Strauss, Leo

Assigned: Strauss, Leo. “What Is Liberal Education?” (1100-1105). Also read the editors’ introduction (1095-1100).

“What Is Liberal Education?” (1959)

1. On 1100-01 (“Liberal education is education in culture…”), Leo Strauss’s initial definition of liberal education quickly becomes involved in an attempt to set forth and explore the meaning of the key term “culture.” How, then, does Strauss define this word, and what two difficulties soon assert themselves, according to his analysis? In particular, what great change has occurred regarding the basic meaning of “culture,” and what are the implications of that change for education and understanding?

2. On 1101-02 (“Liberal education is literate education…”), Strauss brings up the issue of democracy. How does he explore the complexities of this modern form of government, and how do its imperatives shape his further conception of liberal education’s nature and purpose? In particular, what does Strauss have against what he calls “mass culture” (1102), and how, in his view, can liberal education counteract its effects?

3. On 1102-04 (“Someone might say that this notion…”), why, according to Strauss, is it undesirable and simply impossible to reject modernity and literacy? How does he expose such fantasies as grounded in illogic and delusion? If we can’t reject literacy, how can we best use it as a vehicle for improvement—what did Socrates and Plato, in Strauss’s analysis, suggest about this question (1103-04)? Why does Strauss invoke Plato’s view of education only to declare on that basis, “From this we must draw the conclusion that we cannot be philosophers—that we cannot acquire the highest form of education (1103)? Is he suggesting something thereby about the limitations of mass education? Explain.

4. On 1104-05 (“To repeat: liberal education consists…”), Strauss again says that liberal education “consists in listening to the conversation among the greatest minds” (1104). He immediately points out, however (as earlier in his address), that the greatest minds themselves could not agree on many things, and tended necessarily to speak monologically rather than in the form of dialogue. What “facile delusions” (1104), according to Strauss, keep us from understanding these facts about the greatest minds? Since modern people insist upon judging the ancients for themselves, what burden is thereby placed upon the student who seeks genuine education?

5. On 1105 (“Liberal education, which consists in…”), Strauss offers a final vision of liberal education’s true value, and it seems to involve an assertion of the classical ideal of poise, reflective distance, aloofness from the hurly-burly of modern life. Do you believe his stance is tenable in the twenty-first century? To what extent does Strauss’s vision speak to the political and social demands on mass education that he had explored earlier in his address? Does Matthew Arnold’s articulation of the “paradox of Anglo-American Humanism” (namely, that cultural endeavors like criticism, and art itself, can only serve society by not making premature promises of utility; see Leitch 684-703) apply to Strauss’s formulation of the value of liberal education? Why or why not?

6. General question: In “What is Liberal Education?” Leo Strauss shows regard for non-Western literatures, but he says outright (twice) that there is no point in Western education making much of an effort to include non-Western texts in its curriculum. Why not? What is his main reason for making such a sweeping exclusion? How might today’s scholars in comparative literature and cultural studies respond to this Western-centric view of the college curriculum? For example, what might they say about the importance of the work of translation as something other than simple transcription? Isn’t translation of literature from one language to other languages part of the process of exchange and understanding among very different cultures? Explain the rationale for your response.

7. General question: Leo Strauss was a revered educator, but in “What is Liberal Education?” he seems intent (even in an address to graduating students) to point out the limitations of mass education. What is your own view of that modern phenomenon? Increasingly, we say that almost everyone should go to college, that a successful life all but requires it, at least for the vast majority of people (leaving aside the occasional “dropout genius” who succeeds wildly with little or no higher education). What do you think about that truism, and why? Assuming a person does go to college, what do you consider to be the ultimate value in a course of study in post-secondary education? Is it—should it be—mostly practical in the “get a job” sense, or is it a higher thing than that? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake