the imaginative conservative logo

feigning competenceHere is a little article I wrote on the connection between higher education and civic engagement. It refers to a longer and more solid article written by our friend Joe Knippenberg.

I don’t want to create the impression that I know how to teach. As Socrates says, the complete theory of education would include the technical competence of the sophists, the devoted concern of the citizen, the prudence and greatness of the statesman, and room for faith, high culture, and philosophy (including Socratic, Stoic, Thomistic, Cartesian, and maybe existentialist). Or, as Strauss says, a civilized country does justice to both science and morality, and our form of high civilization does justice to the place and limits of political life in informing the soul of the free and relational person.

Political education is tougher in a country where people know so well that they’re both more and less than citizens, and so they know that civic education and technical education are far from the whole of education. Or for Straussians: Teaching “the American regime” is tough because America isn’t really a regime. Or for libertarians: It might be true that we’re not, deep down, citizens, but where would we be if people really didn’t think of themselves as citizens at least some of the time?

Socrates said he never claimed to be a teacher. And he was better at being critical or showing limitations than coming up with some comprehensive alternative. Living an examined life is short on specificity and not much of a guide in most practical and relational situations. Self-examination can become obsessive and suck up all your time — and it can seem to provide you a really good excuse for not doing anyone else any good at all. Rousseau, by contrast, was surely right that if we took our duties to our friends, families, country, and the unfortunate as seriously as we should, we wouldn’t have time for anything else at all. Rousseau, of course, didn’t actually live like that.

If I never claimed to be a teacher, I wouldn’t get paid. By getting paid, I’m more like the sophists than Socrates or even the citizen. So I have to feign competence and give grades based on assessable learning outcomes.

I do know we have no business giving grades for civic engagement. I’m all for students working on campaigns, going to church, serving the poor, and making money. But those things can be what they are only if they’re separated from giving credit. All those forms of service and worthwhile work flourish so well at Berry College because we’re so careful to separate them from the academic program.

I do teach American government mainly with the intention of preparing students to function ably as engaged American citizens. The prelude to engagement is understanding the principles and issues that inform our very complicated, long-lasting, and deeply text-based constitutional democracy. And I’m in the process of updating my selection of the best texts from the American political tradition.

So my question for you: What are the most significant speeches, Court opinions, etc. for the last five years?

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © 2014 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. As a former teacher educator, I think one of the biggest problems in education is that we eliminated the philosophy of education courses for new teachers. Instead of asking what is the most worth knowing or the most important to teach,(unlike your great question) we train instructors to administer bubble sheet tests and then grade the quality of the teacher on the extent to which they taught the test subjects during the first three months of the school year…while ignoring their actual curriculum and thereby cheating the learner of the instruction to which they are due.

    The permanent things and right reason have given way to teaching politically correct theories such as global warming, the right to making your employer pay for your health care and reproductive health choices, etc.

    Teachers dare not question the mandated curriculum or question the judgement of their administrator or they are out of a job. The teachers union defends very few teachers and virtually none of the new ones. Instead the union takes money for Democratic politicians and kisses up to the superintendent hoping to get an easy assignment with as much planning time as possible. Meanwhile the elementary education teachers work twice as hard as the higher education teachers and get half the planning time…or less.

    You asked what is the most worth teaching in the last five years and my answer is darn little. Truth is not taught in recent years having been replaced with moral relativism and secular humanism. I would much rather see the principles of our republic taught over this modern nonsense.

    Remember, Socrates defined teaching as pouring knowledge into the heads of the learners and pointed out that he only asked questions…thereby drawing out what they already knew or what they could deduce. And like Plato’s Socrates, I believe our students need to know themselves before they are ready to master more difficult subjects. I do not mean teaching how they feel or to recognize their self esteem but instead they need to find the truth and beauty inside themselves. They need to connect with the spark of Gods gift inside each of us we call the soul.

    Sadly, with The Christian Faith being denied in public venues I doubt many can connect with the eternal much less their own perspective on the permanent things.

    Ultimately, by age seven our children should be able to tell right from wrong in basic situations such as stealing from a store or cheating on a test. As middle school students they should know truth well enough to identify obvious false statements and have the stamina to stand up for what they know internally to be true. Even in the field of the arts they should not be swindled into believing that chaos is art or that discord is music.

    Knowing theself is knowing the reality of objective truth and having the gumption to stand up for it. The political speeches and court decisions of the past five years have none of that as far as I can tell.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: