< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: (i) Great Lies & Liberal Education Generally

Saturday, April 22, 2006

(i) Great Lies & Liberal Education Generally

One of the greatest lies ever told is that the march of freedom we’ve witnessed here in America over its 200+ year history is an unqualified good. It is much like the lie we tell our young as they begin their education: that knowledge is an unqualified good.

Both lies can, and do, lead to unfortunate results when left unrestrained.

Democratic conceit can not only lead to mob rule (a misfortune our founders were dedicated to avoiding), but the conceit of freedom can also readily lead to a far more absurd, far more difficult to fix, far more dangerous problem: self-enslavement.

Students of ancient philosophy no doubt are familiar with the problem in a way students of modernity are not. This is a main issue of focus in Plato’s Republic, given an eternal form in the famous “Allegory of the Cave”. The student of modern thought will find the allegory almost quaint, with its deference to “universals” and “eternals” and self-conscious fear of details and particulars. But the student of ancient thought knows something that has been lost on modernity.

Plato’s Republic is a book about education. More specifically, it is a book concerned with the way a society may educate free people without at the same time binding these people in a new set of chains. What America’s Constitution is to the problem of freedom, Plato’s Republic is to the problem of learning.

In other words, the book is about helping us not only see past the shadows, but see past the candle causing them, see past the steep incline behind the candle, and most importantly, have the courage required to face the light of the day outside.

I say “most importantly” because this is the singular aspect of a liberal education which is most un-discussed; but which is itself perhaps the most remarkable trait of the truly liberally educated person: they are not afraid to think on their own.

Dan at tdaxp, Mark at Zenpundit, and various interlocutors at those sites have for the last few months engaged in a dialogue which has touched on the products of liberal education. There has been some confusion in this dialogue, and this post will be my first of five (or four) on this topic.

To help clear up the definition of liberal education, and provide for some more useful ways of using the “tag” (for me, liberal education is that method by which young men and women become independent thinkers and responsible citizens), I will allow one of the world’s foremost experts on liberal education to describe what “it” is:
But that [the young] must not be taught all of the useful arts is evident, once free pursuits have been distinguished from those that are unfree - and also that they must take part only in those useful pursuits that will not make the participant [merely] mechanical.
That was Aristotle in his Politics, expressing the sense that liberal education is, most importantly, for its own sake. Here is what today’s foremost expert on liberal education has to say about that:
It is simply the case that our students almost universally declare their education to have been of the greatest use to them: in keeping them from being merely "mechanical," it has made them both brave and versatile in facing practical problems.
That was Eva Brann, former Dean and current tutor at St. John’s College. She continues, taking issue with what I posited as a definition above, and beginning to reveal the whole of what is meant by the term:
The kind of education I am about to delineate perhaps could not survive if not for the fact that learning undertaken for its own sake - not as a means but as its own end - turns out to be a means to moderate worldly success as well. This circumstance may not be a gratuitous accident but may instead speak to the logic of a world that is after all hospitable to liberal learning. However tempting favorable Graduate Record Examination scores, career statistics, and alumni tracking may be, they are not the right and finally not even the most persuasive defense of an education to which they are merely, if happily, incidental. And though I have great faith in the close relation of thoughtfulness to goodness, even the development of useful citizens should not, I think, be cited among the direct aims of liberal learning; it is an obliquely achieved though ardently desired by-product.
I hope the thoughts expressed here can at least curtail the dialogue somewhat, and help those of us participating in it to be slightly more rigorous with our language. More later.