What Good Is Education without the Classical Liberal Tradition?
"Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that every person is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist. Which are you?" This is what I asked my seventeen-year-old students during end-of-the-year oral exams. Many smiled and responded quickly; others seemed distressed at the prospect of having to choose a favorite. What a great question, I mused. These students, enrolled in a small Classical Christian school, are lucky to have the opportunity to seriously study philosophy.
Thinking back to my own secondary school days, I doubt that I could have offered anything about Aristotle, except that a law professor quoted him in Legally Blonde. And Plato might as well have been colored clay for children. My memory, rather, recalls classes like "Career Preparation & Exploration," a course which consisted of monotoning responses to computer modules and an obscene amount of "group work."
There's more than enough anecdotal material about bad schooling, and the American public is well aware that problems exist. Public leaders in education plead that we purge schools of bad teachers, scrape up more funding, and reform pedagogical models. The real problem, however, is less tangible -- but more fundamental -- than monetary deficiencies or methodological barriers or even droves of incompetent teachers. Rather than attributing flaws of the modern education system to administrative or structural variables, we should examine the true source: that, paradoxical as it may sound, American education lacks a culture of learning, without which technological invention and billions of dollars are insufficient to cure the lapse of learning among American youth.
Education requires a resurgence of the classical liberal tradition, which treats a pupil as a human --whose hope for magnanimity lies in the proper training of his habits -- rather than as a jukebox, tinnily emitting the same unimaginative tune over and over again for a quarter. Not only is the richness of the classical tradition largely lost today, but students do not acquire the intellectual humility that will allow their own minds to be continually tried and formed anew. And this is problematic both for individuals and for the nation.
The American Founders understood. Even Benjamin Franklin, the pragmatist of the lot, preferring modern language over the classical and exploring models for trade schools as well as for liberal colleges, wrote Samuel Adams in 1750:
I think with you, that nothing is more important for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men, are, in my opinion, the strength of the state; much more so than riches or arms, which under the management of ignorance and wickedness, often draw on destruction, instead of providing for the safety of the public.i
The Founders' classical notion of education has not been wholly lost on modernity. Russell Kirk writes that "liberal education" is "an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person -- as contrasted with technical or professional schooling." Education allows humans to "achieve some degree of harmony within themselves." This harmony creates a "philosophical habit of mind," a Platonic notion that Kirk attributes to John Henry Newman. Liberal education, as Newman understood it, cultivates in individuals the attributes of "freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom." Likewise, Socrates's music and gymnastic education hoped to achieve the four virtues of wisdom, moderation, justice, and courage by attaining a similar "harmony" of the soul.
We owe much to the classical understanding of virtue. The classical-liberal tradition supposes that the purpose of education is to introduce an ordered moral framework to young minds. When first the seeds of these basic virtues have been planted, individuals then possess the moral devices to pursue specialized studies and to impart their ideas and innovations to the sundry fields.
Moreover, Kirk suggests that the education system in today's republic ideally has "a social purpose, or at least a social result," forming a clan of leaders who "leaven the lump" of ruggedly un-philosophical America.
But Kirk also saw the reality of the twentieth-century intellectual class. His critique of modern education excoriates the products of the system as "a series of degree-dignified elites, an alleged meritocracy of confined views and dubious intellectual and moral credentials, puffed up by that little learning, which is most truly described by that mordant Tory Alexander Pope as a dangerous thing." The intellectual class that Kirk observed was far from the paragon of virtue for which the Founders hoped.
What's ironic about a Kirkian estimation is its initial resonation with the ideologically disparate left. A leading figure of the far left is Noam Chomsky, whose critique of the intellectual coterie -- though distinctly more biting -- sounds almost like Kirk. Chomsky reports in an interview with David Barsamian, excerpted from Class Warfare, that "[a]s far as questions, the only thing I ever get irritated about is elite intellectuals, the stuff they do I do find irritating. I shouldn't. I expect it. But I do find it irritating." Like Kirk, Chomsky also uses the terminology of a "confinement" of an elite class of isolated intellectuals.
In a 1992 Rolling Stone interview, Chomsky explains that America's subversive education system creates this elite class:
If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you're saying, because it's too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience.
Kirk and Chomsky unsurprisingly diverge here. Chomsky's campaign against capitalist classism clutters his argument with a distracting conspiratorial tone. But even when we look past Chomsky's insistence that the primary purpose of (what he terms) "mass education" was designed "to turn independent farmers into docile, passive tools of production," we find his solution a faux-humane ersatz for Kirk's plea for "humanely educated" youth. Chomsky, just like Kirk, sees the flaws and conceives of the vacuity of the current system. But lacking Kirk's comprehension of the moral complexity of the person, he can only spout vaguely psychological terms to define the problem: the educational system inculcates "obedience and passivity," he says, and is designed "to prevent people from being independent and creative." Thinkers on the left insist that the student requires a personally tailored education that will liberate and allow him to pursue his own preferences and achieve an actualization of the Self. Where the classical-liberal school recommends moral discipline, progressives prescribe increased autonomy and self-shaping -- a recommendation that will only exacerbate the ill.
Perhaps as far as education goes, the disillusioned Chomskys of the nation could benefit from an alliance with old-school liberalism. Both share repugnance for what the educational system of today produces and whom it creates. We have, however, first to agree that a human is a being whose character must be shaped and disciplined by an education that comprehends not only his immediate desires and interests, but also the high and low parts of his nature.
i Abraham Blinderman, Three Early Champions of Education: Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Noah Webster (Bloomington: The Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1976), 11.