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Activism and the Liberal Arts

On April 5, 2024, about twenty students occupied Pomona President Gabrielle Starr’s office in Alexander Hall. On April 6, 2017, exactly seven years before the final activists were released from the Claremont Jail, about 250 protestors obstructed the entrance of Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum to prevent author Heather MacDonald from speaking.

Campus protests like these are deeply American. Since the free speech movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, students have leveraged free assembly to advocate for myriad causes, resorting to civil disobedience where protected expression has failed. But might protests distract from the university’s role as a truth-seeking institution and undermine liberal education?

David Corey explains that liberal education involves the study of subjects like “history, science, physics, music, and art as ends in themselves” rather than as a means to some practical, professional, or political end. In other words, liberal education is liberal because it is freed from practical concerns.

Elizabeth Corey argues that when universities prioritize activism, they regard education as “a vehicle for the intellectual and moral transformation of society” rather than as an end in itself. At such universities, she writes, “students arrive with views already formed, ready to get the diploma that will allow them to go out and act as agents of social change.”

Two recent op-eds in The Student Life (TSL) condemn Pomona for infringing activists’ “​​right to free speech.” Beyond conflating civil disobedience and protected speech, the authors misunderstand the purpose of campus free expression. Free expression commitments are meant to promote the fearless pursuit of truth in the classroom—not to indulge megaphones and megalomania on the campus quad. For this reason, Claremont Colleges policies include content-neutral restrictions on protests that are peaceful but disruptive to the academic mission of the colleges. Moreover, walk-outs and sit-ins are not particularly educational. Regardless of the activists’ cause, demonstrations that involve skipping class or occupying educational facilities distract from liberal education.

Both TSL writers object, instead claiming that activism is essential to liberal education. They insist that liberal education is vain if classroom learning is not applied into practical action through “praxis.” But the invocation of “praxis” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the liberal arts project.

“Praxis,” originally a Greek term used by Aristotle, was co-opted by Karl Marx and later by Paulo Freire. Those who invoke praxis in relation to education reveal themselves—whether knowingly or unknowingly—as disciples of Freire. In his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes that “only men are praxis, the praxis which, as the reflection and action which truly transform reality, is the source of knowledge and creation.” Since praxis continually shapes reality and is the source of knowledge, “education is thus constantly remade in the praxis.” Under this view, education is and only ought to be a medium for actively reshaping the world.

Freire’s pedagogy aims at liberation—albeit a very different kind of liberation than the one offered by liberal education. Freire understands liberation as a continual struggle towards the removal of external limitations on human self-affirmation. According to Freire, nothing is constant except the eternal struggle for liberation. History has no final horizon, and there is no telos or final end for the human person.

David Corey writes that Paulo Freire’s model of “liberation education is rapidly replacing the older educational tradition known as liberal education.” While liberal education focuses on knowledge insofar as it is intrinsically valuable, liberation education focuses on knowledge insofar as it is instrumentally valuable in the fight for liberation. But if, as Freire admits, the Sisyphean struggle for liberation is endless, the value of knowledge can never be realized.

As such, while activism may indeed be a noble pursuit, it is a pursuit antithetical to liberal education. Liberal education and disinterested study demand a modicum of separation from the concerns of daily life. Activism renders education a mere means of prolonging the quotidian quest for political liberation.

Back in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Claremont Colleges faculty voted to cancel classes amidst escalating student protests. Harry Neumann, a philosophy professor at Scripps, continued to hold class. When a faculty member asked whether Neumann would ever close the university, Neumann replied, “when all the answers to all the important questions have been found, then it would be appropriate to close the university, and for all the people who have all the answers to all the important questions, the university is already closed.” Let us not prematurely close the university, for there is still much learning to do.


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