THE PURPOSE OF LIBERAL EDUCATION
By George Forsyth
With this issue The Claremont Review of Books closes its first year of publication. Needless to say, it has been an instructive year for the editors. To all of those who have written for these pages, to our readers in Claremont and around the country, and especially to Mr. Mark Greenburg of the Institute for Educational Affairs, and to Dr. Peter Schramm of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship, we express our deepest appreciation.
The Claremont Review of Books is a journal of liberal education. Originally it seemed to us a good thing to publish such a journal, because the purpose of liberal education and its contribution to society have become questionable. As a first statement of the matter, it can be said that the purpose of liberal education is to produce gentlemen and gentlewomen. The questionableness of this purpose comes into view when we reflect on a very common way of speaking about higher education today. We often hear it said that the purpose of our colleges and universities is to produce executives, managers, or professionals. The notion behind these terms is that of institutional responsibilities and specialized skills. What is the corresponding notion behind the words gentlemen and gentlewomen? Again, as a first statement of the matter, we may say that goodness is the underlying idea of the gentleman. The distance between goodness and professionalism is the distance between a quality of character and a technique. Undeniably modern society requires individuals trained in advanced techniques, but can it dispense with qualities of character?
The problem is nicely illustrated in Whose Body?, by Dorothy Sayers. In that story, a brilliant surgeon commits a rather sensational murder in a spirit of revenge. The best killer is the trained healer. In the course of the novel, we discover that the surgeon is under the conviction that all human sentiments are physiological, including the sentiments of morality. The belief, for example, that a doctor is a healer, not a killer, is a purely physical phenomenon with no moral obligation about it. The only morality is the life-force, which amounts to the statement that ethics is big fish eating little fish.
Of course any society in which a good number of its members believed in such ideas and acted upon them would soon come apart at the seams. Social life requires a common morality among the members. So strong is this requirement that a common morality usually obtains in any society, so much so that most of the members, most of the time, can get along quite nicely without ever thinking of morals. There is, however, a real danger in this absent-mindedness; the danger of forgetting what one is about. This is rather a strong danger in present day society, at least among the educated classes as Miss Sayers's novel illustrates.
It would seem that the question of character is of decisive importance for any human association. Yet it is precisely this question that modern, liberal societies seem to try to avoid. The American Constitution, for example, makes no provision for the education of the citizenry or of their leaders. Instead, the Framers of the Constitution sought to design institutions that through their own principle of operation would "supply the defect of better motives" in the officers of government. They acted, it would seem from their own words, on Kant's dictum that even a society of devils can sustain a good government if only they will learn how to think.
Present legal reformers who seek to abolish so-called victimless crimes appear to be carrying out this fundamental insight of the Founders. A political community can put aside questions of character if only it can persuade its members that their own best interests are served by adhering to certain procedures. Selfishness is a better guardian of the common weal than virtue. Of course selfishness is not one of the attributes of the gentleman, and to the extent that liberal education has the cultivation of a good character as its end, to that extent is liberal education superfluous in a liberal society. We need technicians, not gentlemen.
This libertarian view of liberal society falls down when we ask the question, who wants to live in a well ordered, even a well governed, society of devils? The answer is that nobody does. Nor is it credible to argue that the men of 1776, who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of American liberty, understood it in these terms. The society of enlightened self-interest falls apart under the pressure of extreme cases: selfishness is an inadequate motive for whole classes of men to risk the penalty of treason.
Perhaps we need to take another look at the American commitment to self-government. In Federalist No. 1 Publius explains the choice confronting the American people in these terms:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.
It is clear that by good government Publius means self-government; not only the self-government of the American people as a whole, but the self-government of individuals over themselves. This second theme is not addressed explicitly by Publius in The Federalist, which is concerned with a public and political, not a private and ethical subject. The libertarian interpretation of the Constitution, however, applies the principles of the public sphere, expressly discussed by Publius, to the private or ethical sphere. It seems only fair to approach the subject the other way around. After all, the question of self-government for societies of men appears to be only an extension of the question of individual self-government; that is, the question of morals. For what could be more plain than that self-government is impossible for communities if the individuals who make the community are slaves to passion? And on this point it makes little difference whether passion means enzymes, or the forces of history, or the dictates of fate. If individual men and women are puppets of gods or glands, the very idea of self-government from reflection and choice is an absurdity. Constitutional choice on the basis of reflection implies individual choice on the same basis: good government implies good men.
The problem, of course, is how do we go about raising good men? Publius' attitude towards this problem is only a secondary consideration. But, since the opinions of the Framers are important in a constitutional regime, we can attempt to answer this point as well. It is not a recondite matter. In the first place, the Federal Union had certain definite powers delegated to it. The remainder were retained by the states. Among these was public education. Now the state governments were understood as political communities in the original sense of the term, no matter how you read Publius' exposition of the Constitution. The division of the duties of government between the state and the federal level did come to grief over the issue of slavery, but there is no doubt that the original constitutional settlement left the states with the full responsibility of civic education in the relevant sense. Therefore, Publius does not address the question of civil education, because he is not talking about state governments.
In the second place, the American people were in the large majority practicing Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries. Because of this fact civic education was not, as Tocqueville observed in the 1830's, a pressing public question. What we now call basic moral values enjoyed the massive support of public opinion, which made them as effective as they ever can be in any human society. It should go without saying that this consensus did not preclude conflicts over public morals. However, it did keep certain issues out of the public arena, which today, with changed public sentiment, cause us so much difficulty. As vexing as these questions may be, it is not historically accurate to lay the blame for them at the door of the Framers. If we want to name a responsible party or parties for our contemporary confusions, we would do well to look to modern medicine, psychoanalytic theory, value-free social science, and to the impact of certain philosophical stances like existentialism on the Christian Churches.
In the third place, we must remember to study Publius' words in light of his deeds. Publius is the pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Their deeds were not, to say no more of the matter, always as harmonious as were their words in The Federalist. Yet each of them in his own way provided a splendid example of disinterested public service as a model for future generations. Publius indeed wrote in Federalist No. 10 that statesmanship is no guarantee against majority tyranny, because statesmen will not always be at the helm. It does not follow that he thought a good and just government was possible if statesmen were never at the helm. In the careers and characters of men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, as well as many others, is all the civil education a free people should need.
In a free society a man is on his own: to learn the lessons of religion or to ignore them; to profit from the wisdom of the past or to set out on a different course; to strive for excellence in every endeavor or to settle for mere expertise and vulgar wealth. Publius' commitment to democracy reflected his faith that the people of our country would make the right choices. But that faith required him to allow them to make the wrong ones. The society that most requires the human type which is the product of liberal education must leave its members free to accept or to reject that education. The consequences of that rejection are grim-as grim as the story in Miss Sayers's book. But we can make the right choices as individuals and as a nation. We can learn to make use of the wisdom of the past in the changed circumstances of the present. We can make ourselves over into gentlemen and gentlewomen. This is at once the opportunity and the challenge of free society.