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The Liberating Arts: In Praise of Liberal Elites

Andrew Irvine attended college at the University of Sydney and graduate school at the University of Boston. He now teaches courses in Western and comparative philosophy, theology and biblical studies. Photo courtesy of Maryville College website.

Andrew Irvine attended college at the University of Sydney and graduate school at the University of Boston. He now teaches courses in Western and comparative philosophy, theology and biblical studies. Photo courtesy of Maryville College website.

In 1822, in his Inaugural Address on the occasion of the opening of the Southern and Western Theological Seminary—what would become Maryville College – the Reverend Isaac Anderson spoke of the urgent need of Christian ministers on the then frontier. But, he cautioned, ministers’ minds needed to be “enlarged by a knowledge of grammar in general, of logic, metaphysics, natural philosophy, mathematics, natural history, and polite literature,” because “these expand the mind, give direction to its energies, and furnish it with just rules by which every subject is to be examined that is submitted to its inspection.”

Clearly, Anderson’s vision was not merely to train his graduates to do an adequate job. The curriculum Anderson crafted ranged over all the liberal arts as they were then conceived. Why? Anderson did this because he believed education had power to both awaken a desire for, and animate the achievement of, human excellence. In short, Isaac Anderson sought to educate a liberal elite: better people who could better society.

This idea, that people can be better than they are, might seem threatening. For it implies, too, that people actually might be worse than they could be. And if that is the case, then it is hardly a stretch to think that some people are better people than others.

In other words, there might be in fact an elite – not just people who think they’re better than everyone else, but people who really are better than everyone else. If you suspect you might belong with “everyone else,” then of course the idea can seem threatening.

But Anderson saw no reason in this to deny people an opportunity of self-betterment. Indeed, he worked to remove obstacles that stood in their way. For instance, as an abolitionist, Anderson didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He bonded himself to the Blount County Court in order to secure the freedom of George Erskine, whom he then boarded and educated in his home.

Erskine was licensed to preach by the Presbyterian Church in 1818, and emigrated as a missionary with his family to Liberia in 1830. The first one-hundred years of the institution Anderson founded is distinguished for its repeated stands, publicly and not without cost, against racial and other forms of discrimination and for educational opportunity to whomever sought it.

The conditions under which Anderson and his successors pursued his vision were difficult, to say the least. The challenges to the pursuit of liberal education today are hardly less difficult. Racism and other evils persist. And a spiritual laziness abroad in our culture tempts us, not to reject—that would require too much effort—but to decline even to consider that we should be better people than we currently are.

The classical complement of praise is blame, and if I would speak in praise of liberal elites, I must also speak to blame elitism. By elitism, I mean that lazy attitude just mentioned, which holds that the point of being better is to be able to look down upon those who seem by superficial measures to be worse.

Isaac Anderson was no elitist in that sense. His liberal elite would be elevated by a spirit of liberality, with overflowing generosity of care towards their fellow human beings and creatures. Lest this seem a naïve spirit, one prone to wasted effort: the critical intelligence and keen empathy cultivated by a liberal arts education would anchor this elite, so that they indeed could do good, and do it on the largest possible scale.

I think we need a liberal elite like that in our time. We can be a liberal elite like that. We can put our better selves in service to those worse off than we are. We can be, as the College’s Statement of Purpose has it, “an instrument of liberation and growth.”

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