“Truths would you teach, or save a sinking land?
All fear, none aid you, and few understand.”

—Alexander Pope

Poet, critic, and teacher Marion Montgomery is known to have taken a fortnight’s break from a book project in order to write another book! Ever since coming out a few years ago with the Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age, his landmark trilogy tracing the origin of our present malaises through literature, history, philosophy, theology, and ancillary fields, the pace of this man’s work has only accelerated. It seems just yesterday that Montgomery published The Trouble with You Innerleckchuls, which followed hard on the heels of Possum, and Other Receits for the Recovery of “Southern” Being, which followed . . . well, you get the point. All the same, I was startled to receive copies of the new titles named above—in the same week.

Of course, though, it is Montgomery’s habit of achieving bedrock penetration, along with stylistic finish, in one rapidly composed volume after another that sets him apart as such an important writer and critical thinker. That plus the good will, good humor, and good principles characteristically shining through his pages. Marion Montgomery leaves you with a feeling of rightly taken good cheer—even after explaining all you didn’t know about how bad things really are in 1990.

Liberal Arts and Community grew out of talks Montgomery gave at Erskine College, in upcountry South Carolina, where he addressed, respectively, students, faculty, and finally alumni and townspeople on the rescue of “community through a recovery of liberal arts as supportive of community.” Here is the analysis of our contemporary educational ills that finally reaches the perimeters and bottom of this ever-so-big and growing problem.

But since Liberal Arts and Community represents, among other things, a bold rhetorical achievement (in an age that despises rhetoric because materialism has led us to hate the necessary connection between form and substance), we should first consider the consciously rhetorical thrust this poet has given his eminently practical book. (If this surprises you, just recall what marvelous rhetoricians Vergil and Milton were.) For though the text here is considerably amplified, Montgomery retains the oratorical features of his original presentations.

Never mind that contemporary speeches are notoriously banal when reduced to unforgiving type. The “live” effect gained by putting these addresses into print only underscores what Montgomery calls “the decisive importance of words rightly taken” and his repeated stress on individual responsibility for bearing witness to truth. Here the march of facts and analysis is made to sparkle with sympathetic asides, apt instances, and rich variation of diction and tone, engaging and rendering benevolent the speaker’s various audiences, as is rhetoric’s initial aim. With appropriate respect, Montgomery talks “up” to the students to whom he has been given this one opportunity for providing right instruction and exhortation. With colleagues, he is (in his self-effacing manner) more blunt. And to the townsmen, who are rightly chary of professors, he speaks as a neighbor, with reassurance that he defends the “Southern” (Montgomery shorthand for “permanent and universal”) verities they continue to hold as ideals.

Also enhancing persuasion, the wholesome fabric of these talks is woven of Montgomery’s always recognizable, deceptively informal prose, alive with metaphor and gentle irony, and punctuated by wonderful aphorisms. I have to show you just one:

The failure to recognize the gift of particularity, the uniqueness of each person’s particularity, the uniqueness of each person’s actual existence as a limit to his potential being, is the present cause of most of the unhappiness in individuals and the cause of that chaos in society which prevents society from becoming community. It is an unhappiness, I regret to say, subscribed to by both the community and its institutions, both bearing false witness against the true nature of membership.

There, in a thimble, are arguments sufficient to overthrow entrenched egalitarianism and restore true community on the basis of individual worth.

Mainly, though, it’s the writer’s urgency for the recovery of ordinate love, that ordering catalyst through which right education and community must proceed and the goal towards which they must advance, which binds his arguments and lends them a warm cogency. Such force of conviction here functions as what the rhetoricians call ethical proof—a speaker’s capacity to compel persuasion through (unstudied) projection of his character. (“I trust the man’s words because I trust the man.”) It was partly to acknowledge the efficacy of ethical proof that the ancients defined the authentic orator as “a good man skilled in speaking.”

Note, too, how the presentation architectonically satisfies the title theme, progressing as it does from focus on students (“which each of us is insofar as we are rightly willed toward ourselves”) and teachers (“as each of us is willy-nilly insofar as we bear witness of ourselves”); then on to members of the community at large (“in which proper relation we must, as intellectual creatures, continue active both as student and teacher”).

Here is the argumentum, what Montgomery identifies to student-listeners as his “principal theme and song:

. . . the decisive importance of words rightly taken to any perfection of one’s heart and mind. A refrain to that song: Through the concert of heart and mind tuned by true words, we may move beyond our individual, separate aspirations and become aware that we hold humanity in common; so then we have a common—that is, a community—responsibility to words. We begin to understand, for instance, what St. Paul means when he says that we are members one of another. It is through words, through the signs we make one to another, that we discover ourselves bound one to another in a community larger than our private selves, larger than our lives taken only individually and independent of other lives.


Developing one’s ear and tongue to value meaning is what we call education. But one becomes educated, not only in a concert with his own mind and • heart through words, but through that larger concert of members in the body of community, one’s teachers and parents and neighbors and media gurus and politicos. Because most of these do not, in fact, accept responsibility for words as the community’s inheritance, it makes your own responsibility the more difficult, makes it even more a responsibility, one with a moral obligation attached by your very act of professing to be a student.

From here Montgomery moves forward to catalogue, illustrate with the rhetorical exempla, and assess the failures of today’s undergraduate education, starting with failures of the public schools that so commonly send students to college for two years of remedial work before higher education can significantly begin—which it usually doesn’t even for juniors, because their professors are typically bemused with Deconstruction and other intellectual fads and are preoccupied with (otiose) publication and the games that lead to professional advancement in today’s corrupt academy. The result is that education turns into indoctrination, or simply falls through the cracks of professorial indifference.

The ideological and cultural subversion, trivialization, and pompous semiliteracy that parents pay so dearly for—an item-by-item accounting of academic false witness—appears in Montgomery’s expose of the Babel that is the campus just down the road from your hearth and home: unrepentant 60’s radicals using professorial chairs to batter the permanent things they ought, by definition, to support; gnostic mountebanks urging even that “we must reprogram nature” (!) while parading as dispassionate “scientists”; administrators murdering English without embarrassment on behalf of an aggrandizement that is inseparably personal and institutional (“the blueprint for this drive to excellence was laid more than a decade ago”); and curricula, now “redesigned and marketed in the interest of a product,” and correspondingly debased to include things like a for-credit course in the “History of American Radio & Television” openly advertised as “a college course in trivia.”

Chapter Four of Liberal Arts and Community, “A Scholastic Foray,” serves as peroration. It’s an addendum that draws on the writer’s grasp of Western intellectual development to carry to a deeper level the meaning of the speeches. Here, among other salutary things, is terse analysis of the ills wrought by John Locke’s sorcery about “Social Contract,” which, in the name of enlightenment and liberalism, has so banefully pried individuals away from family and community and made them pawns of always bigger government and other impulses constantly spun off from the original Lockean heresy. It’s what (ironically) keeps reducing particular people—formerly thought only a little lower than the angels—to ever smaller dimensions, steadily proliferating the numbers and kinds of intellectual and spiritual dead-ends people nowadays reach. Everything that goes swirling around John Locke’s cauldron comes around the more viciously.

But Montgomery’s conclusion is affirmative through inclusion of view-points reaching us by way of Dante, Aquinas, and some other unfashionable figures who are free of gnostic distortions. These viewpoints I will not attempt to summarize, having by hints and reductions already gone about as far towards reducing Marion Montgomery’s whole and compelling creation to dry bones as Lockean theory has reduced children of God to trousered apes.

Here, again and at last, is the book we have needed to open to their deepest roots and widest ramifications the problems besetting contemporary education, the probing that has to precede authentic reform. But Liberal Arts and Community presents no blueprint, no detailed schema for reform, the Five Year Plan having no place in the Montgomery approach. So what are we to do? Why, read and learn about the ordinate love we must first apply to the basic problem—ourselves. Reform of institutions requires precisely this, being an organic and contagious undertaking that will proceed once we again start to feel ourselves members one of another.

Virtue and Modern Shadows of Turning complements Liberal Arts and Community. The old question reexamined here is: can virtue be taught? Well, no; education even in its broadest sense can’t impart this. We are, here as elsewhere, fallen. Still, seeds of virtue and ordinate longing for virtue lie in every heart to quicken by primary action of will and grace—points precisely where formal learning about virtue can prove an auxiliary indeed to those seeking to know and to order the Intellectual Pollution: Some Literary Critics Portrayed by Fred Chappell good, the true, and the beautiful.

Above you have only a postage stamp-size simulacrum of Montgomery’s spacious illuminations on why and how greatly we need to bestir ourselves on behalf of the quality whose supply, through human innate perversity but also through our present brute ignorance about its nature and importance, grows sadly shorter at just the time it’s the more wanted.

But well-placed enthusiasm has not blinded your reviewer to shortcomings; in this era of concern for graphic effects to enhance readability, Marion Montgomery will do well to shorten his paragraphs and perhaps provide appropriate intrachapter captions before sending his next brace of books to the printer. A sending which, rumor whispers, may be very soon. 


[Liberal Arts and Community: The Feeding of the Larger Body, by Marion Montgomery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 171 pp., $27.50]

[Virtue and Modern Shadows of Turning: Preliminary Agitations, by Marion Montgomery (Lanham, Maryland: The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc., and University Press of America) 186 pp., $29.25 (hardcover), $14.25 (paper)]