Burn This Book! Part I

This essay on the suicide of higher learning, a crime that has been in  progress for five centuries, was first published 20 years ago, though a number of additions and revisions have been made.  

Why do we send our children to school, much less to a college or a university?  I have put this question to any number of parents, teachers, and headmasters and only rarely received a better answer than: “So they can get a good job.”  Never having had what most people call a good job, I take their word for it that taking out tonsils or keeping felons out of jail constitutes a good job, so long as it brings in more than 100k in the second or third year of practice.  

But, surely it doesn’t take 20 years of schooling to learn how to draw up a contract or even to perform a triple by-pass operation.  These technical skills could be taught successfully to teenagers who would be ready to receive their licenses by the age they normally enter (or at least finish) college.  In fact, many American parents who want to prepare their children for a vocation are looking away from traditional colleges, which cost annually as much as a lower middle class worker makes in a year, and they are turning to apprenticeships and community colleges as cheaper methods of acquiring “the job skills you need in this competitive world,” as the brochures put it, or more recently “career training for the new millennium.”

I think we can take it as given that colleges and universities are a waste of time and money—staffed, as they are, by lazy and incompetent anti-intellectuals, and, while “higher” education has declined since the days of my youth when I learned Greek in a ramshackle Victorian house on Green Street in Charleston (or was it College Street?), American colleges have not amounted to much at any time in this century.  Jacques Barzun and Thomas Molnar railed against the educational standards of the 50’s and 60’s, and Albert Jay Nock was ridiculing the universities of his day over 50 years ago, pointing out that education had declined sharply between the 1880’s and the 1930’s.  If there was a golden age of American education, it was clearly before the Revolution, when men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were growing up.  It has been a hundred years since we had professors as educated as they were, to say nothing of presidents.

I also take it as given that there is a reason (apart from job skills or the need to reduce competition for jobs) that we stick young men and women in college for four to five crucial years of their lives.  To discover that purpose, as it was once understood, we have to go back to the ideals of the Renaissance humanists or back further still to Quintilian, who defined the end-result of a training in rhetoric was a “good man skilled in speaking,” that is a person of good character who had been trained to put his talents to useful purposes.

That ancient rhetorical curriculum, whose sources lie both in the Greek experience and in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, was eventually Christianized and turned into the Medieval curriculum of “liberal arts.”  In recent years, the expression liberal arts, when it does not evoke a sneer, is usually glossed as “the liberating arts,” or as I put it some years ago, "the arts that turn out liberals.  

I was surprised to learn that this interpretation goes back at least to Montaigne, who must have known that it was not literally true, that in fact the artes liberales (from Greek technai eleutherai) were the pursuits worthy of a free man (as opposed to the training given to a slave, peasant, or manual worker).  In his essay on the “Education of Children,” Montaigne wanted to debunk the French schooling of his day, and in talking about the proper subjects of study, he puts moral studies first, adding this curious aphorism: “Among the liberal arts, let us begin with the art that makes us free.” (Entre les arts liberaux, commençons par l’art qui nous faict libres.)  

Free from what?  He does not just say, though the purpose of Montaigne’s essay—of all his essays, in fact—is the type of liberation that has been sought by schoolmen throughout the past century, and it is worth our effort to spend a little time wrestling with this slippery Frenchman of five centuries ago.

Montaigne had begun his education at home under a system devised by an indulgent father who prescribed that nothing but Latin should be spoken in young Michel’s presence.  By the age of five or six, he had learned enough to be able to read it for the rest of his life as if it were his mother tongue.  Sent to an ordinary school, Michel rebelled against the routine and especially against the discipline:

I have always disliked this system of discipline in most of our schools.  They might have erred with less damage on the side of indulgence.  It is a veritable jail for imprisoned youth.

Like nearly all modern educators, Montaigne believed that strict rules and severe punishments were counter-productive, and he wanted education to proceed according to the natural bent of the child.  He was an early advocate, in other words, of “child-centered” learning, who would make a science out of children’s games, which “are not games,” he said, and “have to be judged as their most serious activities.”  What Montaigne failed (or refused) to consider is the basic purpose of education, which is not to stuff information into children’s heads or even to teach them Latin.  “The end,” as Calder Willingham expressed it in the title of the only real novel ever written about the Citadel, “is a man.”

[In case anyone did not notice, the wretched Pat Conroy's "The Lords of Discipline," is an attack on Citadel teachers, classmates, and administrators who tried to help the troubled youth.]

Montaigne certainly agreed that the purpose of studying was not pedantry but character development, but like many social parvenus (his father was descended from a long line of increasingly wealthy merchants, his mother a Protestant of Spanish Jewish background), he was more concerned with being a gentleman than with being merely a man, much less a good man.  All healthy and successful cultures have been aggressively virile: Athens almost as much as Sparta, the Hebrews of Joshuah’s time and the Romans of the early republic, medieval Europe and medieval Japan, frontier America, but manliness in any ordinary sense of the word was not a virtue in the eyes of a French cynic.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Josh Doggrell says:

    Fantastic. Looking forward to the next one.