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He Who Dies With The Most Toys Loses (The Defense, Part 8)

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Let me get something straightened out here before I go on, because it may clear up some of the confusion:

AB is quite right.  IF I was trying to suggest that there should be a national policy mandating a liberal education for all, or nearly all, THEN I would need to prove at least some of the things Charlou wants me to prove.

But I’m NOT suggesting that.  You can go back and look.  I’ve never said a thing about intalling a liberal education as policy.

And I won’t.

For what it’s worth–I don’t like national educational policy no matter what it is.  If it were up to me, I’d abolish the Department of Education and go back to allowing every individual school district to set its own policy on almost everything, and that includes curriculum.

And yes, I know that lots of districts would make decisions of which I would not only disapprove, but also be fairly convinced were stupid, dangerous, and wrong.

It’s back to that democratic principle again–and no, by “democratic” I do not mean the mob rule of “pure” democracy.

That having been said:  AB said at some point that the defense of the liberal arts he found most promising (interesting?) was that it might make us better–I assume morally better–human beings.

“To make us virtuous” has been one of the standard defenses of a liberal education down the ages, and very far down the ages. 

It was, in fact, the whole point for the ancients, and for most of the middle ages.   And it persisted as the major rationale into the 19th century, at least. 

It began to recede as a rationale after that, and I think there were several reasons for that.

The first is and should be obvious–it is not the case that all educated people are virtuous, or that all uneducated people are not. 

In the ancient world, when few people were educated, this was less obvious than it got to be later–but it got to be at least by the early middle ages, and the disconnect between virtue and education became more obvious in a world where the dominant narrative was about a bunch of rude fishermen led by a carpenter who was the  most virtuous human being ever to have walked the planet.

What’s more, the founders of the new Christian schools and academies, and of the first universities, were painfully aware that Christians could not and should not take “Greek learning” wholesale and without questioning.

In spite of what you’ve been told,  Medieval universities did not present Aristotle and company as Great Minds who could never be questioned.  (That’s another part of the Enlightenment narrative). 

Anyway, there are whole swatches of Aquinas, Augustine, John Chrysostom, et al, that warn against the Greeks for their apparent fascination with the dissolute and prurient and insist that students be taught to question and refute plausible sounding rhetoric that sounds as if it’s teaching virtue but is instead teaching debauchery and lies.

The closer we get to our own day, the more obvious the fact is–or at least the first part of the fact.  And incredible volume of Renaissance writing is taken up with deploring the depredations of well-born and well-educated men. 

Get down to the 18th century, and you start to see evidence of the recognition that “unlettered’ and “rough” men could be virtuous in spite of their lack of education.   Part of the reason for that was simply that the lives of such people became much more visible to the kind of people who write books.   A well-born Roman could pretty much ignore the rabble, and so could a well-born Englishman.  A well-born American in 1801 faced the very real possibility that one of these people would end up sitting next to him in the Senate.

(Funny outcome for a revolution started and carried out by people whose only real concern was to preserve the rights of the aristocracy against the monarchy…  Never mind.  I thought we’d stopped teaching that bilge in 1985, at the latest.)

I think that rather than saying that a liberal education will make you good, or better, I’d say that a liberal education would present you with alternatives to the conventional wisdom and dominant culture of your day–that it will present you with something else, and therefore with the possiility of choosing something else.

I’m less interested in the “condemned to repeat it” rationale for study than I am in what will help me to affect my present and the future. 

And the first thing necessary for that is to know that there are alternatives, and what the alternatives are.   

Given present-day realities, however, I’d go farther than that.

I’d say that one of the advantages to the individual in having this sort of education today would be that it would act as a kind of antidote to the present prevalent psychology-based narrative of the nature of human life and the contents of human nature.

It would come as a shock to some of my students that there was a time when people didn’t automatically assume that they were incipient candidates for mental illness, and that their every deviation from an (entirely fantasized, and nowhere existent in the real world) ideal of “normal” was a “disorder” that needed to be “treated.” 

They might find it a bigger shock to realize that quite a few of us feel that being treated in that way–as patients–is the ultimate in disrespect, and a good example of the modern version of treating large numbers of people as if they’re not really human.

The other thing I think it would provide an antidote for is the modern mania for assuming that the only thing that matters, the only thing that makes life worth living, is stuff. 

Having these alternatives set out before us gives us options that we will not have otherwise.  And options are what we need if we choose to be good.

Without those options, our attempts will be truncated by the world around us. 

And no, the modern equivalent of giving us “alternatives” is not sufficient, and will not work in the way the classics will–all those pious, theoretically well-meaning morality tales that are now the Young Adult book market, all those sensitivity and empathy training sessions backed up by the threat that your RA can have you thrown out of the dorm if you don’t get with the program.

They don’t provide alternatives.  They reinforce the entire “person as patient” narrative, with a few real beauts of reality-defying dogma thrown in for good measure (bullies are bullies because they were bullied themselves!).

Okay, so first–a knowledge of the alternatives, real alternatives, so that you have the option to choose.

And that’s always of value, I think, to any individual.

Tomorrow, mental training and self-mastery.

But one last note:  of course I’m familiar with Montesquieu, I’m just not impressed.  To be fair, I came to him late.  About ten years ago, the first of series of friends of mine became totally enamored of the man and all his works, and since I knew nothing about him, I got the Penguin edition of the complete essays and read through it.  Then I read through it again, because I was sure I was missing something.   I ended up utterly baffled.  His work seems to me to be repetitive and disorganized at the best of times, and he doesn’t seem to be saying much that hadn’t been said before much better.  

Anybody who could tell me why so many modern secularists love this man would–ah, be doing me a mitzvah, might be the best way to put it. 

Real life now.

Written by janeh

September 27th, 2011 at 6:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'He Who Dies With The Most Toys Loses (The Defense, Part 8)'

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  1. Um? Presumably you do wish more schools to offer and more young people to pursue a liberal education? Even without compulsion, that advocacy should still require some evidence of the benefits–and would that we had held the “open classroom” “self-esteem” and “child-directed learning” people to even that low standard.

    All in favor of offering the students different views of the world, but I’m a little unclear how science, mathematics and Latin tie in here–which is the problem with changing the justification part-way through.

    But let me insert my own plea for physical sciences–or engineering, or architecture or even brick-laying. I’d like to see every one of the little beasts have at least one course a semester in which Teacher Says is not the definitive answer, and in which the result is not shaped by how well they “frame the question” or otherwise make the argument–one hour a day in which they can’t weasel out of reality.

    And if I can get a few Political Science majors to stand next to an unstable wall after having written a paper telling everyone how firm the wall was–well, that might work out VERY well.


    27 Sep 11 at 4:34 pm

  2. Um–I’m not changing rationales in mid stream.

    I’m doing what I said I’d do:

    Outling the history and getting the defintions in place.

    Then giving my ideas on why I personally think a liberal education will be valuable to an individual

    Then giving my ideas on why having individuals with such an education would be valuable for society at large.

    Then getting on with the rest of the stuff.

    Like I said, I outlined the whole thing, exactly what I inteded to do and how and in what sequence I intended to do it, before I started.

    But you have nothing to worry about with the sciences–if you remember my overview of what now is considered a liberal arts education, you’ll remember that one of the divisions was the hard sciences, which include physics and chemistry.


    27 Sep 11 at 4:58 pm

  3. I do remember–but the hard sciences seemed more appropriate to the traditional purpose of forming free men than it does to providing alternatives to the conventional wisdom. Also it looked with Washington that some of the divisions were more necessary than others.

    On the broader matter, I misunderstood. When you wrote “the purpose of a liberal education is to form free men” I understood you to be speaking ex cathedra, if you will. I suppose I was looking for a hedge along the lines of “traditionally, a liberal education is understood to form free men” or something similar to distance yourself from the view expressed. My apologies.


    27 Sep 11 at 7:00 pm

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