I was asked to deliver a few remarks in praise of Dr. Joshua Parens, former Dean of the Braniff Graduate School at the University of Dallas. I am a public school teacher who believes engaging the classics has enormous benefits. I hope I've conveyed the power of Dr. Parens' teaching below.
For me, Dr. Parens’ tenure as Dean was perfectly in line with his teaching as a professor. In both, the goal was to make manifest and celebrate the spirit of the liberal arts. That sounds like a lofty phrase, “the spirit of the liberal arts,” but it was present when he was teaching Montesquieu or Plato or advancing the cause of classical education. So what is it? Well, it’s a few things—we’re talking about a spirit, after all. But one aspect involves being in a position to reflect on the tradition. A small example: consider the modern emphasis on materialism and property rights. The emphasis means to pull us away from talk that’s so lofty it is impractical. But does it do anything else? I remember in Parens’ “Philosophy of Law” thinking through property as an alarm system for rights. Instead of saying we’re only free when we’re virtuous or perfectly moral, moderns like Machiavelli insist that we’re free when we are not subject to arbitrary control. So, for example, if a government takes away someone else’s property, it is easy to see one’s own property is next.
This kind of interpretation may seem to some a purely academic move, confined to the thinking of the classroom. But look at the habits of mind it fosters. You engage the older sources, like Machiavelli and Montesquieu. You think about who they are in dialogue with and how that dialogue would work. You begin to see how the world we live in was constructed. It wasn’t fashioned exclusively from a debate about virtues and property rights, but the theoretical and practical are no longer so distant from each other. The habits of mind for a free citizen are not far away.
The spirit of the liberal arts is ultimately about thinking for yourself. The liberal arts appreciate and cultivate tradition but are vulnerable to sloppy thinking. Sloppy thinking that takes on the mantle of tradition lends itself to mediocrity and panic. Dr. Parens’ teaching is relentless in exhorting people to be careful. I remember when he exhorted two of my fellow students to take the Platonic forms more seriously, to not dismiss them as rhetorical cover for some obscure philosophical end. I’m thinking about that a lot nowadays, as more and more people promise destruction and fail to celebrate creation or preservation. The forms add up to the world we know. Some fall in love with them because they are eternal, but what they cause, strictly speaking, is experience. It would be nice to live in a world where people felt free to express themselves, in dialogue with those who came before and those who will inherit our legacy.