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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar

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In Defense of the Liberal Arts

America Goes to College: Political Theory for the Liberal Arts
John Seery
State University of New York Press, 2002 • 246 pages • $65.50, $21.95.

John Seery’s book America Goes to College: Political Theory for the Liberal Arts is a very important book. The book itself, and especially the final essay called America Goes to College, is a powerful defense of the liberal arts college, especially the classrooms within, as places still open for serious discourse, ideally discourse that addresses the most vital issues of the human condition.

In effect, the classrooms of liberal arts colleges, where learning comes from discussion much more than from the top down dissemination of information by lectures, serve as public space or democratic town hall meetings where young men and women discuss the good life and its most pressing problems. This is also a model essay for Professor Seery who writes so clearly, in a time when obscurity and jargon often count for profundity.

One of Professor Seery’s most important points is that a professor at a liberal arts college cannot be only a specialist. Moreover, the political theorist, perhaps more than any other professor at a small college, finds himself or herself teaching Homer and Virgil and Michelangelo and Galileo and Balzac and Flaubert and maybe even The Bhagavad Gita as well as the Analects of Confucius. This is, of course, one reason that teaching political theory is such an enjoyable job. If our students have the challenge and satisfaction of broad learning, then shouldn’t professors as well?

One challenge for a professor at a liberal arts college has to do with overcoming a certain prejudice from outsiders. Many university scholars, Professor Seery notes, look down on their college counterparts. While college professors are rightly expected to be excellent teachers, we are also asked to publish books with the best presses and articles in the best journals. And yet all too often anonymous reviewers sneer at books and articles submitted by mere college professors. This is a sad but accurate commentary on the elitism of many at research universities.

Seery also correctly observes that a certain class snobbishness of the East Coast makes West Coast liberal arts colleges special places, genuine treasures. At Pomona, he has found one of the best.

—Roger Boesche is Professor of Politics and The Arthur G. Coons Professor of the History of Ideas at Occidental College. He also teaches political theory.