nonexisting) historical continuity. And even in MacIntyre’s account of the virtues, he recognizes that courage means something different to Homer than it does to Aristotle, and something different to Aquinas, too. In what sense, then, is the Great Conversation enduring? Are we actually connected to the past?

You are correct about Quentin Skinner. He represents the new method influenced by postmodernism.

The more traditional method of continuity, typically, is associated with Arthur O. Lovejoy’s notion of a “great chain of being.” Essentially, ideas have ideal forms and are tapped into across the ages in different capacities. Skinner argues that meaning and context prevent this connection from occurring.

Traditionalists would argue that, indeed, Aristotle and Aquinas possess different meanings, but there are connections that transcend symbols and linguistic cues; thus, the study of a Great Conversation is made real.

If it is a living canon, the Great Conversation reconciles Skinner’s ideas of meaning and context with Lovejoy’s notion of common denominators. This is where translation becomes crucial. All we have is the past. The present is momentary, and we cannot predict or study the future. Even if we maintain the postmodern idea that the past cannot be known clearly, how else do we evaluate the mistakes of our own age?

Near the end of your book, you ask this question: Did the twentieth-century traditionalists fail? While you don’t give a definitive answer, you do write: “One could say they created a bridge between the past and present—the Old West and the Modern Age—in order to translate permanent values for all men and women in any age.” In your view, what does it mean for traditionalists to succeed? What is the vision that you have for human civilization in its twenty-first century?

There is failure and success.

Some will say that traditionalists failed because tradition, Christianity, and conservatism are no longer the primary sources of culture in the West.

This is unfair, as twentieth-century traditionalists were in the midst of a culture change that started before they were born. Given the zeitgeist of the modern scientific age, I would say they did achieve success in their creation of the bridge between past and present. Tradition, Christianity, and conservatism are all still present despite even the best efforts to move on from such influences.

The secularization thesis is called into question because of the success of bridge builders in all ages. Chesterton’s quote about Christianity rings true: “Christianity has died many times and risen again: for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave” (The Everlasting Man).

And finally, you write convincingly of “the necessity of discernment and the responsibility of the individual to yearn for knowledge and wisdom.” As a concluding note, what is your important advice for undergraduates who wish to make the most of their (hopefully liberal arts) education?

One of the initial hurdles is the justification of the cost of higher education in relation to the utility of the degree. It is hard to argue for the value of a $160,000 education of the soul and free independent thought. It is much easier to argue for an engineering degree.

I would encourage undergraduates to read articles about the value of a liberal arts degree in this age; they will find that a surprising number of businesses and industries still want liberal arts majors for a variety of reasons. I tell students that GPAs are not the most important aspect of education in the grand scheme—sorry, parents and grade hounds. Use your time wisely. Explore various interests.

To be interested in many things makes you interesting. You will connect to different people and build networks beyond what you can predict. Success is not measured by your degree or even the school that issued it. It is a cliché, but “know thyself”—capabilities and limits.

The cultivation of your mind is a lifelong endeavor that necessitates attention, nourishment, and discipline.

About the Author

Anthony Barr is a graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and a recent Fellow with the Hertog Foundation in DC. He currently lives outside Philadelphia and works as an assistant teacher at Main Line Classical Academy.

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