The Magazine

Guiding the Perplexed

What a liberal arts education ought to be.

Sep 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 01 • By DIANA SCHAUB
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THE GUIDEBOOK IS A FLOURISHING GENRE. You could start with Maimonides’s twelfth-century Guide of the Perplexed and end with the 32,000 books the keyword "guide" brings up on Amazon.com.

To seek a guidebook, whether on the mystery of the divine or the mystery of the carburetor, requires awareness of one’s perplexed condition. It is, in its way, a Socratic spur. The popular series entitled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to... exaggerates the deficiencies of its purchasers. Idiots who buy guidebooks aren’t complete idiots; they at least know they don’t know.

The authors of the eight small volumes of the "ISI Guides to the Major Disciplines," published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, assume an audience not of "complete idiots" but of "students" who yearn for a liberal education and who have at least a vague sense that their yearning is not being answered by the academic institutions supposedly devoted to that high aim. The ISI guides would seem to have their genesis in the conviction that today’s pedagogy and curriculum are impoverished, but that the souls of the young remain resilient and receptive, outfitted by nature with perduring longings.

Maimonides dedicated his famous Guide to his "honored pupil Rabbi Joseph," who unfortunately could not remain by his teacher’s side. Writing in the hope of bridging the distance separating him from Rabbi Joseph (and other promising students, "however few they are"), Maimonides enjoins his pupil "to approach matters in an orderly manner" and thereby reverse the "stupefaction" caused by having "acquired some smattering of this subject from people other than myself." Since true teachers are rare (even in those places where a profession is made of teaching), there arises the makeshift solution of "distance learning."

For the ISI guides, the more modest aspiration is—as Harvey Mansfield puts it in his volume, A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy—to be "a subordinate guide, one with the office of introducing you to the true guides." For individuals still in school, the guides offer a sort of compass, enabling them to navigate even the most treacherous curriculum and locate those courses that promise better sailing. For more independent and lifelong learners (whether in school or not), they offer overviews of significant fields of study and suggest suitable readings.

Readers who take up the guides would be well advised to read the two general volumes first, before turning to the tours of specific disciplines. In A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, Father James V. Schall, S.J., writes with the sort of charming and quirky earnestness that awakens the desire for liberal learning even in those whose desire had been unfelt—and students may find it more fascinating to plunge into "Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By" than to trudge through their assigned course work.

Mark C. Henrie’s A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum remains more securely within the horizon of university offerings. Although many academic institutions have abandoned their responsibility to formulate programs of study, Henrie shows how one of the symptoms of decay—the elective system—might be self-consciously used to provide oneself with the foundations of Western civilization. He provides background briefings to help students find solid courses in a number of different departments and suggests supplemental readings that might act as a counterweight to ideologically skewed syllabi: "If you find your philosophy professor uninspiring,...you might want to talk to a classics professor or to a professor of political science who teaches ancient political theory."

Each of the six guides to a particular discipline is well done. The condescension in these essays is not the false sort manifested by lording it over the beginners, but genuine outreach. The authors’ irony, when it appears, is directed more toward their wayward peers than toward the readers and learners. "This guide is not intended for other professors," Mansfield notes, "so it is not equipped with footnotes. I have written it to tell you what I really think (up to a point)." It’s a great pleasure to observe the way in which powerful and acclaimed minds craft elementary discourses, bringing what they do and why they do it within the ken of the average eighteen-year-old.