Do the liberal arts make us free?


If you managed to crowd into the packed SB Hall multipurpose room last Thursday evening, you were treated to fine lectures delivered by our own Drs. John Norris, Jonathan Sanford, and Joshua Parens and visiting Dr. Hamza Yusuf, president and co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States.

The panelists were posed the question, “What is liberal education and how is it inflected by each of the Abrahamic religions?”

The event was convivial and cooperative; each panelist seemed to affirm the previous speaker’s storied tradition and emphasis on the future importance of liberal arts education. But there was a small hint of concern expressed implicitly and explicitly by the speakers: Liberal learning is on the decline in modern society.

“We are losing our language, and in losing our language, we are losing ourselves … Freedom, the right to life, the right to choose, good, evil, right, wrong, meaning, relativism, all of these words are profoundly vexing. Embedded in each we find whole philosophies, but the tools to penetrate those philosophies we no longer have, and even when we had them, they remained elusive but nonetheless infinitely capable of being pursued.” Yusuf said, referring to the tools of the trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric.

The trivium stems from the medieval revival of the subjects that formed the basis of education in ancient Greece and Rome. Yusuf supports this revival, saying, “knowing [the trivium] gives us a real mastery. It enables us to learn other things.”

To some extent, I share Yusuf ’s concern and admire his defense of the trivium. I, too, notice that society is mired in anti-intellectualism, avarice and indecency. I, too, believe a heightened attention to language would be a powerful remedy to these defects.

Where I deviate from Yusuf — although I may misunderstand — is two-fold: the cause that brings us to liberal learning and the end for which it is intended.

Seneca tells us that in ancient Rome, education was “liberalis,” or “fitted for freedom,” meaning designed for wealthy individuals who could study leisurely. Seneca favored a new form of education that would make students “liberalis,” free from mental constraints.

Yusuf’s notion of liberal education roughly matches Seneca’s preference. He quoted an Arab proverb that defines freedom: “A slave’s a free man when free of desire. / A free man’s a slave in passion’s fire.” In his “Metaphysics,” Aristotle says, “All men by nature desire to know.” Going to school or searching for knowledge is not a means by which we might become free, it is the express object of that freedom. When we indulge our desire to know, we invoke a uniquely human tendency, something about ourselves inalienable and intrinsically liberated.

I also contest that the end of liberal learning is the enabling of students “to learn other things.” In this view, the trivium are tools for a future to analyze legal arguments or develop marketing strategies.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.”

He describes philosophical quietism, where philosophy is therapeutic and brings to rest problems not truly problematic.

I doubt that my fellow students trudging their way through Horace’s “Odes” believe an understanding of the epexegetical infinitive is a skill needed to live well; we simply want an answer to a problem, a resolution of curiosity.

Dr. Scott Crider, the mediator of the panel, eloquently introduced Yusuf with an original poem, “between a tree and a star is the reach of hope, / resting still above a world of motion, / guiding restless stirrers, assuaging inconsolable wounds.” Why are the liberal learners of the University of Dallas restless? What are our inconsolable wounds?

To begin the panel, Norris provided a Catholic context to the discussion, quoting the Church document “Nostra Aetate”: “Human beings expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir human hearts … What finally is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come and where are we going?”

The lecture was a tour de force of learning. Clearly, Yusuf is a master of the trivium. But I wonder if endless pursuits of clarity pass by the joy of simply pondering the great questions of liberal learning, while not demanding answers.


  1. Hello,
    I was at the talk as well and I wanted to comment on this quote specifically from your article, “Going to school or searching for knowledge is not a means by which we might become free, it is the express objective of that freedom”. You stated this in response to Sh. Hamza Yusuf’s assertion that knowledge was essentially a means to an end. I agree with Sh. Hamza Yusuf that knowledge is a means to an end, to a meaningful life, meaning the path to God. In the Qur’an, the first words revealed to the Prophet Muhammad were, “1) Read in the Recite in the name of your Lord who created 2) Created man from a clinging substance 3) Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous 4) Who taught by the pen 5) Taught man that which he knew not.
    In Islam, knowledge is at the center of the human being’s existence, since to know and learn about the world is to eventually recognize and know God. Knowledge is such an important venture, that Muslims are told in a Hadith (or saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim, male or female.
    Also, as Sh. Hamza Yusuf has said in a previous lecture I listened to, related to the subject, in addition to our ability to acquire knowledge, the human also has the other aspects of our being, namely our emotions and our appetites (the two dominate ones being lust and the appetite for food). If we can get control of them, then we can live in this Earth without sowing corruption. According to the Quranic narrative, the way this is done by acquiring knowledge. This is why Sh. Hamza quoted the Arab proverb you cited. Knowledge helps free the man from his desires, which ultimately allows him to pave his way on the path to God.


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