Could we restore a liberal education?

James Madison

We would do better if modern educators were as familiar with the educational ideas of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as they are with those of John Dewey.

Peter Lawler is a writer I’ve been following for the past couple of years. He labels himself a “postmodern conservative” which caught my attention, because I’d decided that although I’d learned quite a lot from the postmodernists, it seemed to me that they were inside a bubble and though inside that bubble their views held, they thought the bubble was reality and I thought it was only a bubble.

He’s writing a series looking at contemporary American education through the “lens” of Tocqueville’s thought. His focus is on higher ed, but the main issues are completely applicable to what has happened in secondary ed. In Part 3, “Is it all about the soul?” he notes signs of America’s educational decline: “We can see that, in fact, most of the best theoretical programs can be found in our country today, but a strikingly disproportionate percentage of the students and professors didn’t grow up here.  We know enough to spend the money, but we’re not so good in raising and educating kids to become the most top-flight of scientists.”

He suggests that this is because we are losing a framework for thinking about the soul, without which even our technological thinking atrophies. As we neglect the importance of the soul, our language becomes “more abstract and technical, using words like input when what is really meant is opinion. Language becomes less attuned to the personal longings of the being who loves, dies, and is open to truth about all things.”

Without steady replenishment from the ancient writers, who were “all about the soul,” we become a people among whom “poetry, and philosophy will lose ground.”

When he taught at Amherst in the 1930s, Robert Frost observed that changes advocated by apostles of endless innovation and experimentation would lead to the replacement of philosophy and literature with psychology and social sciences. This has happened to such an extent that it would be a rare occurrence, these days, to find an educator who understood what loss that change entailed.

What it has entailed, unfortunately, is that we are no longer in conversation with the great thinkers of the past–with the best that has been thought and said about the enduring questions. We can marvel, somewhat, at the depth and breadth of the understanding of such as Madison and Jefferson, but we have radically curtailed the sort of education that produced such leaders. They had a profound understanding of the intimate connection between the quality of our education and the fate of our republic.

Two things seem clear to me about today’s schools: first, our well-being and perhaps our survival as a free and self-governing people depend on some of us or many of us engaging in a deep conversation with America’s Founders, and with the sources of their insight, about the meaning of the American republic, and second, any such conversation is not going to emerge among those who have power and authority in the schools we’ve built. They speak of change incessantly, but they are nearly the last people with either the education or the motivation to question the status quo.

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