Columbia professor and journalist discusses the great books with students

Mark Lilla, professor of history and politics at Columbia University and famed New York Times journalist, gave a public lecture on his recent book, The Once and Future Liberal, last Thursday as part of Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies and Tocqueville Program’s fall lecture series.  The lecture highlighted the contrast between Lilla’s renowned liberal theories on American politics and his anti-liberal stance on identity politics. Yet Lilla also delved into the liberal arts education the Friday after this event in a smaller student-led seminar.

Professor Lilla’s famous New York Times op-ed The End of Identity Liberalism, published just after last year’s November presidential elections, caused quite the stir among the liberal elite, politicians, and the media—it was unheard of and strikingly countercultural for a respected, progressive Columbia professor to critique identity politics. He views identity politics as toxic, narcissistic, and ultimately rooted in a false philosophy of the human person. His new book, in a similar vein, calls for the Democratic Party to return to a Roosevelt-era liberalism based on communal duties and citizenship in service of others and the country. In this, Lilla has already established himself as a unique type of liberal, one not often found in today’s continuously polarizing America. His view on the liberal arts, however, is one that sets him even further apart from most modern leftists.

Res Publica, an on-campus student discussion group on politics and political discourse based out of the Program of Liberal Studies and associated with the Tocqueville Program, hosted a student seminar with Professor Lilla on the purpose of a classical liberal arts education.

I wanted to organize this seminar to start conversation about Notre Dame’s current requirements and in a larger sense the academic environment of the school” said Soren Hansen, founder of Res Publica and a junior in Lewis Hall.

Professor Lilla, who teaches in Columbia’s humanities sequence, provided illuminating insights on how to work with students and the liberal arts. He described Columbia’s Literature Humanities Sequence, which serves as their core requirements. The program consists of one class that extends through sophomore year, where students remain with one teacher for the duration of the course, reading and discussing the great books of history. Professor Lilla is as strong an advocate for this Great Books program as can be found, in an age where the classics and the Western canon are under attack from various sources.

The fact that most European books were written by white men has little to do with their importance for Professor Lilla. In these works, he argues, we find common ground as humans not through one racial, gender, or sexual lense, as identity politics would suggest, but merely as people, with a universal human nature that binds all of us together across time and geography. “[Professor Lilla] gave a clear sense of education about more than facts and skills, but also the formation of the person,” said junior PLS major Jarek Jankowski.  “The best education, especially in the liberal arts, is not about ideas which are removed from everyday life. Rather, education is a communal activity, the operation of engaging real people who live real lives.”

Professor Lilla defended everything from the Iliad to Pride and Prejudice in a handout reading based on a previous lecture of his. Student participants discussed with him how his classes worked, and how he dealt with colleagues and his own students who disagreed with him. He suggested that the fact that this is a required course for Columbia freshmen is much better than if they had been allowed to choose their own core electives (as is done at Notre Dame), and that the integrated nature of the Literature Humanities sequence is what makes it so special. Several Program of Liberal Studies student participants agreed, and debated with Professor Lilla the merits of reading too many works versus spending more time going in depth through less of a quantity.

Hansen was on board with the methodology of Columbia and Professor Lilla.“By forcing students to read humanities texts in small student seminars, Columbia bonds each class together and creates a common language of deeper questions about life, success, happiness, and justice,” she told the Rover. “My hope is that the larger Notre Dame community can start to see how fragmented our undergraduate intellectual community has become, especially between colleges, and consider ways in which we can fix this culture and tackle these deeper topics together.”

John Paul Ferguson is a sophomore majoring in PLS, lives and breathes PLS, and is struggling to find friends outside of PLS. Befriend him at