liberal education

Augustine’s Confessions (Book II)


Liberal education and a free society

In a letter, written in 1813, to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson explains the steps taken by the Virginia “legislature after the Declaration of Independance” to eradicate the vestiges of the old world aristocracy that had taken hold on the American landscape.[1] First, he says, they “passed a law abolishing entails” and “this was followed by one abolishing the privilege of Primogeniture.” He claims that “these laws . . . laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy. And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat.”[2] This final law, not adopted by the state of Virginia, included as its central component a plan to provide for the equality of opportunity of all people through the discernment of what Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents.”[3] Opposing this “natural aristocracy” to the “Pseudo-aristocrac[ies]” of physical strength and inherited wealth and titles, Jefferson saw the cultivation of a true aristocracy as an endeavor essential the continued life and vitality of the new American Republic. By ensuring that all Americans had access to at least a rudimentary version of a liberal education, this natural aristocracy could be cultivated and prepared for positions of leadership in the republic. Simultaneously, the very process by which this natural aristocracy was discerned would allow all Americans to be provided with the foundational knowledge and inculcated with the civic virtue necessary to a citizenry that is able to sustain a free society.

In his letter to Adams, Jefferson then briefly describes the framework of the “Bill for the more general diffusion of learning” he had proposed.[4] His plan would “divide every county” of the state of Virginia “into wards of 5. or 6. miles square.” Within “each ward . . . a free school” would be established “for reading, writing and common arithmetic.” From each of these ward schools, an “annual selection” would be made “of the best subjects . . . who might receive at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school.” There would, in turn, be a selection “from these district schools . . . [of] a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught.” By means of this process of common education for all and selection of the best students for higher levels of education, Jefferson says, “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”[5] Jefferson sought to supplant the aristocracy of “wealth and birth,” replacing it with the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents” in a single generation, through his program of public education.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson provides more detail on the plan of education he had proposed, including the sort of curriculum appropriate to students selected for each level of education and the overall goals of this program. While his letter to Adams lists only “reading, writing and common arithmetic” as the disciplines to be taught in the first level of schools, to which “every person . . . [is] entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it,”[6] his Notes on the State of Virginia indicates a decidedly wider purview for the ward schools. “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds,” writes Jefferson, “wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here.”[7] As such, there will, undoubtedly, be a focus upon the basic skills of writing, reading, and arithmetic. These schools will also, however, ensure that children’s “memories may . . . be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” The education at this initial stage is, in fact, “to be chiefly historical.”[8] Jefferson explains,

History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

This first level of education is that which will be received by all people. This is, therefore, the stage at which it is most important to instill a knowledge of their heritage and of human nature, knowledge that is essential to the development of the ability to identify and eliminate incipient tyranny.

In addition to this induction into historical knowledge, “the first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds.” This morality, writes Jefferson, is not yet to be that of “the Bible and Testament” as the “judgments” of these young children “are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.” Instead, the morality inculcated in the children should be such as is conducive to the development of that civic virtue which is necessary to members of a free society. It should, writes Jefferson, be “such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”[9]

The morality the children are to be taught, then, are the virtues of self-reliance, hard work, and responsibility.  In short, they are to be inculcated with the virtues of an industrious and freedom-loving people.

Following this basic education, most of the students will return to their homes prepared to take up the tasks both of their respective occupations as well as the preservation of a free society. Some, however, “whom either the wealth of their parents or the adoption of the state shall destine to higher degrees of learning, will go on to the grammar schools, there to be instructed in the languages.”[10] In a prescient forewarning of what was to come in both the grammar schools and institutions of higher learning in the United States, Jefferson notes that “the learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe . . . but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their  example in this instance.”[11] The memory at this stage in the child’s life, “from eight to fifteen or sixteen years of age,” is so “susceptible and tenacious of impressions” that “it seems precisely fitted to the powers of this period” to acquire “the most useful languages ancient and modern.”[12] In addition, “the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.” By this means, the memory will be exercised and the intellect excited. This stimulation of the mind through the activity of the acquisition of language and the contemplation of the wisdom gleaned from those texts used in language instruction preserves the mind from the “idleness” that would allow it to become “lethargic and impotent.” “As soon as they are of sufficient age,” says Jefferson, “it is supposed they will be sent on from the grammar schools to the university, which constitutes our third and last stage, there to study those sciences which may be adapted to their views.”[13]

Having explained his proposed system of education, Jefferson concludes with an explanation of the logic of his plan. One of the goals of his program is “to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.”[14] This equality of opportunity through equal access to education is of mutual benefit to both the citizen and the state. The citizen will be allowed to exercise his abilities and attain his full potential rather than languishing in a condition below his natural endowments. The state, in turn, will benefit from the education this person receives through his ability to use his talents in the service of his country.

In spite of Jefferson’s disdain for Plato’s Republic as a work filled with “whimsies, . . . puerilities, . . . unintelligible jargon . . . [and] nonsense,”[15] Jefferson’s plan is reminiscent of Plato’s plan for education and thought on the possibilities of movement from one social class to another.[16] Jefferson, however, avoids the utopianism of Plato as he does not, as Plato does, propose a radical restructuring of society, including the elimination of the family and the organic local community. Instead, Jefferson proposes a practical means by which to accomplish a similar goal.

“But of the views of this law,” Jefferson continues, “none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.”[17] Although only a relative few would directly benefit from the higher levels of education in Jefferson’s plan, all would be enabled to attain an education that would provide them with the knowledge and habits necessary to citizens of a republic and members of a free society. The rudimentary liberal education each received would make it possible for each to seek his own happiness and to contribute to the good of the nation as a whole.

While the implementation of Jefferson’s plan today is impractical as it would entail a massive and infeasible overhaul of the American public education system, there is a great deal of insight to be gained from his vision, which, in turn, can be applied to education today. Jefferson’s central goal in the first level of education, for example, is a worthy central goal for primary and secondary schools today. The dual emphasis on teaching historical knowledge and inculcating moral virtue in the course of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic is certain to provide the sort of education that a free society requires, and that students in many American schools are not being provided today. Such an education-for-liberty presents a stark contrast with the vocationalism and moral bankrupcy which currently permeate public education and are certain to produce an ignorant and ineffective electorate.

Similarly, Jefferson’s emphasis on the knowledge of language in adolescence is sound advice that could easily, and no doubt with great rewards, be implemented at the primary and secondary levels. Greek and Latin, in particular, are languages that put one in touch with the heritage of Western Civilization, grant one access to the wealth of wisdom recorded in these languages, and contribute to the development of logical thinking in children. This latter point, especially, is one that might be emphasized in response to the current clamoring after the rather nebulous and ever-shifting skill of “critical thinking.” A mastery of the English language and a fair knowledge of Latin or Greek and one additional European language seems hardly too much to ask of graduates from America’s high schools, yet it is a great deal more than is being asked now.

Ultimately, what Jefferson is proposing is a liberal education adapted to the needs and abilities of each citizen, which will, in turn, contribute to the greater good of the nation as a whole. In so doing, he undermines the pseudo-aristocracies of wealth and birth which had led to the despotisms of the old world while simultaneously avoiding the opposite extreme, which is taking hold in the United States now, of an enforced and artificial equality. Jefferson’s plan of an informed and virtuous citizenry coupled with equality of access to quality education for persons of natural talent is worthy of serious consideration today. A liberal education of the sort outlined by Jefferson is the only kind of education suited to a people who possess liberty and wish to keep it.

[1] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams–Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 389.

[2] Ibid., 389–390.

[3] Ibid., 388.

[4] Ibid., 390.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 153.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Ibid., 156.

[9] Ibid., 154.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 154–155.

[12] Ibid., 155.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814, in Cappon, The Adams–Jefferson Letters, 432.

[16] On which, see Plato, The Republic 451–457 and 415, respectively.

[17] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 155.

Book Review: The Education of Black People by W. E. B. Du Bois

Among all of the voices clamoring for attention in today’s buzzword-laden and technically-oriented world of education, Du Bois’s is, unfortunately, one that is rarely heard. Yet it is one that has the potential to contribute to modern debates over education in its unique character as a voice that fervently advocated in favor of liberal education of African Americans.

Though there are great differences, both in philosophical content and in tone, between these various speeches and essays, written over a period of 54 years, there remains Du Bois’s constant belief that the best sort of education for any student is a liberal education that begins with his own culture and heritage. With this basis firmly established, the student may then move on to discovering universal truths through the exploration of other cultures and heritages. With this wisdom, he is able to return to his own culture and heritage with a keen eye for what is universal and what merely parochial, as well as what is best and what needs improvement within his own culture.

While Du Bois argued specifically for access for African Americans to such an education, his arguments apply to any group of people anywhere. And his ideas certainly deserve their fair hearing today in a world where the technical has crowded out the liberal in education from kindergartens through graduate schools and where a misapplied multiculturalism has reduced rather than increased the cultural knowledge of the average student.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in education, especially as that subject relates to American and African American history.

Book Review: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

Du Bois is perhaps the greatest and most under-read African-American voice of the 20th century. What he offers here is an analysis of race in the United States that remains as relevant now, more than a hundred years hence, as when it was first written in 1903. His prescription to remedying the racial divide and gap in achievement between African-Americans and European-Americans is a combination of political involvement and higher education which will result in African-Americans building up a cultural heritage from the primitive roots already in place while become at once part of the mainstream of American life.

Access to a liberal education for African-Americans is one of the most powerful points that Du Bois stresses, and it is one that has, unfortunately, not improved much since this book was written. In fact, it has become more difficult not only for African-Americans to receive a liberal education, but for all Americans to receive such an education. The current focus on “STEM” and “college and career readiness” in America’s public schools has only served to bolster the Book T. Washington-model of technical training over the Du Bois model of an education for thinkers and leaders.

The result is that all culture, including African-American culture, has been degraded. Not only does a black school child not have access to Shakespeare; he often no longer has access to the treasures of his own culture in Negro spirituals and in the great works of great men like Du Bois. Instead, “language arts” teacher, with their misnamed discipline, import rap songs into the classroom in a condescending and debasing attempt to make a curriculum without meaning seem, just for a moment, like it has real relevance to the lives of their students. Meanwhile, the true things of perpetual relevance — Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — are cast aside in favor of higher standardized test scores and employment in technical, service, and labor jobs.

Even the great liberal arts universities have gotten in on the debasement and condescension, with an Ivy League school recently publishing a book of annotated hip hop lyrics. Meanwhile, little boys and girls across the United States, both black and white, are further removed from access to the great ideas and the eternal things, the things that will make them not “black” and “white” but human in the fullest and truest sense of that word.

Du Bois is an essential read for anyone who is seeking to understand race in America, both in history and today, as well as anyone interested in giving access to a full and happy life to all people of whatever race.

That life which meat nourishes

The hundred hills of Atlanta are not all crowed with factories. On one, toward the west, the setting sun throws three buildings in bold relief against the sky. The beauty of the group lies in its simple unity: — a broad lawn of green rising from the red street with mingled roses and peaches; north and south, two plain and stately halls; and in the midst, half hidden in ivy, a larger building, boldly graceful, sparingly decorated, and with one low spire. It is a restful group, — one never looks for more; it is all here, all intelligible. There I live, and there I hear from day to day the low hum of restful life. In winter’s twilight, when the red sun glows, I can see the dark figures pass between the halls to the music of the night-bell. In the morning, when the sun is golden, the clang of the day-bell brings the hurry and laughter of three hundred young hearts from hall and street, and from the busy city below, — children all dark and heavy-haired, — to join their clear young voices in the music of the morning sacrifice. In a half-dozen class-rooms they gather then, — here to follow the love song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander among men and nations, — and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queer world. Nothing new, no time-saving devices, — simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal, — not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, pp. 62-3

Education and the person

At the heart of the debate over education in the United States and elsewhere in the modern world is a debate over the nature of a human being. On the one hand, there are those who deny that there is any such thing or assert, at least, that if such a thing exists it is malleable. The purpose of an education from this perspective, then, must be to shape the raw human material into the desired mold. In the 20th century, this model became the dominant model in American public education. The education system has seen its task as one of making the human being into the desired product: a worker, a consumer, and a “good citizen.” On the other hand, however, is the traditional approach to education, which sees the task of the educator not in making the person, but in leading the person along the path of discovery of self and world. As Russell Kirk points out in his essay “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” the purpose of a liberal education is “not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.”

The disappearance of the classics from public school curriculums and even from institutions of higher education across the United States is both a symptom and, in turn, a reinforcing cause of the current crisis in education. If human nature is malleable, the classics can safely be ignored. What does Socrates have to do with the modern world? In addition, with the theory that human nature is amorphous necessarily comes the elimination of any notion of an ideal human. If there is no human nature, there can be none who represent the greatest embodiments of or elucidations upon that nature. As a result, the very notion of classics can safely be discarded.

The irony here is markedly obvious, however. Faculty members of university humanities departments across the nation bewail the decline of majors in the humanities, while obstinately remaining blind to the causes of the destruction within themselves. By undermining the criteria by which certain books can be held up as the greatest literary achievements of mankind and extolled as classics of enduring value and significance, these professors have undermined their own existence as employed teachers of literature.

The result is that an ever increasing number of students are coming from public schools where the emphasis is on, as the newest curriculum fade phrases, it “college and career readiness.” These students then enter colleges and universities to seek degrees in fields which are seen as the most promising for a future career. They are trained, not educated, to enter the workforce and become “productive.” The means by which this can be achieved are twofold. There is, first, ignoring the question of human nature altogether. The student is instead distracted with a focus on technology and vocational training. The second is to indoctrinate the student along the way with a desire to be a “good citizen,” a person who fits into the mold of whatever ideal the state currently espouses.

All of this is, of course, a distortion and, often, a destruction of the human being. Man is not primarily and merely the producer, the wage-earner, or the voter. Each of these is, in fact, a perversion of some aspect of authentic human nature. Man is not merely a producer, but a creator, an entity with curiously and imagination. He is not a wage-earner and a voter, but a political animal, a creature made for social cooperation and communion with his fellow creatures.

If true liberal education is to be revived in the United States, the first step in the process is a restoration of a traditional understanding of human nature. It must be understood first that human nature is immutable. It must first be understood that Plato was the same sort of thing we today are. We must realize, as Russell Kirk says, that “Aristophanes and Socrates retain high significance for us” and that “Thucydides and Plutarch” have can teach us “much about our present time of troubles.” Only after the immutability of human nature has been established and accepted as fact can man at least fulfill the dictum at the heart of human life: “know thyself.”

It is only from this stance that the proper means and ends of education can be pursued. The educator, and the institution of which he is a part, must acknowledge and celebrate the immensity and permanence of the thing before them: the individual human being. It is then that the educator may set about discovering this thing rather than haphazardly and brutally attempting to force it into a mold into which it will not fit.


Virtues or Values?

Central among the numerous problematic features of education in the United States today is the movement away from the idea of virtue and the embrace of the alternative but decadent notion of values. Although the difference between the two ideas may seem slight at first, the contrast becomes evident upon examination of the respective definitions of the terms. Value, on the one hand, implies an arbitrary and temporary emphasis upon a certain object or activity. The “value” of a dollar, for instance, has declined significantly over the last century. The “value” of gold, however, continues to climb. Value is the worth attributed to something by individuals or some consensus among a certain group. Virtue, on the other hand, refers to moral and ethical standards whose value never fluctuates. A virtue is as good in one place and time as it is in any other. Cowardice, for example, is never virtuous; in other words, cowardice is never the good, right, or fitting thing. Courage, on the other hand, is never not a virtue; it is, in short, always and forever the right thing in all situations in all places.

It can be seen from this contrast why the idea of virtue has been replaced by the notion of value by modern educators. The notion of value fits into the prevalent idea that morals are culturally contingent, that, contrary to logic, a thing can be good in one place and not in another. The very existence of virtue, on the other hand, implies two further theses against which the modern mind rebels. The first implied thesis is that human nature is immutable, meaning that it does not change over time nor from culture to culture. There are, therefore, certain ways of “being human” which conform more closely than others to human nature and are more fitting and right. These necessarily are also more conducive to human happiness and development. The second thesis, even more troubling for the modern mind, is that if virtue does indeed exist there must necessarily be an eternal, transcendent, and objective standard which forms the foundation for virtue and, of course, an eternal, transcendent Standard-Giver beyond this. If virtue is everywhere and always good, good is not merely a matter of taste but a matter of the Good, in what might be called the Platonic sense.

Throughout most of the history of the philosophy of education, the constantly emphasis by wise thinkers has been about the formation of the young through virtue. Early Christian theories of education in particular emphasized the aspect of virtue in arguing for the proper Christian stance toward pre-Christian literature. In his treatise addressed “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” St. Basil the Great launched an extensive argument that the primary means by which Christian “young men” could “derive profit from pagan literature” is in drawing from those writings their lessons in virtue. “Since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours,” he says, “and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more still by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature.” Basil’s near-contemporary St. John Chrysostom, wrote an “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children” in which he exhorts parents first and foremost to “exercise this child’s soul in virtue.” In his “Letter to Laeta,” St. Jerome exhorts a young mother to care for her daughter Paula by centering her education from a young age in exhortations to and exhibitions of virtuous behavior.

One of the most famous examples of liberal learning among the Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, presents some special insight for the current situation of modern education. In his Confessions, Augustine wonders “what did it profit me, that all the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of affections, read by myself, and understood?” The rhetorical question here put has great implications for the modern movement away from teaching virtue in education. Although Augustine was extraordinarily well-educated, he found himself unable to discern what whether what he read “therein was true or certain.” He was unable to differentiate truth from falsehood because his own education lacked in the instillment of virtue. He, like so many children being educated in American schools today, was filled with interesting facts but unable to establish the meaning of these facts for his life. He, like them, was unable to find truth because the nature of the education he had received denied the very existence of truth in the proper and complete sense. Augustine was able to recover from the trauma of his education and discover truth later. How many American schoolchildren today will be able to do the same?