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Russell Kirk’s fourth published article, “A Conscript on Education,” appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 44 (1945), 82-99.  As I started editing it for quotes to publish here at The Imaginative Conservative, I came to realize–very, very quickly–that the argument and writing were simply too good to break into parts. I often criticize my students for highlighting too much of a text–but I found myself highlighting every part of this article. So, to honor Kirk and the article, I’ve decided to reprint the entire piece. Here is part one.  Enjoy.


Much is said of the mighty role our men now in arms will play in civil life, once the battle is won. The opinion seems to be general that our troops need to be enlightened. Mrs. Roosevelt wants officers to lead their men in round-table discussions; the Army has its specialized-training program, designed to remedy in this brief hour the deficiencies of the generation; Russians rescued from the Vichy French are amazed at the political ignorance of the American soldier—a species of ignorance we cannot view as wholly unblissful. If, then, we warriors are to shape the globe anew and are to be taught global architecture, a conscript sergeant, a military speck in the mass of our armies, may venture to inquire concerning the type of intellect with which he should equip himself for the purpose—and, more important, to inquire if anyone has remembered that intelligence, benevolent or malign, has far more to do with making new worlds than have dreams and machines.

In a recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly, George Boas expressed his interesting opinion of what sort of minds soldiers should have: “If training men in trigonometry and physics and chemistry, to the detriment of the humanities, will win the war, then for God’s sake and our own, let us forget our Greek, our Latin, our art, our literature, our history, and get to business learning trigonometry and physics and chemistry.”

When a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins is thus hero­ically willing to sacrifice other men’s educations upon the altar of Mars, it is time we began the reexamination of fundamentals in learning. When, beginning with a dubious premise, he concludes that the intellectual tradition of mankind should be ignored, even temporarily, upon the ubiquitous excuse of the totality of war, we may, well begin to think that our educational system is insecurely supported; and it is a moot point whether the sort of “liberal” educa­tion in which most students are immersed be superior to a course in welding. Education in these United States has reached a sorry point if another pronouncement of Professor Boas’s be sound; for, writing of the scholar in arms, he tells us: “All the learning in the world is not worth the experience which he will gain from his mili­tary career; and if he is killed, at least he will not have asked some­one else to die for him. It might not be surprising to hear the headmaster of a military preparatory school expounding a doctrine which exalts above his vic­tim the legionary who slew Archimedes; but to listen to this cry of “sound, sound the clarion, sound the fife,” coming from the ivory tower is another matter. It is an opinion which differs only in degree from an important article of faith in the credo of those states now contesting with us the mastery of the earth, whose intellectual principles we profess to despise. Before commencing our work of world reformation, it might pay us to consider whether we are going to beat the Nazis and enlighten them, or beat the Nazis and join them. We are fit to weigh this question only if we retain some vestige of the liberal learning so quickly cast aside in one crowded hour of glorious life; and it is to be feared that a smattering of trigonometry and physics and chemistry is not sufficient to make the mind liberal. The physical sciences have their place, a respect­able one; but they, primarily, do not win wars; the human spirit still does that; and physical sciences certainly cannot suffice for the men who are to make and maintain a peace, who are to establish liberty and justice, who are to set free the body and the mind.

The whole neglected realm of education needs a more thorough survey than any Congressional committee could give it; already we may be making blunders that will prove nearly irreparable. Are we teaching ourselves to govern the world? Are we teaching ourselves to govern ourselves? The author of Into the Valley has his soldiers exalt pie, as the symbol of their sacrifice; but if we are to win no more from this melee than another piece of pie and another pat of butter, and at the same time lose much of what remains of our intellectual birthright, our ecstasy over the restoration of the four freedoms will have been as sorry a show as the salvation and subsequent backsliding of a streetcorner sot. A physical victory by ourselves and our allies now has become inevitable; but our intellectual victory still is in doubt. It may prove more difficult for us to think clearly and loftily than it is for us to strike lustily and often; but without one triumph, the other is worth little.

In a talk delivered in Detroit, the versatile and mercurial John Erskine announced that the mechanization and technicalization of American education alarm him very little. He dreads not the blow this war strikes at liberal learning, which, he implied, is of small im­port. College teachers are unable to agree upon what a good book is; and, by deduction, a good book doesn’t matter much. Professor Erskine held a different opinion when he wrote that penetrating little volume The Delight of Great Books; but it appears that principles do indeed change with times, and that Paris still is worth a mass. Yet there is truth in his observation that colleges have not fulfilled their implicit pledges during these past decades; and evidence of this is the fact that a professor of literature of considerable popular distinction can speak thus sneeringly of liberal learning. When our teachers have reached this pass, what of their students? Archibald MacLeish and others find it fashionable to declare that our intellec­tuals have betrayed us in our hour of need; they have been tried and found wanting, our enthusiasts cry. So they have, but may not the roll-call of these unfaithful highbrows include the names of Boas and Erskine and MacLeish? There is too much loose talk of treason in these days; but if we are to accept the definition of our flag-wavers, literary and political—i.e., treason is the absence of enthusi­asm—these beaters of drums and brandishers of swords stand con­victed. They have damned liberal education by their sneers, not for its faults, but for its very principles. If a time should come when no one is interested enough in letters to buy even the books of these writers, they will have themselves to reproach. American educa­tion has been failing dismally; the rot at the heart becomes apparent, and some of the grubs gnawing away there have distinguished names. But it is of no avail to rail at our own faults; we must identify and begin to remedy them, before this war and its subsequent new order have doomed true knowledge. We might have done a better job of managing this world since 1918, had our schools been better; we certainly would have been wiser and happier in adversity; and there is little reason to talk of postwar planning if we ignore the basis of all sound plans, knowledge. What then is wrong with our schools?

It is true that the average graduate of our colleges knows neither how to live nor how to think. His four years of membership in the academic body served chiefly to muddle his mind, to blur the sound prejudices in it. He cannot tell you how Cato died at Utica, or who Rasselas was, or what John Stuart Mill had to say about liberty. Shade of Macaulay’s schoolboy! As a corollary of his ig­norance in these matters, he does not know what he wants in life— other than “progress,” unwitting pragmatist that he is—or for what he is willing to die. Is this the man to rule both the world and himself? His, it is to be feared, would be a Roman peace. It is even difficult for him to write a coherent letter. He can tell you something of sports; he knows that there is a Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago; he has had a course in principles of sociology, and feels vaguely that social security is a good thing; he may even recall a few chemical formulae. Is this our proconsul? Is this our Brave New Man, who is to be the recipient of the delights of a broader life?

It is true that the average human honorably discharged from our high schools feels like a lost soul. Philosophy, rhetoric, the arts, history, music, belles-lettres, the pleasures of the mind—what has he had to do with these? His teachers, for the most part, laughed such toys to scorn, or else spoke of them with hypocritical veneration, as of the dead. He has been taught to adjust himself to modern life; and yet he finds modern life singularly uncooperative. He has been stuffed, unwillingly, with civics and vocations and shop-work, primed to be an obedient cog in the social machine. Although he has been shown how to make ash trays out of tin cans, he is given a job as a truck driver. Though he may have industriously tormented cats in the anatomy lab, he finds himself behind the counter of a grocery store. All this projected harmony with the New Living has made him none too prosperous in the material sense. Sometimes he realizes, dimly, how unprosperous it has made him spiritually. As a soldier, he feeds his mind with comic books; he learns his strategy from Captain Midnight, not from General Lee. He is often brave enough; he is warmhearted, sufficiently honest; he has the veneer of civilization. Too often he wants penetration, constancy, firmness of purpose. He can fight; but so can the Nazi, whose education is incomparably worse. Can he convert or subdue the world? Can he convert or subdue himself? Will he not be among the new bonus-marchers rather than with MacLeish in the clouds? He knows not whither he goes, nor has he any guide but his own vacillating will. It is time we remembered the words of Burke: “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

True, a minority come from our schools with reason and imagi­nation. Some have read philosophy; some even have a philosophy. The fact that men can continue to love books and to study character, despite the handicaps with which our materialistic educational sys­tem burdens them, is evidence of the tenacity of truth and of the virility of classical education. There still are some who would rather read the pages of Plutarch than those of Erskine Caldwell. It is not too late to increase this minority to a majority—a majority, that is, of the men and women capable of reflection, leadership, and self-government. Many a fine mind falls into Vanity Fair or the Slough of Despond for want of guidance and sympathy. The roots of the tree of liberal learning are not dead.

The liberal learning meant is the sort of knowledge that sets men’s minds free. The most important question of our era, as of every age, is not the political question; it is the personal and intellectual puzzle. Free minds are those elevated above the sordidness of everyday life. Everyday life will be sordid under any New Order, men being creatures of passion. Let the state of the nation be what it may, the man of liberal mind need not despair; he has his mem­ories, his books, his ideals. These elements are worth more than Utopia. But there is a worldly, utilitarian value in liberal learning, too. So long as we are bent upon Utopia, we must have minds that can conceive Utopia, that know Utopia has to be built of stone, not of air. A liberally educated man has a great store of general knowledge and common sense; ignorant enthusiasm cannot remake the world. Let us weigh a single example: our view of the Germans.

A great many people, some of them prominent, find it clever, nowadays, to declare that they consider the Nazi in particular and the German in general a distinct species, not amenable to the natural laws of humanity. Perhaps we have not been so silly in this respect as we were during the last war with Germany; but our folly is more ominous now; men are suggesting in print that we deal with Germans accordingly. The gentle voice of Ernest Hemingway is uplifted in favor of literal emasculation. Clifton Fadimans, in their popular abhorrence of the Teuton, tend, unconsciously, toward the theories of nice maintained by Rosenberg and Goebbels. We are rightly unwilling to concede that the Jews are a people irrevocably apart, possessed of emotions and characteristics peculiar to them; yet we proclaim that the German is such a creature, a sort of pulp magazine, Martian being. While our eyes are opened no more widely than this, we shall not subdue the German; we shall not reform him; we may not even beat him; and we are not likely to judge of any other nation more wisely. Only the state, the army, and the man of liberal mind can defeat an enemy and win him to friendship, or, at least, passivity. One of the first principles of liberal learning is the uni­versality and timelessness of human nature.

Liberal education frees the mind; it also frees men. Why, then, have we scoffed and kicked learning of the old school. Perhaps be­cause of our national passion for novelty; “new methods,” “progres­sive education” (that siren of progress—toward what?). We have turned from the classics to the lathe because of our fetishes of crea­ture comforts and material aggrandizement. We have forsworn the old ways because of our love of ease; for true learning is difficult to acquire, and modern studies, from sand-pouring to hotel adminis­tration, require a minimum of effort. Our vices have betrayed us; our folly and our sloth have had their way; and now, when we need men of lofty mind, broad views, and stern integrity, we find ourselves a nation enamored of fads, fierce passions, and selfish materialism. In part, the moans of anguished motorists, the riots in Detroit, and the coal strikes were the products of our educational failure.

Our colleges fail miserably; but they cannot hope for great im­provement until there is reform in public schools. College fresh­men pour into ivied halls ignorant of grammar, of orthography, of English literature, of modern and ancient languages, of scientific theory, of geography, of history, of the rules of decent conduct. With this mob—many of them potentially intelligent, many pathetically eager for knowledge—what can be done? Some have overcome the handicaps of our public schools, and possess some of the elements of knowledge; some fall into the hands of exceptionally able and devoted instructors; but most muddle through their four years, get their parchment, and go out ignorant into life.

The failure begins when children enter kindergarten. There are four sins of public education: equalitarianism, technicalism, progressivism, and egotism.

END PART 1. (part 2 here)

Books by Russell Kirk and Christopher Dawson are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[The image used at the top of this piece is from The Philosophy of Science Portal]

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1 reply to this post
  1. Born? Doctor Kirk must have landed fully-formed on the beach of Lake Mecosta like Venus-on-the-halfshell! Many thanks, Brad, for resurrecting these. In an idle moment one may contrast the Civil War soldiers' letters read on Ken Burns' documentary with Dr Kirk's assessment of American literacy in WW2, then think again about that 'Greatest Generation' malarkey.

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