Thursday, March 21st, 2013
In last week’s edition of the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Mark Blitz, a professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, looks at the challenge of encouraging a liberal education that aims for excellence in a land that is devoted to equality and liberty. Does conserving liberty in a democratic regime necessarily mean an overall decline to an equality of mediocrity? What is the role of primary and secondary schools in educating students for liberty?
Do or must regimes devoted to liberty diminish serious education? The short answer is that they need not, although they do now. They need not because a link exists between liberty and liberal education. Authoritative self-direction suggests that no one blocks me in what I seek; this is consistent with responsibly securing equal rights. It also suggests that I can see and consider the possible goods I might choose, and that my understanding can grasp the general conditions for which I could take responsibility. Liberty requires more than appropriate lack of external limits and restrictions. It requires an expansive mind if it is to be true self-direction.
For much expansiveness, liberal education is beneficial if not necessary. This is a chief reason why liberty and enlightenment go hand in hand. This union also is meant to decrease the influence of religion and of ascription generally. Liberal education is one cause of the weakening of the implicit power of traditional institutions.
Liberal education and, especially, mass education beyond economic need seems nonetheless to counter excellence precisely because it is so widespread. What could it mean to teach literature or philosophy seriously to so many who are apparently unable to give them the subtle attention they deserve? Moreover, education’s tendency to try to be useful seems exacerbated in liberal democracy. The emphasis on material expansion and technology means that advanced education is largely technical—agricultural, commercial, legal, and scientific.
Yet, this emphasis was once compatible with a deep grasp of our political principles. In fact, this grasp seemed to exist even with grammar or secondary education alone. The technically-minded founders and the technically-minded Lincoln are obviously unsurpassed by anyone today. And even at a more general level, the notion that The Federalist was meant to sway votes and be widely read would bemuse or frighten today’s political consultants and advisers. . . .
If we are to conserve excellence it is essential to preserve education as an opening to what is truly good. In fact, this orientation can belong together coherently with a deep or proper understanding of rights. Education is a central place (together with family) where people’s hopes can be elevated—something especially vital in a country where serious aspirations, difficult enough to find to begin with, are often directed toward the trivial.
Related: Check out Rita Koganzon’s essay for the Program on American Citizenship, “Education for Liberty? The Shortcomings of Contemporary Civic Education Theories.”