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    The PloughCast 49: Jenn Frey on Liberal Arts

    By Jennifer Frey, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    March 7, 2023
    • John Wilson, Jr.

      I am a retired English teacher. On my web page the last week of my last year of teaching I posted this message to my students: In closing, cultivate “personal density.” A character in Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” speaks of this, when he gives us an architect named Mondaugen, and his “Law”: Personal Density is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth “Temporal bandwidth is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar delta-t” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker is your bandwidth, the more solid is your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago . . .” ( p. 509) What Pynchon is suggesting, I think, (it is always dangerous to think you know what Pynchon is suggesting) is that the more we live in the present moment the less substance there is to us and to our thought. It is our knowledge of our past (culturally and personally) that gives us substance, that enables us to more wisely interpret the present moment. It grounds and anchors us. Knowledge of the future, or what we would like it to be, gives us focus and direction. This is the goal of education. To give us “personal bandwidth,” to give us substance. Delta-t is the difference between Universal Time and Terrestrial Time, it tells us the precise time. It answers the band Chicago’s question, “does anybody really know what time it is?” The answer is yes, Delta-t does. But our own Delta-t is our ability to know where we are in time, where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. Learning and study gives us depth and helps us find our own Delta-t. This is why our education, if we are wise, is never ending. (I am indebted to Alan Jacob’s book “Breaking Bread with Dead” for this insight, for this addition to my personal bandwidth.) This podcast expanded my Delta-T. I also think think that this podcast suggests to me these lines by T. S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

    About This Episode

    Jenn Frey discusses the value of a liberal arts education. What’s the purpose of this kind of study? For what does it liberate you, and who ought to be engaged in it?

    She and the hosts talk about the Canon Wars and the debates about what is to be included in the list of texts to be studied, and reflect on the proper skills and methods of having conversations about these works.

    Then, they discuss the recent controversy about Christopher Rufo’s appointment to the board of a small liberal arts college in Florida. What is lost when liberal arts education is politicized?

    Finally, they discuss Jenn’s new job: she’s the inaugural dean of a new “Great books” focused honors college at the University of Tulsa.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.] 

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to The PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. In this episode, a special bonus episode of the pod, we’re going to be doing something a little different - we’re having a conversation with our friend and fellow podcastress, the classicist Jenn Frey. We’ll be talking about liberal arts, classical education, the canon of great books, the struggle to maintain sanity when that canon and that kind of education are appropriated for political ends.

    We’re going to be releasing this on her pod and on ours, so that the circle of podcasting love continues.

    Jenn was until recently an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina; she’s also a faculty fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America, and a Newbigin Interfaith Fellow with The Carver Project. As of right around now, she is the inaugural Dean of a new honors college devoted to the pursuit of wisdom through the study of classical texts at the University of Tulsa. And she is the host of a podcast called Sacred and Profane Love, looking at works of literature through a theological and philosophical lens.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Hey, Jenn.

    Jenn Frey: Hey.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for coming on the podcast.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah, I’m excited to be here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All right. Sounds good. So first of all, how do you want to be introduced when we do our separate kind of recording of introductions?

    Jenn Frey: Well, however you want. I don’t care.

    You can just say I’m a podcaster. That’s all they care about. Just say my podcast.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Jenn Frey is a podcaster, and that’s all you need to know.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s the most honorable thing that she is.

    Jenn Frey: That’s right.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I was just really enjoying your Edgar Allan Poe episode, Jenn with …

    Jenn Frey: Oh, thank you. Yeah. Well, he’s just such a great guest. I mean, can you …

    Peter Mommsen: Justin E. H. Smith is fantastic, and Edgar Allan Poe, and this is maybe gets to some of the things we’re going to talk about, but you have this wonderful series of conversations on Sacred and Profane Love about different authors, Edgar Allan Poe being one that I really hadn’t kind of looked at since high school, and it seems to be a bit of a theme on your podcast of rehabilitating people that you last read in high school and kind of wrote off since then. Is that true?

    Jenn Frey: Well, I mean, sometimes I do that. Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t say it’s the theme, but because it’s kind of … my podcast is really all over the place for the simple reason that I let my guests choose their own book, and so sometimes it’s contemporary literature. Sometimes it’s weird literature that you’ve never heard of, but you should have. And sometimes it’s high school books.

    Peter Mommsen: This isn’t where we’re going to start, but it does touch on our main theme, Susannah, doesn’t it?

    Susannah Black Roberts: It does.

    Peter Mommsen: About liberal arts. Kind of, do they make sense? Why should we do them? Is there a place for them? What’s the problems with them?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Question of canon.

    Peter Mommsen: You have the list of our questions.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, yeah. What should you be reading and why pick those things, and does it matter what you read as long as you are learning to think what’s the nature of intergenerational canon discussions, and so on. And Jenn, you also have a sort of exciting new piece of news related to all this.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. This isn’t just theoretical discussion for you.

    Jenn Frey: No, it’s not. So, I’ll be the inaugural dean of a kind of classics texts or great books Honors College at the University of Tulsa starting this summer. So, I’ll be working with faculty to develop a kind of classical, or canonical, or great books or whatever you want to call it, curriculum that is focused on philosophy and literature and history, to be sure. But also I think more importantly than any discipline, because it’s not really discipline specific at all, it’s general education, is that the curriculum will be centered around questions that kind of touch at the heart of human existence. You know? So, what does it mean to be a good human being and citizen, to take a line from Socrates. Those are the big fundamental questions that a halfway decent liberal education will always be preparing students to ask themselves and answer.

    Peter Mommsen: Go ahead, Susannah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So this is actually something that you had touched on in a piece that you sent us that you had written. What is the nature, like when we say liberal education, what are you being liberated from and for, I guess, is one way to put it?

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. So some people, I would say a fair number of people today think that what a liberal education is is an education that is free from constraints and disinterested, and that’s not at all what I mean. What I mean by a liberal education is what the classic texts called a liberal education. You know, so if you go back to Aristotle and the way that he defines a liberal education as opposed to a servile education, a liberal education presupposes that the student understands that he or she is made for more than a life of work. Right? A servile education is education for work, for a trade, for a job. Well, that’s not a liberal education. A liberal education is an education that strives to cultivate the kind of inner freedom that will allow a person to live well, in the deep sense of eudemonia, or living a flourishing human life. So, that’s what I mean by a liberal education. It’s an education that aims to make a person free.

    And now you ask free from what? Well, I would say not necessarily... I would say free from the coercive pressures of systems of beliefs that maybe you feel like you can’t question. Right? So a liberal education, as I understand it, promotes the kind of healthy questioning of the beliefs that you have received from other people but are not yet yours, because you don’t actually know why you should or shouldn’t accept the belief. Right? You just know that you’ve been told to accept the belief. And maybe the belief is really good. Maybe it’s true. But you don’t know until you yourself have an account, right, that you can accept on your own terms, and that’s precisely what a truly liberal education strives to do, at least as I understand it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That seems to me to be in contrast to, I always wonder about this, something that is kind of intrinsic to the tradition itself about that has to do with child-rearing. Human beings should be formed by their parents and trained in habits of virtue that are kind of, not unquestioned, but are really ingrained in them from a young age, helping them do things like pass the marshmallow test or whatever. Like eat well and get up on time and get your homework in and, you know-

    Jenn Frey: Well, sure. I mean, but this is higher education. I mean, we assume that how to get out of bed in the morning and make yourself breakfast, right? And that you can get along with others. I mean, if you don’t have that baseline, I mean, you simply have no chance of making it in a university. I do think, and I’m on record saying, that higher education will sort of rise and fall with primary and secondary education, and I think that all the problems that we see in primary and secondary education in this country, right? I mean, that affects the university, and any university professor will tell you that. You know, when the students come in and they don’t know grammar and they can’t spell and they can’t read a text, we’re in trouble. Right? And so of course that foundation needs to be there, but I mean, we’re talking about higher education. It’s a very specific context.

    Peter Mommsen: So in that context, the vision of liberal education that you’ve just described is not exactly kind of the dominant mode that most people think about American higher education right now.

    Jenn Frey: No.

    Peter Mommsen: It seems a little untimely. Could you talk a little about that? I mean, it’s very inspiring. The University of Tulsa is beginning this new project. It just struck me how kind of against the grain of the experience of a lot of students going into higher education that I talked to. I don’t think a lot of them even are thinking in these terms when they go off to college.

    Jenn Frey: No, absolutely not. I mean, we are trained now to think even of higher education as servile education. Right? It’s education for a career, and you want to be prepared to have a good career and make a lot of money, and I think that’s not genuinely higher education. It may be higher in that the stakes are higher and the costs are certainly higher, but it’s not genuinely higher education. I think that when universities lose touch with what liberal education actually is and they become very fancy trade schools, I think that we should question that. I do question that. When the university only sees itself as producing experts rather than anyone that has a modicum of wisdom about anything. Right? When it can only produce specialists. When it cannot produce graduates who know history, for example, who...

    I mean, I think that the problems in higher education speak for themselves, and it’s very difficult to find a professor anyway who’s happy with the status quo in higher ed, or at least I find it difficult to find. I think you’ll find a lot of frustration for a variety of reasons, and I think that we need to think about what sort of graduate we’re really sending out into the world and we need to rethink general education. And of course, I’m far from alone thinking that this is a problem. There have been many, many books written about this, some of them I think are a bit more on point than others. But, I mean, we need to think about whether or not we really believe in liberal education and what that would mean.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So liberal education’s obviously, this version of liberal education, what you’ve described, this kind of sense of there being a canon of great works with obviously flexibility in it and disagreements and new additions and things going out. But that’s been itself under pretty strong critique for the last couple of years, primarily from the left. And then I think there’s also some sort of almost more interestingly disturbing, not critiques, but misuses from the right. Do you want to talk about kind of the cannon wars and that whole primarily progressive, I guess, objection to-

    Jenn Frey: Oh, sure. I mean, the canon wars are nothing new. The canon wars were raging when I entered the university in 1996, right? And I just sort of naively expected that when I went to Indiana University, which is, yeah, it’s a great university, and I ended up getting a great education, but I expected that when I took my introduction to English literature class that we would be reading Shakespeare, and I was excited, and that is not what happened at all. It was an incredibly politicized environment, and it was really clear that there was kind of a right way to think about things. You know, I entered university wanting to be a writer, wanting to study English literature, and I think it took about six weeks for me to realize, yeah, I absolutely did not belong in that world at all, and I fled to philosophy where I found a happy home.

    But the canon wars were raging then, and I was kind of thrown into the middle of it.

    So again, for me, I ended up giving myself, well, I mean, not giving myself. Obviously with the help of professors, but I sort of cobbled together my own kind of great books education, not just in philosophy, but outside of it, too. I made sure that I studied a lot of history and even some literature. I took a lot of classes in legal literature, for example, because I wanted to know my own tradition. Now, what’s the value of that? The value of that is, and I mean, here I’m kind of riffing off of Roosevelt Montás and his wonderful recent book, Rescuing Socrates. You’re in no position to criticize Western thought unless you know it, and you’re in no position to advance it unless you know it. We’ve sort of lost sight of the value of cultural memory and knowing the connection between that and self-knowledge. Right? If we really want to understand ourselves, our society, we have to understand where it’s coming from. Right?

    You have to go back to the sources, and that’s true even if you want to engage in some kind of radical critique of it. I think more broadly it’s true if you want to understand the way forward. You have to know where we’ve been. And I think that’s true, not just in the sense whether or not you’re a creator, for example, if you’re an artist or a writer or a thinker, but I think it’s also true politically. I mean, I think we suffer profoundly from a loss of historical knowledge. I mean, I have students who don’t know like really basic things about World War II. I’m not talking about nitty gritty battles or whatever, which, whatever, it’s confusing. They just don’t even know the basics. I mean, and that’s twentieth century history. It’s like they know almost nothing about the nineteenth century or the ancient world. I mean, it’s really, it’s distressing to me. And the reason they don’t know it is because they’re not being taught it, and the reason that they’re not being taught it is because it’s not on the standardized tests that have defined their education.

    Peter Mommsen: But it also seems that there’s something just in the air that sort of devalues the idea of knowing about the past, of being in part of the intergenerational conversation from the outset. I mean, I have two teenage kids going to high school. It’s a lot less obvious to them than it was to me at their age, I guess, that there would be something interesting about interacting with Socrates. You know, and there’s of course a million books about this. I mean, Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, the sort of whole idea of modernity undermining the notion that the past should have any sort of value for us today, right? That seems to really kind of just established itself as a starting assumption for a lot of kids. How do you puncture that?

    Jenn Frey: Well, I mean, I think that you have to, again, talk about, be willing to talk about the value of cultural memory, of an understanding … I mean, and maybe memory more generally. Right? Because another thing that we’ve lost, and again, this is in primary and secondary education, is the value of memorizing things, period. The value of, sort of no one in education bothers to ask the question like, what should our kids remember?

    Peter Mommsen: Because I can Google that.

    Jenn Frey: Right. Well, yeah, so there’s that. I mean, why bother to remember anything? I mean, yeah. So there’s a kind of technological, well, I mean, the computers can remember for us and we can just consult them, and there I think we might want to question the extent to which we are totally dependent on these machines. I think a lot of people haven’t totally thought that through yet. But also, I mean, when you are with yourself, that is to say when you are in periods of solitude, whether it’s forced or whether it’s chosen, either way, what do you have? Right?

    I mean, so much of yourself is your memories, and what is it that you can retrieve from yourself? Can you retrieve a great poem? Can you retrieve … what sort of knowledge do you have ready to hand where you’re not completely dependent on Google to tell you? I think that there’s this question of the loss of the value of memory, but when it comes to historical memory, and when it comes to cultural memory, again, I mean, I would connect it to having a deeper and more robust sense of self and self-knowledge. It’s like, who are you? Where do you come from? What is your tradition? And the truth is, for all of us, we are embedded in traditions. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it’s true. Nobody totally writes their own story. It’s just a lie. I mean, you don’t. And you’re also really narrowing your vision of the possibilities if all you know is what’s gone on in the past thirty years, if you know even that.

    Peter Mommsen: So I was just kind of dunking on my kids, but on the other hand, I will say in their high school, it’s the Bruderhof High School, the Mount Academy, they have a great books program, and their teacher, I thought completely over ambitiously, had them read through the entirety of The Republic at the beginning of the school year, and it was remarkable to me how quickly that book did connect with them.

    Jenn Frey: It’s a great book.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. I couldn’t believe it.

    Jenn Frey: I mean, it’s pretty amazing. It’s also really weird.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, the weirdness is what caught their imagination, and it was almost like they felt quite alienated in many ways, alienated but they wanted to sort of get in there and argue about it.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah, talk about the sex lottery. I mean, there’s a lot of wild stuff in there. I mean, one thing that’s so beautiful about the Republic is that it’s basically a text about justice. The whole thing is like, what is justice? And right away you have this dialectic that’s set up, right, where on the one hand people are like, well, no, it’s kind of all will to power. It’s might makes right. And on the other hand they’re like, no, it’s really just the only … it’s really just about kind of enforcing norms. The reason why people do just things is because they’re afraid. What are they afraid of? They’re afraid that if they don’t do the just thing or they don’t follow the law, right, that they’ll be thrown in jail or they will kind of suffer reputational harm. So, it’s those kinds of fears that keep people in line, and you need people. You need that. But that’s all that it is.

    And Socrates is sort of like, “Oh, is that all that it is?” And by the end, you know, you’re staring at the form of the good. Plato is so great, especially for younger people, because he is, I mean, let’s be honest, he’s a bit easier to read, and one reason that he’s a bit easier to read is that he has this kind of dialogue structure, and he also is willing to engage in all kinds of wacky thought experiments and draw on myth and use metaphor. And so I think he is able to meet a lot of people in a way that say like Aristotle isn’t, because Aristotle’s kind of going to stick to the arguments. You’re not going to get a lot of deep images or metaphors in Aristotle. Yeah. I mean, I think The Republic is perfectly suitable for kids in high school. I mean, they’re …

    Peter Mommsen: Which I would never have guessed, and of course you’re going to have the conversations on the ride home afterwards about Socrates’ own sex life, but I lay that aside. That’s high school. Susannah, you were going to ask a question.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I guess, so this is partly kind of talking about the way that classical education or the great books as a concept can be misused or done badly, and I think that there are a couple of in really interesting ways that that can happen, and one of them is, I think … all right. So when you first start really reading this stuff, and when you first start really reading it not in a historicist sense where it’s just like, what did Plato think? Let’s figure that out and be able to appropriately on a multiple choice quiz say Plato, let’s connect him up with the form of the good as opposed to, you know, Hegel, let’s connect him up with the thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

    Like something, when you’re actually starting to look at these questions and read these books in a way that’s not historicist, one of the things that you can happen is that you start to have this belief or idea that there’s a single teaching which Plato espoused, and everyone afterwards agreed on, and that decanting teaching into people is what we’re aimed at doing, and that just seems to me to be an inappropriate understanding of what’s going on as well.

    Jenn Frey: Can you say more about what’s inappropriate about it from your point of view?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, it seems to me that starting out from the idea that what we want to get to is … I mean, it’s not that I don’t want people to get to beholding the form of the good, because I definitely do. I mean, among other things, I’m a Christian. But I think that thinking of the tradition as something like Plato and everyone else all agreed on a specific teaching, and what we want to do is get kids on board as fast and efficiently as possible with that teaching without bringing them through the kind of conversational and disagreement and dialectical aspects of …

    Jenn Frey: Oh, OK. Yeah, yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Jenn Frey: I see where you’re going with that. OK. Yeah. So, it’s not about teaching the truth, right? I don’t even know what that would mean in the case of a genuine classical or great books education, because noticeably they disagree on a range of important things. Right? So I mean, you could just look at differences between the stoics and the Aristotelians, right? Of course, I mean, there are disagreements in Plato and Aristotle. They tend to be more metaphysical. I mean, I think Plato and Aristotle are pretty close together at the end of the day. Important differences, and Aristotle is usually correct in my humble opinion. But there are debates, right? I mean, there are just many debates about what living well amounts to within the ancient world, within these texts, and that’s all to the good from my perspective.

    So on the one hand, sort of my vision of general liberal education, and I should say that in terms of this Honors College, we’re very committed to the idea that you can walk in and chew gum at the same time, so we’re very committed to the idea that you can have and should have a general liberal arts curriculum that is integrated and unified, and also a major that you specialize in, and you can start to do specialized research. So we think these two things can coexist happily beside one another. But when it comes to general education, right, what we want isn’t to teach the truth. What we want is not to help these kids become mini ancient scholars or experts, right, ready to talk about the fine details of any given text. What we want is for our students to learn the art of dialectic, right? And that includes the cultivation of many skills, right, so how to read a text and things like that.

    But it’s aimed at something much bigger than a skill. Right? It’s aimed at being able to read a text in such a way that you can come to see what it has to say to you today, right, as someone living in the 21st century, and that you have something to say about how it bears on your life, on society, and that is something that I think involves a lot of give and take with other people and other texts. Right? So what we want is to read texts that pose certain questions to us, questions that I call dialectical, precisely because a dialectical question kind of admits of contrary answers. So it’s not like the question, what time is it? There’s just an answer there that’s true. I mean, people might give different answers, but somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong.

    But then a question like, is time linear? That’s a dialectical question. There’s not just one obvious answer there. And with dialectical questions, precisely because it admits of contrary responses, we need to go much deeper and we need to learn how to engage in a kind of dialectical inquiry and exchange, and that is a disciplined thing. That is something that you don’t know how to do prior to doing it. Right? And I don’t think that it’s just a skill, and I think that when you really and seriously and truly give yourself over to that, there is a chance actually that you will come out of it a wiser, deeper, more reflective, more self-aware person, and that’s really what we’re aiming at.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I wonder whether, so as you were talking, I was thinking, I was sort of doing the pushback, and part of the pushback would be like, well, we’re not people, at least, you know, you and I are not people who believe that there are no moral facts in a way. So in a sense, it’s not the case that like a question about how to live well has an infinite number of possible answers, all of which might be correct, or that it’s completely different than a question about like, what time is it. But I wonder whether the difference might not be in something like you can learn what time it is without yourself being transformed, but you can’t learn about what it means to live a good life just by having the information decanted into you. Like the process of learning itself changes you.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure what to say about moral facts or whether or not I believe in them. Yeah. That’s sort of like, I mean, what category do we want to place moral truths in? I don’t need to commit myself there one way or another, but I am committed to the idea that, for example, the question what is justice is a dialectical question. It just is. And there is no just fact of the matter: Well, this is what it is.

    And I don’t think that it’s a very serious liberal education to just be like, “Well, Aristotle said that justice is both a virtue and a state of affairs, and here’s how it goes, and so that’s what it is.” I mean, it’s interesting to know what Aristotle said about justice, but it just doesn’t give you very far. It just doesn’t get you very far to approach the text like that. And even if we’re just talking about a Christian context, although I’ve never taught in a Christian school, so that’s not really the context that I myself am familiar with pedagogically, I just don’t think you’re going to get very far in your own faith if you’re just like, “Well, this is what Calvin said,” or, “This is what Saint Thomas said.” Because there’s a tradition, and the truth is that that tradition develops over time and that there are tensions within that tradition, and there’s also a text, right, that all of that tradition comes out of that has notoriously been interpreted in different ways, and you have to, again, sort of enter into that dialectically.

    And I don’t think that just talking about facts is going to help you, because it’s not. It’s just not going to help you get very far. I mean, we can talk about moral truth, and of course I will make moral claims that I think are true as opposed to false. But when it comes to defending my moral beliefs, which of course I’m happy to defend, I certainly feel much more confident in what I can say about my moral beliefs now than I could have when I was fifteen. And the other thing is that, of course, my moral beliefs have changed, and all of that is the result of having had a liberal education.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. When I was talking about moral facts, I was sort of pushing back against … I was sort of saying neither of us would probably agree on the idea of a sharp fact value distinction. It’s like there’s …

    Jenn Frey: Oh, right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look, I’m happy to talk about natural law or whatever, but for the purposes of thinking about a liberal education, I mean, it’s just, in my opinion, much broader than that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You can’t just approach it as decanting a set of … you can’t be a manualist about it.

    Jenn Frey: That’s definitely true. Right. It’s about, I mean, if we want to get down to it, in a way it’s about a kind of encounter, and not just an encounter with a text, although it certainly involves that, but it’s an encounter with other people who are approaching that text in a similar spirit, and that in the best possible case, have a common goal. Right? I mean, I think that liberal learning only works well when everyone recognizes that they have a common goal in reading these texts and in talking about these texts together. And what’s the goal, right? Well, the goal is to try to gain some wisdom, right, or to have some universal knowledge. And again, that goes beyond mere facts. It goes way beyond them.

    Peter Mommsen: So as we think about, as you think about taking on this new role of a dean of the Honors College at University of Tulsa, who is this liberal education for? Who’s it good for?

    Jenn Frey: Well, I mean, it’s good for the human being and the citizen.

    Peter Mommsen: So all of them? I mean, ideally, should everybody be getting a liberal education?

    Jenn Frey: Oh, I see what you’re asking. Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, part of me feels like it depends on what you mean, right, when you say that. Should everybody go to university? No, I don’t believe that.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, in the sense your podcast or a magazine like Plough is dedicated to the same questions that we began with, right? These fundamental questions about what makes a good life, what makes a good human society. Right? That’s what our magazine is about. I don’t expect people to have a certain amount of degrees in order to be interested in those questions.

    Jenn Frey: Right, so …

    Peter Mommsen: And we don’t expect you to avoid trade school. You may be a great welder and still love to read Dostoyevsky. I mean, I learned about Dostoyevsky from a guy who was a really great leather worker as a teenager.

    Jenn Frey: Right. Yeah. So I certainly don’t want to be a gatekeeper. I certainly don’t want to say the only way to study this is in my Honors College or in something similar. I don’t want to say that at all. I mean, I’ve devoted a lot of time, my personal time to trying to make liberal learning freely available, and I’m going to continue to do that. But in terms of what’s taking place in the Honors College at the University of Tulsa, that’s going to be something above and beyond that. I mean, I think that liberal-

    Peter Mommsen: I’ll make my question more precise. There’s a number of students who will be considering, should I do this kind of scary liberal education thing that seems a little bit against the flow of my fellow classmates who are learning useful things, like how to be a physical therapist or accountant, and there’s parents wondering whether this is a good use of their tuition money. So, how do you talk about those sort of real world concerns? And that’s what I mean partly by who’s this good for?

    Jenn Frey: Well, I mean, as I said earlier, we expect to have most of our students majoring in whatever they want, so they can major in physical therapy or accounting. I mean, I certainly have lots of students like that now, so some of my best philosophy students are philosophy minors. What are their majors? International business, accounting, et cetera. I mean, that’s not a new thing. And like I said, in the Honors College, we definitely believe that you can walk and chew gum at the same time, and so we think, yeah, if you want to have a specialized practical major, that’s awesome, but you will only be in the Honors College if you value a general liberal arts education, because otherwise you’d be … like why would you come?

    Peter Mommsen: Right. It’s not like …

    Jenn Frey: And this idea that students don’t want it, it’s just not true. It’s not true. People keep saying it, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s not true. They love this stuff. I mean, at least a large number of them do. And for the students that don’t, again, that’s completely fine. The Honors College is intentionally a small, intentional community.

    You don’t have to come in. But the thing is, you shouldn’t come in if all you want is another credential, because it’s not that. It’s a much more serious thing. It’s not another bell and whistle. It’s not another feather in the cap.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s no social points for a hanging out at Plato’s Academy.

    Jenn Frey: That’s right. But at the same time, I mean, I think it’s going to be a blast. I mean, I have so much fun in my job, and you can talk to my students and you can just ask them whether or not they’re enjoying it, and I feel really confident in how they’re going to respond.

    Peter Mommsen: What’s your favorite? Do you have one? Do you have a favorite kind of starter text? Like these students coming in, they’re inspired, they want to be part of this community of learning, of discovering what the good life is. What would you point them to first and why?

    Jenn Frey: I’m not sure that I have a favorite starter text. Because the thing is, the texts themselves aren’t magical. Right? I think the texts are great, obviously, but it’s not … a text is, a book is a book, right, and the book is only… I mean, the book’s value is deeply connected to what we can make of it. Right? So for example, if you told me about this book that was so great but I couldn’t read it for a variety of reasons and I couldn’t talk to anybody about it, then it doesn’t have any value for me, right? And so again, it’s about what’s the right environment for encounter? That’s what I’m focused on. I’m not focused on any one text, and I’m actually quite flexible within a kind of canonical structure. So I’m not like, “It’s got to be this,” or, “We absolutely have to read that.”

    That’s not my approach. I’d be really sad, for example, if some books were left out. But I mean, the thing is with curriculum, you always have to make hard choices, and there’s such a wealth of variety of classical text curriculum, all of which work beautifully even though they’re different texts. And so I can’t say that I have a favorite starter text, and it partly has to do with my personality because I’m just always wanting to do something new, which makes my life more difficult. Most professors, they’ll just teach the same class every year because they’ve got it ready. I just can’t. I’m like constitutively incapable of doing this. So every year I’m like, “Well, I got to do something different,” and my husband just rolls his eyes at me and just prints out the same syllabus. He’s like, “Whatever.”

    Peter Mommsen: It was good for the last batch.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. He’s like, “It works. It’s fine.” So anyway, I believe in a canon, but I think the canon is quite large and capacious. Within the canon, there’s so much, and I also think the canon should always be revisited and expanded. It’s not set in stone. It was not given to us by some holy figure. It’s always in some sense up for grabs, but there has to be something, right, that we all kind of more or less recognize as tradition, and then within that, there’s just such a wealth of variety and beauty and wonder. I mean, just get creative. That’s what I try to do. But I do think, in terms of the Honors College, we do want to cultivate an environment where the students are by and large kind of reading the same thing. Why? Because we want to create an intellectual community. Right? We want them to, in their spare time, in their everyday interactions, to be able to talk to one another about this stuff. The classroom we want to be special, but the experience, we want to go well beyond the classroom and into the community at large.

    Peter Mommsen: So Jenn, in recent weeks, not only you had this exciting announcement about this Great Books program at the University of Tulsa, there was also quite a bit of news about Christopher Rufo taking on a position at the University of Florida, which was also framed in terms of a renewed commitment to the Great Books. Is there something fundamentally about the Great Book’s approach that kind of commits you to the Rufo scorched earth sort of partisan political take on education?

    Jenn Frey: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not, and I certainly hope that this kind of education doesn’t get branded in one way politically, because it’s just the exact opposite of what a real liberal education is meant to do. A real liberal education is not indoctrination into any kind of politics. It just isn’t. And also, a liberal education doesn’t involve censorship, and Chris Rufo is very committed to censorship. He is very committed to shutting down scholars that have theories that he doesn’t like, and I want to have nothing to do with that. Absolutely nothing to do with that. I’ve made my entire life in the academy, and I would never tell another scholar that they can’t teach their book or they can’t talk about Marx or whatever. I mean, Marx is going to be part of our curriculum at Tulsa.

    Peter Mommsen: It would be a kind of impoverished canon without at least a little bit of Marx.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Jenn Frey: I mean, it would be crazy. It would be crazy. And that idea that we’re going to pick and choose based on politics, again, it’s not what we’re interested in doing. What we’re interested in doing is something that I think, well, I wouldn’t want to speak for Chris Rufo, so I won’t, but what we are interested in doing is creating an environment where people with very different backgrounds and experiences and commitments, political, religious, and moral, can come together in a community and work for a common good. What’s the common good? Namely helping one another to understand and encounter this tradition and to try to grow in wisdom. Right?

    We don’t anticipate, and it would frankly be a little bit weird if on the other end of this sort of education, everyone came out with the same beliefs. That’s not what we’re … or the same politics, right, or the same religion. That’s not what we are holding out hope for or the promise of. What we’re holding out hope for, the promise of, is a kind of transformational intellectual experience, the kind that I had, the kind that changed my life, and the kind that so many of my closest friends have had, and that have changed their lives, and the kinds of encounters that we know so many historical figures have had and have written about. Right?

    And the truth is, on both sides politically, people have given up on the idea of having these sorts of communities. And they’ve given up, I think, on real liberal learning. I mean, that’s the real kind of radical thing that we’re trying to do is that we are trying to create a space where people are allowed to disagree and to think together and to try to make progress where there’s no assumption, right, that they’re going to come out agreeing. But it’s also not just debate. It’s not about scoring points. It’s not about winning. It’s not about competition at all. Right? Wisdom’s not a competitive good. If I get a little bit wiser, there’s not less wisdom for you. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And so it’s just a different environment that we’re going to strive to create. I certainly believe that it’s possible, but it’s going to take people being invested in it, and that means not being partisan. That means not seeing this other person who isn’t a Platonist, but is a Marxist. Not seeing that person as your enemy, as someone that you have to own. Right? It’s not about owning anybody. It’s not about gaining political power. That’s not what we’re about.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It does seem like the politicization of the Great Books approach or of liberal learning, it’s making it into another kind of servile art. It’s making it into something that serves an end beyond itself, even though that end, yeah.,

    Peter Mommsen: Well, is fundamentally illiberal, right?

    Jenn Frey : Yeah, I agree with both of those things. I think it instrumentalizes something that’s supposed to be good in itself, and it divides people for the sake of conquering, and I don’t want to divide people who are divided enough. I want to create a space where you can have real honest community. I mean, I’m just fundamentally committed to that, and I absolutely believe it’s possible, and I’m very hopeful about it.

    Peter Mommsen: Which books would you recommend to our listeners, Jenn, to kind of delve farther under these themes? I know you mentioned Roosevelt Montás’ beautiful book.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. You know what I’m going to say. It’s Zena Hitz’ Lost In Thought.

    Peter Mommsen: There you’re not surprising me.

    Jenn Frey: I’m just so predictable. It’s such a beautiful book. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful, and more people should read it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I feel like it might be the book that comes up most … well, like the contemporary book that comes up most frequently on both the podcast and in people’s essays for …

    Peter Mommsen: This seems to be …

    Jenn Frey: Zena’s like one of my heroes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Definitely a Plough sweet spot.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. She’s fantastic. I mean, we can ...

    Peter Mommsen: So Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought and Rescuing Socrates by Roosevelt Montás. We’ll drop those into the show notes.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Are there any older books that you kind of turn to orientate people to sort of cultivate the right attitudes to pursuing a liberal education?

    Jenn Frey: I mean, there are books that really influenced me, but I think they’re not totally unproblematic. So for example, there’s the very famous book by the Dominican A. G. Is it A. G. Sertillanges?

    Susannah Black Roberts: A. G. Sertillanges. Yeah.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. I never quite am confident on pronouncing his name. That book was really formative for me, but it also has all this stuff about how you need a woman like cleaning your clothes and taking care of you so you can read more.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The Intellectual Life by A. G. Sertillanges. I’m looking at it right now, actually.

    Jenn Frey: And that’s like a little annoying.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can I throw out, what about Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper?

    Jenn Frey: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Sorry. I mean, that that book is just maybe perfect.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Jenn Frey: I have no qualms with it whatsoever.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And there’s nothing about needing women to do your cleaning, or whatever. Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Needing that, yeah.

    Jenn Frey: Yes, thank you for giving me a better answer.

    Peter Mommsen: Lines I will not try on my wife.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Hey, Wilma, guess what A. G. Sertillanges says?

    Jenn Frey: Make me a sandwich so I can finish this Augustine. Yeah. No. Husbands don’t say that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All one needs to contemplate …

    Peter Mommsen: I’d be sleeping on the couch for a week.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All one needs contemplate is a sandwich of one’s own.

    Jenn Frey: That’s right.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, all the best for this, Jenn. This sounds extremely exciting and absolutely is part of what we hope to support and be about as a magazine and as a podcast. Listeners, definitely check out Jenn’s podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, where you will rediscover or discover the first time some really great works of literature with some fascinating guests. Karen Swallow Prior, friend of the pod and a Plough author is one. Zena Hitz, we mentioned. Your own husband, Christopher Frey, and many more. So, it’s a great podcast. I love the Cornell West one on James Baldwin, as well.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah, that was a banger. That was a good one.

    Peter Mommsen: My old professor.

    Jenn Frey: Yeah. Yeah. And I have a recent one with Dana Gioia that I also think is pretty wonderful on Baudelaire.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Nice. Alrighty. Well, thank you so much, Jenn. This was …

    Jenn Frey: Yeah, thanks for having me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … a lot of fun.

    Peter Mommsen: Thanks so much, Jenn. Good, great talking.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Our next episode will be the first of our new series, linked to our Pain and Passion issue, and in it, Pete and I will be inviting on to the pod an imaginary special guest: C. S. Lewis.

    Contributed By Jennifer Frey Jennifer Frey

    Jennifer A. Frey is associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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