In my final post of the old year, I promised that my next post would defend my claim that “however much I believe the liberals’ heart is in the right place, I believe the critiques of liberal universalism both within the academy and without hit home in some real ways, not least in terms of the self-delusion we liberals have all-too-often suffered about our own tolerance of, and even appetite for, cruelty.” Such a promised defense is only the more necessary in light of David Kretz’s response, which among many other interesting things, raises the question about whether or not a liberal arts college today, as a community, can really flourish on the basis of the same “contingent foundations” that I argue are appropriate for diverse democratic societies at large, and which David believes might (or might not) be appropriate for a community like the one at Bard College Berlin but are not for contemporary liberal democracies at large. Put another way, the most pressing question is something like this: even if it is true that something like Butler’s “contingent foundations” are right for approaching the ethical and political dilemmas of citizenship in liberal democracies that aspire to the best that remains from the tradition of liberal universalism and at the same time acknowledge the worst of that tradition, why should they be appropriate for a community of learners, who need not contingency but conviction in some stability of some kind of extra-conventional truth?

My brief answer to this challenge is to say that, as David acknowledges, there are two clear extant alternatives to my proposal for a liberal arts college curriculum based on Butler-like foundations, and I cannot sign on to either of them. On the one hand, an aggregation of learners (a college or university) can reject the traditional liberal arts curriculum altogether, or at least for the greatest part, and make undergraduate education primarily about developing competences in certain specializations that are deemed fruitful enough or to have degree programs focus on them. This, for a variety of reasons, is what has been done in Europe at virtually every institution of higher education, in universities across the globe that follow the European model, and at the vast majority of American institutions as well. Why so? Primarily for reasons having to do with norms such as “efficiency” and “productivity,” and for the greatest part with effects that are deleterious in the extreme for academic quality, as has been noted with greater frequency and urgency since the late 1990s.[1] All the same, part of the rationale for this abandonment of the classical liberal arts model for at least some of the actors involved — at a minimum a ground that leads many involved in higher education to “stay mum” about this change in the basis and the rationale of undergraduate education — has been precisely the moral dubiousness of the liberal universalism on which modern liberal arts education is based, noted in the previous posts, which was after all the fount of the “diversity debates” at our college in the first place. While I cannot countenance this possible response to the charge against liberal arts education — through its (fair, to my estimation) intertwinement with liberal universalism — I join Martha Nussbaum in saying that this charge against the liberal education in its classical articulation has merit and must be addressed, albeit not by acceding to the mainstream model that has been introduced in its stead.

What is the other path, then, that we might follow if we are convinced by the likes of Roth and Nussbaum and reject the hyperspecialization of undergraduate education? Well, for the most part, one can fight against the stream and stand up for liberal arts education, pursued (to greater or lesser degrees among these institutions based on their individual peculiarities) along the lines of its classical late 19th and early 20th century articulation. In so doing, one joins company with a handful of relatively young institutions in continental Europe — primarily in the Netherlands, actually, with a few other newbies in Germany and elsewhere, as David noted — and a somewhat more robust, if eclectic, group of colleges (mostly) and universities in the United States.[2] This, I believe, is what David is advocating: the Bard College Berlin, as a small and tightknit community of learners with a unique and integrated core curriculum at its center (and perhaps expanded somewhat from its current role in the curriculum), take up the fight for a liberal arts education predicated more or less on the curricular conservativism that this model has always embraced, even if the majority of the members of the community adopt progressive (or even radical) views in the broader conversations in which we are implicated as residents of an increasingly — and very fitfully! — multicultural European capital and citizens of our home nations, wherever on the globe those may be.

It is surely clear why I oppose the first of these two alternatives. But why, after all, do I not agree with David that the “conservatives” (like Strauss and Klein, perhaps Arendt too in the sense) are right to see a discontinuity between the foundations for citizenship in an irreversibly pluralist, liberal democracy and those for membership in a learning community focused on the liberal arts? Let me try to answer this question through what I hope to be an integral part of our unique educational experiment at Bard College Berlin, and perhaps more importantly for present purposes one which I had a hand in introducing to our shared intellectual labor. Namely, in two weeks now, the second year BA students (and a couple of other students who are enrolling for other reasons) are going to begin a required course on “Early Modern Science.” In one sense, the fact that this course has become part of our work together at the college seems perfectly in concert with the “conservative in the curriculum, progressive in political life” discontinuity that David suggests. After all, this is a course where we read a series of works in seventeenth century “science” and “philosophy of science,” with a few contextualizing texts that are as likely to come from Antiquity (like Plutarch’s Marcellus) as they are to come from our lifetimes (like Lorraine Daston’s analysis of the linguistic usage of experimentum and observatio.) (I use scare quotes to indicate that while “science” is the term we use for works like Galileo’s Discorsi and Dialogo, and “philosophy of science” for works like Descartes’s Discourse (on the Method) or Bacon’s New Organon, neither of these terms would have been used by the thinkers, naturalists, and experimenters whose works we actually read in the course.) At first glance, at least, it doesn’t get much “Great Booksier” than that.

But why do we read these works in this class? And why is this class a required class for the second semester of the second year for an undergraduate student at Bard College Berlin? Ultimately these are questions that we can only answer together, students even more so than your teachers, as the years go by — it is the fourth edition of the course that will begin in two weeks’ time. What I can say for myself, however, is that my hope in arguing that we include a class like this, and my guiding inspiration in shaping the reading list and the plan for practical sessions and off campus visits, has always featured at least one significant departure from the way these materials figure in the liberal arts education as classically practiced. [3] Namely: while, at BCB, we engage closely and carefully with these authors and their works in order to understand how they understood themselves and the natural world whose contours were changing radically over just a few generation in just the way I might recognize from my earlier experiences of “Strauss and Klein”-style liberal arts education, we also devote some time and attention (unlike those predecessors) to the institutionalization of knowledge, to the connection of these knowledge producers and artisan-theorists to political power, and to the implication of “the New Science” in colonialism and development of race theory. This attempt to integrate a “Great Books” approach to the ancients/moderns debate with a “science and society” approach to the history of science has been influential enough in the practice of this course that, along with topics such as the soul/body dichotomy in Descartes’s Discourse or the geometry of gravitational force vectors in Newton’s Principia, final essays have focused on the slave trade in connection to botanical knowledge and “the visibility of human subjects” with reference to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.

Perhaps this difference is so small as not to appear on the radar of those who might read this but haven’t spent time at the College or one like it. In the broader scheme of things, David, our difference is indeed not so great. But all the same, I will continue to invoke and try to insist on the continuity between the pedagogical choices we make in shaping and following our curriculum at the College and the ethical and political choices we make in our lives in Berlin and at “home.” Both the survival of a quality liberal arts education and the best possible legacy of that education in our imperfect but hopefully ever more perfect liberal democracies demands exactly this.

As far as I can see at least.

[1] Perhaps most roundly and deeply by Michael Roth, in Beyond the University (2015), and Martha Nussbaum, in Cultivating Humanity (1997) and Not for Profit (2010).

[2] Principally: Columbia, Yale, the University of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, and traditionally at least, the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College.

[3] And which I experienced, with great pleasure and continued appreciation, during my time as an undergraduate at Shimer College, a small liberal arts college now located in Chicago, that has had traditional ties of various kinds to the University of Chicago for over a century, and my time as a Tutor (as faculty members are called) at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD in the 2000s.