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A Self Governing People (The Defense, Part 7)

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So, what can I say?  Sleep helped a little, yet again.  But I had a class to teach yesterday, and none of the students showed up.

So I’m in something of a mood.

If I were Sherlock Holmes, I’d surmise at this point that AB found his way to the blog from Facebook,  because he just quoted from an essay about 9/11  that I posted there on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and a number of people picked it up and reposted the link themselves.

But the quote–about how the suicide bombers were among the best educated in their communities–proves my point and not his.

There are all kinds of education.  The kind of education the sucide bombers received was not a liberal one, but a technical one–let’s teach them to blow stuff up, all that other stuff doesn’t matter.

To the extent that they did have an education outside the technical, it was Islamic, not Western. 

And, like I said, ideas have consequences.  And philosophy is the foundation on which everything else is built.

So let me make a loop around here, to get some things straight, before I go on to what’s in it for all of us.

The purpose of a liberal education is now and has always been to train a free and self governing people.

The confusion about the definition of “free” and “self governing” is mine.  I wasn’t trying to say that the ancients were trying to get people to a point where they could do whatever they wanted without interference from government or society.

That is the modern definition of “free” and I was trying to contrast it to the ancient one, which had two aspects:  first, that men should be citizens and participate in the making of the laws under which they lived; and second, that men should have self-control and personal discipline, so that they could decide their own actions and not be pulled haplessly around at the mercy of their passions and the vicissitudes of fate and public opinion.

AB asks what the “self” is anyway–and that’s cute, but that’s all it is.  Cute.  It’s one of those things that sound as if they make sense because we can all natter on endlessly about definitions, and use all that neuron-based psychology to ask if the synapses that fire when you decide to eat an apple go off before or after you’re conscious of deciding, and what that means.

But the fact is that we all experience ourselves as loci of consciousness.  We experience ourselves as making decisions and carrying them out, or not.  That experience is what we call the “self,” and whether we want to our not, the simple fact is that we cannot do anything in this world, or feel anything in this world, or think anything in this world, without it.

AB also says that there are only two reasons people do things:  because other people make them, or at random.

That’s untenable in and of itself.  It seems to imply that anything we do is at random, but other people are able to decide to do things and then make us do them, too.

There are not two reasons why people do things.  There are three.  Either they are compelled (by other people, or by nature), or they are acting at random (I’d think virtually never), or they are acting by decision. 

It was the decisions the ancients were worried about–and the medieval thinkers, too. 

The great danger to human beings on a personal level–and ancient and medieval, pagan and Christian, society agreed on this–was that, left to themselves, they would become enslaved to their passions.

We have a closely related idea, these days, in the concept of “addiction” when it is drawn out to include things like shopping and gambling.

Without the proper training and instruction, the ancients thought, men would sink into “animality,” caring only for immediate sensation and cheap and superficial pleasure.  They therefore needed to be carefully trained in curbing and restraining these passions.

Neither the ancients nor the early and Medieval Christians were naive about this.  Both cultures saw the human being of being made up of two parts, one of them animal, one of them divine.

Both of them believed animal nature to be very strong, so strong that it took a lifelong struggle to control it. 

Still, without the effort to control it, man could never be ‘free,” because he would always be at the mercy of his emotions and his appetites.  A man who had not control of these was a slave as surely as any captive of war sold in the marketplace.

The first thing that liberal education teaches is that morality is not just a matter of how we deal with each other–it’s also a matter of how each of us deals with ourself. 

The message is that we are not okay “just the way we are.”   To be decent human beings we must aspire to much more than that, and it is a shameful thing if we do not try.

The other sense in which a liberal education is a training for free men is that it is supposed to fit them to be able to participate in the governing of their nation, their city-state, their Republic. 

To the ancients, a people was free if and only if it made its own decisions about the conduct of its society and did not have them dictated by forces from the outside. 

The ancients would not have understood what we now call “freedom.”  That definition of that idea arrived first with the Protestant Reformation and then (decisively) with the Enlightenment.  It’s not quite right to say that the ancients had no problem with society dictating the rules for the private life of citizens.  In point of fact, they would have found it impossible to conceive of a government or society being capable of the kind of routine interventions in private life that are a persistant danger now.

What they did understand was that human life was only entirely human if each free man–we would say each free person–had a say in deciding how he lived and how he was governed, and they did not think that was possible without the proper education.

There version of a liberal education differed from ours in its particulars (heavier on the music, for one thing, and with a concentration on speaking instead of writing for another)–but down through the ages, through the centuries and societies that have adopted it, these are the two things a liberal education is supposed to do: make you the governor of yourself, and make you fit to come together with others to govern your society.

What I want to do now is stipulate this:  what I am aiming at is the defense of an education that will do these two things, and to explain why that is of value to each individual person and to society as a whole.

And I’ll start with what’s in it for you tomorrow, after I’ve had some tea and Mendelsohn, I think, today.

It’s Sunday.

I am not required to deal with students.

Written by janeh

September 25th, 2011 at 9:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'A Self Governing People (The Defense, Part 7)'

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  1. You have really taken on a Herculean task.

    First you have to prove that a liberal arts education does make people able to be “free and self-governing,” and to do that you have to prove not only that it CAN make people free and self-governing, but also that it actually DOES make most (= more than 50%) of the people who complete the course of study free and self-governing. You have not done this. Your sample group appears to be one (1), namely you.

    Next you have to prove that a liberal arts education is the only (or at least the best) way to make people “free and self-governing,” which involves looking at the people who do qualify as free and self-governing to see how they arrived at that point. You have not done this.

    Once you have proved the above two, then you have to show how it is possible for a significant number of people in a country like the United States to acquire such a liberal arts education. And that involves proving (a) that a significant number have the brain power needed to master the subjects (such as Latin and calculus) that you wish to include as part of a liberal arts education, (b) that the facilities to give a significant number of people a liberal arts education either exist (they don’t) or can be “built”; (c) that a significant number of people can be brought to realize the benefits of acquiring a liberal arts education so that they will choose to do so (that one is really tricky, since the liberal arts education is necessary for them to be self-governing, but they would have to be self-governing enough to make the choice to acquire a liberal arts education); and (d) that a significant number of people can afford to spend four years acquiring your recommended liberal arts education in college before they acquire a more practical education. You have done none of these.

    Starting with your sample of one, you apparently feel you derived great benefit from your liberal arts education. In order to prove your case as I’ve outlined above, you have to show that before college you did not have the education necessary to be “free and self-governing,” and that afterwards you did. Is that correct? Were you someone who was on your way down the incorrect path that would have led you to a wasted life spent in pursuit of false goals before you went to college?

    What you have been doing is posting a lot of arguments about what should and should not be included in a liberal arts education (when it is properly taught) BEFORE you prove any of the things above are true.

    You say that you are going to prove in a later posting that a liberal arts education is of value to an individual and a value to society. That is not sufficient. I could much more easily make a case that all education (the passing on of knowledge from one person to another) is of value to individuals and to society.

    You say that all the way back two thousand and more years the ancient Greeks knew the value of a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, that proves none of the things you need to prove.

    I have worked with kindergarten students in groups (not just my own children). At the age of five, children already fall into the groups of (a) children who are bullies, liars, and cheats, who will do anything to acquire toys, advantages, power, influence, and domination of others, and (b) children who have a concept of what is moral and just and who strive do the right thing.

    My thesis is that persons leaving a liberal arts education, whether properly taught or not, have the same ability to be “free and self-governing” that they had when they entered the program, no more, no less.


    25 Sep 11 at 4:01 pm

  2. As far as I know, Australian universities award the BA or BS degree after 3 years. There are no distribution requirements. They do award a BA or BS with Honors which is a 4 year course but the fourth year is intensive work in the students special field. Some distribution is enforced by requirements that students earn a certain number of credit points per year. The courses in the major don’t provide all the necessary credits.

    I’m trying to remember my undergraduate years but don’t really trust my 50 year old memories. I think we had 5 courses a semester and the math and physics courses accounted for 3 or 4 of those. Call it two open slots per semester the first 2 years and one open slot per semester the last 2 years.

    The situation seems to have gotten worse for Physics majors. Quantum Mechanics has moved from graduate school to undergraduate, intensive senior labs have been added, and many departments require a senior thesis. That has resulted in Physics courses which were two semesters in my time being shortened to one and some one semester courses being dropped.

    I really don’t see how science majors can take the arts courses that Jane favors without adding yet another year to the BS degree.

    In my case, I became interested in History and Philosophy after I was over 30 and long out of grad school. I suggest that “distance learning” and night schools might supply what Jane wants as post-graduate studies.


    25 Sep 11 at 6:34 pm

  3. I’m bemused by Charlou’s apparent insistence that to prove their worth, the humanities _must_ achieve the result that Jane believes that they aim to do. But here we come to a fundamental problem of modern thinking, methinks.

    There is an article in one of our major papers today talking about the shift in the “demograhics” of the Australian Labor Party in recent decades. The ALP is fairly closely analogous to at least the modern Democratic Party in that both market themselves as the political representatives of the “working class”. Unfortunately, this no longer seems to be true in the case of the ALP at least which increasingly ignores working class interests in favour of the interests of what are often referred to as the “well-educated inner city elites”. Whether this is true of the Democratic Party I cannot say, but reading posts written by committed Democrats over the years, I’ve come to believe that it seems to be so.

    My point (I do have one) is that I’ve seen very little evidence that these alleged “inner-city elites” are, notwithstanding the wall-paper, really educated at all. Trained, yes, as lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants and so on, certainly. Educated? Not so much. I measure my own high school education against that of the graduates I have known over the past 20 or so years, including my own sons, one a lawyer, the other an Arts graduate IT manager.

    As John says, there is not a lot of space available in modern specialist degrees for the humanities, without extending the burden of cost beyond all reason for most people. But none of that negates Jane’s point, in my humble. I think all we need to confirm her thesis is the parlous state of political debate in our respective countries today. The quality of argument today compared to that, say, 50 years ago, is inversely proportional to the percentage of tertiary educated people in our respective communities.


    25 Sep 11 at 7:10 pm

  4. I don’t think anyone contends you could pull off the program in three years. My son has doubts about a Chemistry major doing it in four, and an engineer would find some of his major courses didn’t fit in the program at all. But the argument Jane was making–is making–is that the thing is desireable, for the individuals, and for their societies, not that it is without cost. That, I think, is appropriate: first you decide whether you want something, then you determine the cost, THEN you decide whether it’s worth the cost.

    Everything in its proper order. Lots of things take time and money, and some of them are worth it.


    25 Sep 11 at 10:39 pm

  5. 1. If you were Sherlock Holmes, you’d be wrong. Holmes would have been a terrible detective in real life; he was always jumping to highly specific conclusions on the slenderest of circumstantial hints.

    2. The nature of the self is not just an irrelevant philosophical abstraction. Yes, the individual experiences self and choice, but these are purely experiential, and the foolish and illiterate experience them no less than the clever and educated. The Philosophy PhD (and yes, I know that’s a pleonasm) fancies himself freer than the NASCAR couch potato, but the latter does not share this perception. Both feel entirely “free”, and the actual behavior of both is entirely determinate. If the professor has any advantage, it lies in his improved ability to see determinism at work in others, while overlooking it in himself. I’m not sure how this altered perception makes the professor an inherently better or happier person.

    3. As you know, the history of moral philosophy is hardly an unbroken tradition of Stoicism. The ideas that a broad education makes a person better, while the ignorant are “pulled haplessly around at the mercy of their passions and the vicissitudes of fate and public opinion,” have not been without controversy among the great thinkers, even if universal in academia. And what is the fundamental difference? The strings moving a Carl Sagan are harder to find than those moving the average hobo, but they are still there.

    4. Philosophy is not the foundation on which everything, or anything, is built. In reality it’s the other way ’round. Every branch and form of philosophy is an attempt to rationalize something that already existed – ethics, knowledge, religion, perception, existence, etc. When academic thinkers attempt to exercise an active influence, the consequences are often (e.g. Marx, Gobineau, Rand) sharply negative.

    5. It is misleading, at best, to associate academic philosophy with popular self-government. The “popular government” (i.e., demagoguery) of which modern culture is so enamored was the “philosophy” of redneck thugs like Andrew Jackson, rarely entertained by educated men. Plato’s “Republic” reads like a blueprint for Fascism. Ancient Athens had, for a time, a sort of democracy – for the small minority who were neither slaves, immigrants, nor women (and they got their asses kicked). Literacy was not a requirement. Was there any liberally-educated thinker at all, /before/ the institution of modern mob-rule societies (i.e, when such was not /required/), impressed with the prospective benefits of mob rule? (Tom Paine did not have a liberal education.)

    Of course the ideal is that the student /know/ about Plato and Aristotle, not necessarily imitate them. Yet this is not how the Classics have ever been taught; throughout history, Plato and Aristotle have been presented as Great Thinkers, towering over mere mortals, though a more instructive exercise would be to dissect their ideas like diseased frogs and analyze their negative historical impact. “Critical Thinking” ™ is the last thing one would ever learn in college.

    Only in the most recent times (since WWI at the earliest) is it common for an educated person to assert that the bulk of the populace can and should be educated, so as to better inform the rule of the mob – and this is more an article of religious faith than a considered opinion. It is often held by those who think that ignorance must be the chief flaw of anyone who disagrees with them, and that “education” would suffice to make their own beliefs dominant. Contrarily, education does not produce consensus; more likely it produces dissent.

    Someone with a better education, familiar with history and the history of political organization, might realize (along with Montesquieu) that a large nation cannot function as a genuine democracy, and that we might indeed be glad that ours does not.

    5. If the importance of Shakespeare is that his works represents a paradigm shift in drama, or portray the zeitgeist of an era, or whatever, then it is sufficient to know /about/ them; it is not necessary to wade through Hamlet.

    6. If most people can only make sense of the world in the form of a narrative, then there’s no point trying to educate them. Narratives are arbitrary. Arabs destroying the Twin Towers because Sand N*****s Hate Freedom is one; Zionist conspirators faking the whole thing is another. It is not possible to rationally compare the two, or to construct a non-arbitrary alternative, without the cability for abstract reasoning. If most people only think in narratives, then democracy is a really, really bad idea.

    7. I thought the “moral instruction” angle on liberal education was the most promising so far. If there was some answer to my objections, I’m afraid I missed it, to my disappointment.


    25 Sep 11 at 11:45 pm

  6. Having read through abgrund’s post a few times I’m struck by the irony. The criticisms of a “liberal education” are such that it betrays a fair familiarity with at least most of the topics of said liberal education as explained in part by Jane, and the very analysis, however critical of the ancients and other topics is just the sort of analytical thinking that is the goal of a liberal education as described by Jane. If “the mob” had such an education, they would no longer be “the mob” as the very act of such critical and skeptical appraisal of ideas tends very much to preclude the kind of group think required to form a mob mentality. So the irony is that abgrund is his/her own rebuttal.


    26 Sep 11 at 3:19 am

  7. MWF’s argument, that if “the mob” had such an education, they would no longer be “the mob”, does not preclude anything.

    “The mob” has never had such an education, not back in classical Greek period and not today. And no matter what any of us argue here, “the mob” is never going to have such an education. So what’s the point of discussing it? We might as well argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    I am reminded of the story of the mice, who decided that the only way to protect themselves from being eaten by the cat was to tie a bell around the cat’s neck. Their plan failed, of course, because none of them was able to bell the cat.

    Likewise we could all decide here that what our society needs is for a large segment of the population to acquire a liberal arts education — we could then decide what should be part of such a curriculum, and we could decide what books should be read — but all of that is pointless if we don’t have some method of delivering that education and some way of persuading people to invest their time in acquiring such an education.


    26 Sep 11 at 3:40 am

  8. “At the age of five, children already fall into the groups of (a) children who are bullies, liars, and cheats, who will do anything to acquire toys, advantages, power, influence, and domination of others, and (b) children who have a concept of what is moral and just and who strive do the right thing.”


    If this were true, surely no one would bother to try to teach children to do the right thing, much less succeed.

    Oh, I’m not starting up the whole nature/nurture thing (my answer would be ‘both’) but I’m sure that the fact that I had no criticism for lying or stealing when I was in kindergarten had a lot to do with those behaviours being strongly discouraged before then. Even adults, with habits and personality traits firmly established, can sometimes learn to fake appropriate social behaviour, sometimes so well it becomes second nature.

    The idea of the mob is an interesting diversion. The mob as observed in the UK and Vancouver seemed to have a suprising number of literate people from nice homes who somehow ‘forgot’ the rules against theft and violence.


    26 Sep 11 at 11:19 am

  9. Mr. Fisher, are you insinuating that I am a mobster?


    26 Sep 11 at 5:51 pm

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