Compassion, Tolerance, and the Destruction of the Liberal Arts

As Black History Month begins, it is worth taking some time to look at how our culture’s nebulous but increasingly piercing cries for “tolerance” affect the liberal arts, and education as a whole.

According to an article by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Black History Month originally began as a week in February intended to honor Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, one of whom was an advocate for emancipation, one of whom used his political power to make emancipation a reality, and both of whom are said to have been born during that month. However, the week’s founder, Carter G. Woodson – an alum of the University of Chicago who earned a PhD from Harvard – intended the event to last throughout the year, particularly for students, and to celebrate blacks as a race.

While it is certainly important to recognize the morally right accomplishments of various individuals – regardless of race or sex – the singling out in today’s educational system of particular races or “genders” for elevation ultimately has the effect of persuading young Americans that their Christian, Western, and American heritages of liberty are wholly corrupted by the slavery and discrimination that have occurred in Western civilization, and that present-day Americans must atone for wrongs committed – not by themselves – but by individuals with whom they have no direct connection.

As part of this atonement, Leftists say that elements of European culture must be diminished in school curricula.

One example is this article by Jamie Utt on “10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers Bring Racism Into Our Schools.” Though full of Leftist jargon, the article (and others like it), should be read and should have its conclusions considered seriously because its author intends many people to take action based on his ideas – ideas specifically intended to change the beliefs of school-aged children.

The core of Utt’s article is about racism, but his arguments are founded on the premises that (1) teachers should be compassionate, and (2) that “racist” subjects like the liberal arts – with which Utt groups “Euro-centric,” “White,” and “Privileged” subjects – are not compassionate.

Classical educators must pay attention to these premises.


Just like Arthur Brooks’ thesis that free market economists fail to change minds because they cannot make a moral, compassionate case for the superiority of the free market, classical educators also need to arm themselves with a moral, compassionate case for the liberal arts – particularly as one of the primary arguments against the liberal arts is that they often discuss subjects which could (and in some cases should) grieve students.

But in order to make a compassionate case for the liberal arts, we need to define what “compassion” really is. (Hint: It is not always making students feel comfortable.) Compassion involves seeing the whole of the student’s situation with genuine love for the student.

The whole of any student’s situation is his whole life, not merely what he is going through today, but what he likely will go through – and the skills, thought processes, and ideas he will need to have – in the rest of his life. For example, while students should be grieved by racial slavery, they need to move beyond grief to careful study, not only of the facts of racial slavery and the attitudes of people who lived during the time of racial slavery, but also to see how racial slavery has been overcome and how other types of slavery (such as the more-obvious slavery of human trafficking and the less-obvious slavery of government control over the poor through welfare) continue.

Genuine compassion for their students requires teachers to do what is best for the students in the context of their lives. For example, is it best for students to only learn things that make them happy? Or is it best for students also to learn things that grieve them, but to move beyond their grief so that they can understand the subject and avoid repeating wrong actions through their own lives?

With this context, we can examine Utt’s article more thoroughly:

  • Utt argues that “White” teachers need to make special efforts to be appealing to their “students of color.” But is it compassionate to particularly reach out to “students of color” just because they are not “White” in an effort to make them feel particularly welcome, thus making both white and non-white students feel uncomfortable? Or shouldn’t teachers simply treat all students as valuable and welcome? Shouldn’t teachers simply treat all students with kindness, honesty, politeness, and patience? Shouldn’t teachers take all students on an individual basis as unique human beings who may have completely different interests and expectations even from those assigned to them by politically-correct authors?
  • Utt argues that discipline should be lessened so that students from violent backgrounds do not feel victimized. But is it compassionate to allow students who misbehave, particularly violently, to go unpunished? Should teachers simply chalk up behavior that threatens other students or teachers to their circumstances at home, and do nothing, because to do something might seem to imply that the misbehaving student was liable for circumstances beyond his control? Shouldn’t teachers punish misbehavior from anyone – whether or not the student comes from a “violent neighborhood” – and hope that, by setting a good example, any student who does come from difficult circumstances will learn how to behave correctly and will hopefully be able to break any cycle of crime by living virtuously?
  • Utt argues that students – not teachers – should choose curriculum to please themselves. But is it compassionate to allow students to direct curriculum choices, so that they will feel more comfortable with the subjects covered, even if the material they choose will leave them with significant gaps in their understanding, gaps which, if not filled by someone else, will direct them to make bad decisions because they are uninformed about the truth? Shouldn’t teachers instead choose a broad curriculum that will benefit all students by helping them develop not only careful reasoning skills and strong communication skills, but also a strong, correct moral standard that can guide them in decision making? Shouldn’t teachers provide students with plenty of information about both sides of controversial topics so that they can make informed decisions? Shouldn’t teachers tell students the truth – not the politically correct truth – about subjects like communism, socialism, the free market, Christianity, Islam, the American founding, and the British empire?

While for most classical educators, Utt’s arguments may seem almost laughable, we must take them seriously because they are being used to train our fellow-teachers, and they are certainly intended to fundamentally alter the thinking of today’s young people.

Classical educators must understand the problem of tolerance and the Progressive emphasis on compassion so that they can more fully defend the life-changing liberal arts.

Photo: Graffiti of “tolerance” on the bridge at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany