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Beyond the 2008 Election: How Do We Create a Better, More Educative Politics?

If you read this blog regularly, you can skip this. It’s a right-wing rant that does cite some interesting passages of Jefferson’s, but the link to the letter is directly below and more worthy of your time. I just feel that some things really need repeating, especially when my political views are in one key way very different from that of any major or minor candidate.

1. Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Banister, Jr: Paris Oct. 15. 1785:

What are the objects of an useful American education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, Civil history, and Ethics. In Natural philosophy, I mean to include Chemistry and Agriculture, and in Natural history, to include Botany, as well as the other branches of those departments. It is true that the habit of speaking the modern languages, cannot be so well acquired in America; but every other article can be as well acquired at William and Mary college, as at any place in Europe. When college education is done with, and a young man is to prepare himself for public life, he must cast his eyes (for America) either on Law or Physic.

Jefferson writes in 1789 to John Trumbull that he considers “Bacon, Locke and Newton… the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception… having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences.” Jefferson’s emphasis is on thinkers who are solely post-Machiavelli, who in deep ways reject classical/medieval understanding and insight. As we have discussed previously, the Federalist provides no exhortation to being more educated and in fact says that if every one at a meeting were Socrates, they would still bicker like everyone else does and get nothing done unless the meeting had a particular organization and there were incentives to act “better.” Ambition must be made to counter ambition, after all, and it isn’t clear learning changes anything in people.

In sum: I don’t think the American enterprise is terribly serious about education for the sake of getting people ready for public life or engaging deeper questions. Bacon, Newton and Locke had a very specific agenda for democracy, science and commerce. Notice that “public life” in the quote above by Jefferson is being a lawyer or a doctor, i.e. professional schooling that is geared toward private life in actuality. “Classical knowledge” is sufficiently vague as to mean “yeah, here’s some stuff Cicero said once about why politicians should be good people,” nothing about “being” vs. “becoming” and the foundations of religion and whether or not anyone has a natural title to rule.

On a practical level: the problem we have nowadays, where everything thinks they’re patriotic merely by declaring their self-interest loudly and selfishly, stems from an inability to engage deeper human concerns as well as the materialistic basis (nb: “useful”) of the curriculum above described. Notice how far “Ethics” is even from a survey of other religions, let alone a grounding in one religion.

2. One way around the problem of an education not creating an attachment to one’s own country, let alone serving it, is suggested by Jefferson in the letter above. You can just put every other country down:

If he goes to England, he learns drinking, horse racing and boxing. These are the peculiarities of English education. The following circumstances are common to education in that, and the other countries of Europe. He acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation, and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country; he is fascinated with the privileges of the European aristocrats, and sees, with abhorrence, the lovely equality which the poor enjoy with the rich, in his own country; he contracts a partiality for aristocracy or monarchy; he forms foreign friendships which will never be useful to him, and loses the season of life for forming in his own country, those friendships, which, of all others, are the most faithful and permanent; he is led by the strongest of all the human passions, into a spirit for female intrigue, destructive of his own and others’ happiness, or a passion for whores, destructive of his health, and, in both cases, learns to consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice, and inconsistent with happiness; he recollects the voluptuary dress and arts of the European women, and pities and despises the chaste affections and simplicity of those of his own country; he retains, through life, a fond recollection, and a hankering after those places, which were the scenes of his first pleasures and of his first connections; he returns to his own country, a foreigner, unacquainted with the practices of domestic economy, necessary to preserve him from ruin, speaking and writing his native tongue as a foreigner, and therefore unqualified to obtain those distinctions, which eloquence of the pen and tongue ensures in a free country…

There you go – if you go to Europe and try to learn there, you come back a traitor, you see poverty where you should see the frugality and virtue necessary for equality.

Of course, one little problem with “attack everyone else and the US will look great” is the US’ flirtation with moral libertarianism of the sort described above. Our moral libertarianism stems from our belief in technological progress and property rights creating a stable capitalist order: these twin beliefs, quite obviously, have not-so-subtle conflicts with a more religious or non-materialist sense of value. No eloquence can command distinction when everyone knows everything already. “Ethics,” “Civil history” and “Classical knowledge” can be twisted any way one likes. Right now, in accordance with popular opinion, “ethics” in medicine doesn’t really bother with how many babies one needs to kill in order to maybe get a cure for a disease. The disease must be cured, all hail our faith in technology. “Civil history” and “classical knowledge” emphasize multicultural themes, a product of our diversity, our extending property rights universally, consistently – not exceptionally – at the expense of the truth. Now there are legitimate reasons for wanting technological progress at nearly any cost, as well as embracing multiculturalism, don’t get me wrong.

But I’d be lying to you if I told you that the academy in the US wasn’t rabidly Leftist; I wish I could be more balanced about this, but I’ve been through it, and I’ve said before the only way we’re going to get a balanced education is to make the various parties in this country educate truly regarding their own ideologies. Yes, that means the Democratic party will have to teach Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Dewey, Rawls explicitly, and I’m all for that. Let the Left see that their thought isn’t Gospel, and certainly not “obvious,” but is nuanced, worthy of contemplation and responds to thoughtful and serious objections on the Right. As it stands now, the academy doesn’t even pretend like the sources of Progressive thought matter, because there is no debate; the emphasis is on media and activism.

3. I think you can see how modern conservatism implicitly accepts and encourages the modern Left: unlike most conservatives, I don’t hold some conspiracy theory that a few Leftist elites changed this country. At every step of the way, conservatives could have stood up for what they believed, but rarely did.

There seems to be a hole in the reasoning among the Founders – they either think the mechanism of the Constitution will keep factions minimized, or that we’ll somehow stay homogeneous enough we won’t hate our country openly (there are plenty on the Left and Right who have serious attachments to other nations, to the point of funding the IRA or Serbian nationalists or Hamas) – and the Right just doesn’t acknowledge this is a problem. In fact, the funny thing about the Right is how it already considers itself educated before it even goes to argue anything. So I hold the only way that this can be fixed is if the Republican party educates, meaning that Jefferson, the Federalist, Lincoln, Churchill, Milton Friedman, etc. need to be studied and critiqued through partisan gatherings. In other words: politics is a 24/7 endeavor that requires some degree of expertise and grounding, not just something junkies do via C-Span and sites like freerepublic.

But even with what I’m proposing, notice: none of the poetry and philosophy covered in this blog have any explicit relevance to the task ahead. All I’m doing with recommending that the parties educate is that those who are political recognize that in some way, they are subordinate to knowledge, that just because they’re part of a winning party declaring something to be right doesn’t mean they’re actually correct about anything. What I hope is that both parties become less fanatical and more deliberative, certainly able to make each other party’s best argument.

The poetry and philosophy still stand above. The trouble with modern politics is that obsessing about mores and rule neglects both what is natural and what is divine. In one way, this is good for politics – it means the limits of politics should be clear. In another way, a politics so fundamentally divorced from higher sorts of knowledge means that the best people never really will rule until it is too late, and that does have tragic consequences.

2 Comments

  1. What are the objects of an useful American education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, Civil history, and Ethics. In Natural philosophy, I mean to include Chemistry and Agriculture, and in Natural history, to include Botany, as well as the other branches of those departments. It is true that the habit of speaking the modern languages, cannot be so well acquired in America; but every other article can be as well acquired at William and Mary college, as at any place in Europe.Thomas jefferson said that and I agree..

  2. Reading this reminded me of Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ and his becoming frustrated with students for becoming “stupid”. His lament was that today’s educational system is inherently flawed. I completely agree with him that the system is teaching worthless principles while ignoring others, such as creating thinking individuals. Higher education, which once taught to think. now teaches disposable learning and conversion to a flock mentality. It discourages the liberty of thought of the free thinkers that built the foundation of our country. It’s interesting to note that some of the most powerful business owners in the United States do not possess college degrees. I’m glad that you are one educated by this same system, that isn’t afraid to point out that it is flawed.

    I’m also disturbed that the country has become so accepting and tolerant of the liberal viewpoints that are eroding all the good in the country and filling the void with everything vile, worthless, and destructive. At some point, I had hoped that more conservatives in positions with media attention would have stepped up and called a spade a spade. I’m still waiting for that day.

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