Clemson’s Lyceum and the Return of Classical Education

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“… the Lyceum is indeed one of the brightest gems at Clemson.”

By Joseph Lord

There are two primary draws to Clemson: the Clemson football team and the Lyceum Scholars. This program, a branch of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism (CISC) headed by Professor C. Bradley Thompson, draws some of the best students nationwide. I met with Professor Thompson to discuss the Lyceum program, one of Clemson’s best-kept open secrets.

A scholarship program based on a Great Books approach to learning, the Lyceum selects 10 Scholars annually to receive a $10,000 scholarship paid out over the course of four years. During that time, Scholars take eight classes in which they explore the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Locke, Rousseau, and a plethora of other great thinkers in the Western canon. The CISC also sponsors a non-scholarship track, the Lyceum Fellows. Both tracks receive a minor in Political and Legal Theory. 

Over the course of my meeting with Professor Thompson, I asked him a series of questions about the Lyceum Program and its value to the University.

Is there anything like the Lyceum anywhere else in the country? “No, there is nothing like the Lyceum anywhere.” Professor Thompson’s remark rings true and herein lies the Lyceum’s integral and stunning value. Perhaps the closest approximation to the Lyceum in the country is St. John’s College, a school entirely based on a Great Books approach to learning. However, the Lyceum offers future engineers, doctors, and journalists alike a chance to learn the value of moral character and in turn to become better people because of it. 

What does the Lyceum give to Clemson that makes it valuable? Professor Thompson made clear that the Lyceum gives Clemson something it is dearly lacking: “a classical liberal education.” I am inclined to agree with him. Classical liberal education forms much of the basis of Western thought, but it goes beyond this. It provides a universal standard with which to view oneself and the world. In our world, where values are no more and truth has become relative, the Lyceum offers students a chance to delve into and appreciate the essential value of philosophy, politics, art, and literature in a way they otherwise would have never considered if left to the devices of most humanities professors at Clemson. 

How can the Lyceum help people who aren’t majoring in politics or economics? The Lyceum exposes students “in the best way possible” to ideas which are strange or foreign; “when you read Plato, it’s like entering a different world.” This extremely alien world forces students to ask one integral question: “Is it true?” Thus, “truth becomes the standard of valuation.” One will go through a vast array of experiences in life; one who does not understand oneself will respond to each of these individually, without standard or judgment. But when one holds, as Professor Thompson holds, “truth as the standard of valuation,” one is much better prepared to face every challenge with consistency and courage. Studying Great Books is indeed a challenge; but it is one which begets great rewards which can be carried throughout life. 

How can a Great Books approach to studying help people in their everyday lives? There is a wide misconception that liberal education is useless or impractical; in fact, it is “the most practical education that is most related to the world in which we live.” This manifests itself in a number of different aspects of daily life. Learning the essence of morality and applying it to one’s everyday life brings meaning to things which may have before seemed menial: jobs, school, and communities. In challenging us to become better, more moral people, it tempers our emotions and makes us more cognizant of our actions. This in turn helps us to be better friends and neighbors, boyfriends and girlfriends, sons and daughters. The morality gleaned from liberal education is a challenge which makes virtue an obligation; but ultimately, being the most effective means of putting value into every aspect of our lives, it is indeed the “most practical” education one can have. 

The Lyceum brings to Clemson, and to the world itself, something that it has lacked for a long time: a means of studying philosophy not only for its own sake, but also for the sake of applying its tenets and obligations to our daily lives. A growing force on Clemson’s campus, in the nation, and even in the world as a whole, (if the applicants to both the Scholars and Fellows programs are any indication), the Lyceum is indeed one of the brightest gems at Clemson.

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