Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Richard Weaver as he explores how a liberal education for individualism is an education for goodness. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
The greatest school that ever existed, it has been said, consisted of Socrates standing on a street corner with one or two interlocutors. If this remark strikes the average American as merely a bit of fancy, that is because education here today suffers from an unprecedented amount of aimlessness and confusion. This is not to suggest that education in the United States, as compared with other countries, fails to command attention and support. In our laws we have endorsed it without qualification, and our provision for it, despite some claims to the contrary, has been on a lavish scale. But we behold a situation in which, as the educational plants become larger and more finely appointed, what goes on in them becomes more diluted, less serious, less effective in training mind and character; and correspondingly what comes out of them becomes less equipped for the rigorous tasks of carrying forward an advanced civilization.
Recently I attended a conference addressed by a retired general who had some knowledge of this country’s ballistics program. He pointed out that of the twenty-five top men concerned with our progress in this now vital branch of science, not more than two or three were Americans. The others were Europeans, who had received in their European educations the kind of theoretical discipline essential to the work of getting the great missiles aloft. It was a sad commentary on a nation which has prided itself on giving its best to the schools.
It is an educational breakdown which has occurred. Our failure in these matters traces back to a failure to think hard about the real province of education. Most Americans take a certain satisfaction in regarding themselves as tough-minded when it comes to successful ways of doing things and positive achievements. But in deciding what is and is not pertinent to educating the individual, far too many of them have been soft-heads.
An alarming percentage of our citizens, it is to be feared, stop with the word “education” itself. It is for them a kind of conjuror’s word, which is expected to work miracles by the very utterance. If politics become selfish and shortsighted, the cure that comes to mind is “education.” If juvenile delinquency is rampant, “education” is expected to provide the remedy. If the cultural level of popular entertainment declines, “education” is thought of hopefully as the means of arresting the downward trend. People expect to be saved by a word when they cannot even give content to the word.
Somewhat better off, but far from sufficiently informed and critical, are those who recognize that education must, after all, take some kind of form, that it must be thought of as a process that does something one can recognize. Most of these people, however, see education only as the means by which a person is transported from one economic plane to a higher one, or in some cases from one cultural level to another that is more highly esteemed. They are not wholly wrong in these assumptions, for it is true that persons with a good education do receive, over the period of their lifetime, larger earnings than those without, and it is true that almost any education brings with it a certain amount of cultivation. But again, these people are looking at the outward aspects and are judging education by what it does for one in the general economic and social ordering. In both of these respects, education is valued as a means of getting ahead in life, a perfectly proper and legitimate goal, of course, but hardly one which sums up the whole virtue and purpose of an undertaking, which, in a modern society, may require as much as one quarter of the lifespan. Education as a conjuror’s word and education viewed as a means of insuring one’s progress in relation to his fellows both divert attention from what needs to be done for the individual as a person.
Education is a process by which the individual is developed into something better than he would have been without it. Now when one views this idea from a certain perspective, it appears almost terrifying. How does one go about taking human beings and making them better? The very thought seems in a way the height of presumption. For one thing, it involves the premise that some human beings can be better than others, a supposition that is resisted in some quarters. Yet nothing can be plainer, when we consider it, than this fact that education is discriminative. It takes what is less good physically, mentally, and morally and transforms that by various methods and techniques into something that more nearly approaches our ideal of the good. Every educator who presumes to speak about his profession has in mind some aim, goal, or purpose that he views as beneficial. As various as are the schemes proposed, they all share this general concept of betterment. The teacher who did not believe that his efforts contributed to some kind of improvement would certainly have lost the reason for his calling. A surface unanimity about purpose, however, is not enough to prevent confusion and chaos where there is radical disagreement about the nature of the creature who is to be educated.
If man were merely an animal, his “education” would consist only of scientific feeding and proper exercise. If he were merely a tool or an instrument, it would consist of training him in certain response and behavior patterns. If he were a mere pawn of the political state, it would consist of indoctrinating him so completely that he could not see beyond what his masters wanted him to believe. Strange as it may seem, adherents to each of these views can be found in the modern world. But our great tradition of liberal education supported by our intuitive feeling about the nature of man, rejects them all as partial descriptions.
The vast majority of people conscious of this tradition agree that the purpose of education is to make the human being more human. Every generation is born ignorant and unformed; it is the task of those whom society employs as educators to bring the new arrivals up to a certain level of humanity. But even with this simple statement, we find trickiness in the terms. The word “human” is one of varying implications. In estimating what constitutes a complete human being some persons today are willing to settle for a pretty low figure. To some of them, as previously noted, he is nothing more than an animal in an advanced state of evolution. His brain is only a highly developed muscle, useful to him in the same way that the prehensile tail is to the monkey; his needs are a set of skills which will enable him to get his sustenance from nature, and his purpose is to enjoy himself with the minimum amount of anxiety and the maximum amount of physical satisfaction. Others go somewhat beyond this and insist that in addition to his requirements as an animal, man has certain needs which can be described as social, intellectual and aesthetic, and that these in turn require a kind of education which is not limited to practical self-survival. Others go beyond this and say that man is an incurably spiritual being—that he is this even when he says he is not—and that he cannot live a satisfying sort of life until certain ends which might be called psychic are met. Man has an irresistible desire to relate himself somehow to the totality, to ask what is the meaning of his presence here amid the great empirical fact of the universe. Many feel that until this question receives some sort of answer, none of the facts of life can be put in any kind of perspective.
We will not pause to weigh the opinion of those who consider man merely an animal. This view has always been both incredible and repugnant to the majority of mankind, and is accepted only by the few who have bound themselves to a theoretical materialism.
All others agree that the human being has a distinguishing attribute in mind. Now mind is something more than brain. Many anatomists and surgeons have seen a brain, but nobody has ever seen a mind. This is because we believe that the mind is not merely a central exchange of the body’s system, where nerve impulses are brought together and relayed; it is a still mysterious entity in which man associates together the various cognitive, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual impulses which come to him from the outer and inner worlds. It is the seat of his rational faculty, but it is also the place where his inclinations are reduced to order and are directed. Most importantly for the concerns of education, mind is the place where symbols are understood and are acted upon.
Man has, in fact, been defined as the symbol-using animal. This definition makes symbol-using the distinguishing characteristic which separates him from all the other creatures with which he shares animal attributes. Even though the definition may be a partial one, it points to the faculty which has enabled man to create cultures and civilizations. The significance of the symbol is that it enables us to express knowledge and to communicate in an intellectual and not in a sensate way. Even in the matter of economy, this gain is an enormous one. If a man wishes to indicate six, he uses the symbol “6;” he does not have to lay out six pieces of wood or other objects to make his meaning clear to another. If he wishes to indicate water, he does not have to go through the motions of drinking or some other pantomime. If he wishes to express his insight into a wide complex of physical phenomena, he can do this by means of a mathematical formula, like the now famous E=mc2. This is a highly symbolic form of expression, in the absence of which, it is hardly needful to point out, man’s power to deal with nature would be very much smaller than it is at present. But symbolism is not used only to convey information about the physical world. Through the use of symbols, man expresses those feelings and states of being which are none the less real for being subjective. His feelings of love, of delight, and of aversion have been put in forms transmissible from generation to generation through the use of symbols—letters in literature, notation in music, symbolic articles in dress and in ceremonials, and so on. It is impossible to realize how poor our lives would be without the intellectual and emotional creations which depend upon this symbolic activity.
It might seem that all of this is too obvious to need a case made for it. But there exists a crisis in education today which forces all who believe in the higher nature of man to come to the defense of those subjects which discipline the mind through the language of sign and symbol.
For some while now, there has been a movement among certain people styling themselves educators to disparage and even do away with the very things that were once considered the reason for and the purpose of all education. There has been a bold and open attempt to deny that man has a nature which is fulfilled only when these higher faculties are brought into play, educated, and used to make life more human in the distinctive sense. Oddly enough, the movement has arrogated to itself the name “progressive.” That seems a curious term to apply to something that is retrogressive in effect, since it would drag men back toward the pre-symbolic era. In preempting the adjective “progressive” for their brand of education, these innovators were trying a rhetorical maneuver. They were trying to give the impression that their theory of education is the only forward-looking one, and that the traditional ones were inherited from times and places that sat in darkness. Now it is quite true that “progressive” education represents a departure from an ideal that has prevailed ever since the ancient Hebrews, the people of the Bible, thought about religion, and the Greeks envisioned the life of reason. This new education is not designed for man as an immortal soul, nor is it designed to help him measure up to any ideal standard. The only goal which it professes to have in view is “adjustment to life.” If we examine this phrase carefully, we will see that it, like a number of others that these educational imposters have been wont to use, is rather cleverly contrived to win a rhetorical advantage. “Adjustment” has an immediate kind of appeal because no one likes to think of himself as being “maladjusted;” that suggests failure, discomfort, and other unpleasant experiences. And furthermore, “adjustment to life” may be taken by the unwary as suggesting a kind of victory over life—success and pleasure and all that sort of thing. But as soon as we begin to examine the phrase both carefully and critically, we find that it contains booby traps. It is far from likely that the greatest men of the past, including not only famous ones but also great benefactors of humanity, have been “adjusted” in this sense. When we begin to study their actual lives, we find that these were filled with toil, strenuousness, anxiety, self-sacrifice, and sometimes a good bit of friction with their environment. In fact, it would be much nearer the truth to say that the great creative spirits of the past has been maladjusted to life in one or more important ways. Some kind of productive tension between them and their worlds was essential to their creative accomplishment. This indeed seems to be a necessity for all evolutionary progress, not merely on the organic level but on the cultural level as well. This must not be taken to mean that such persons never achieve happiness. “Happiness,” as employed by today’s journalism, is a pretty flabby and misleading word. Certain distinctions must be made before it can be safely used. The moments of happiness of creative people, though perhaps comparatively rare, are very elevated and very intense. This is characteristic of the life of genius. And when a culture ceases to produce vital creative spirits, it must cease to endure, for these are necessary even to sustain it.
Now let us look carefully at the second term of this formula. The prophets of the new education say that they are going to teach the young to adjust to life. But when we begin to elicit what they have in mind, we begin to wonder what kind of thing they imagine life to be. They seem to have in mind some simulacrum of life, or some travesty, or some abstracted part. They do not contemplate adjusting students to life in its fullness and mystery, but to life lived in some kind of projected socialist commonwealth, where everybody has so conformed to a political pattern that there really are no problems anymore. Adjustment to real life must take into account pain, evil, passion, tragedy, the limits of human power, heroism, the attraction of ideals, arid so on. The education of the “progressives” does not do this. It educates for a world conceived as without serious conflicts. And this is the propaganda of ignorance.
Furthermore, nearly all of the great uses have involved some form of sacrifice for an ideal; nearly all great individuals have felt the call for that kind of sacrifice. But sacrifice does not exist in the vocabulary of “progressive” education since for them everything must take the form of “adjustment” or self-realization. Were Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus “adjusted to life?” The way in which one answers that question will reveal whether he stands with those who believe that man has a higher self and a higher destiny or whether he is willing to stop with an essentially barbaric ideal of happiness. The adjustment which the progressive educators prate of is, just because of its lack of any spiritual ideal, nothing more than the adjustment of a worm to the surface it is crawling on.
When we turn to the practical influence of their theorizing, we find that it has worked to undermine the discipline which has been used through the centuries to make the human being a more aware, resourceful, and responsible person. As would be expected, the brunt of their attack has been against those studies which, because they make the greatest use of symbols are the most intellectual—against mathematics and language study, with history and philosophy catching a large share also of their disapproval.
There are excellent reasons for terming certain subjects “disciplines” and for insisting that the term be preserved. For “discipline” denotes something that has the power to shape and to control in accordance with objective standards. It connotes the power to repress and discourage those impulses which interfere with the proper development of the person. A disciplined body is one that is developed and trained to do what its owner needs it to do; a disciplined mind is one that is developed and trained to think in accordance with the necessary laws of thought, and which therefore can provide its owner with true casual reasoning about the world. A person with a disciplined will is trained to want the right thing and to reject the bad out of his own free volition. Discipline involves the idea of the negative, and this is another proof that man does not unfold merely naturally, like a flower. He unfolds when be is being developed by a sound educational philosophy according to known lines of truth and error, of right and wrong.
Mathematics lies at the basis of our thinking about number, magnitude, and position. Number is the very language of science. So pervasive is it in the work of the intellect that Plato would have allowed no one to study philosophy who had not studied mathematics. But these are the very reasons that mathematics is calculated to arouse the suspicion of the “progressives;” it works entirely through symbols and it makes real demands upon the intellect.
Language has been called “the supreme organon of the mind’s self-ordering growth.” It is the means by which we not only communicate our thoughts to others but interpret our thoughts to ourselves. The very fact that language has the public aspect of intelligibility imposes a discipline upon the mind; it forces us to be critical of our own thoughts so that they will be comprehensible to others. But at the same time, it affords us practically infinite possibilities of expressing our particular inclinations through its variety of combinations and its nuances. Most authorities agree that we even think in language, that without language thought would actually be impossible. Those who attack the study of language (whether in the form of grammar, logic, and rhetoric or in the form of a foreign language) because it is “aristocratic” are attacking the basic instrumentality of the mind.
History has always been a sobering discipline because it presents the story not only of man’s achievements but also of his failures. History contains many vivid lessons of what can happen to man if he lets go his grip upon reality and becomes self-indulgent; it is the record of the race, which can be laid alongside the dreams of visionaries, with many profitable lessons. Yet the modern tendency is to drop the old-fashioned history course and to substitute something called “social science” or “social studies,” which one student has aptly dubbed “social stew.” What this often turns out to be is a large amount of speculation based on a small amount of history, and the speculation is more or less subtly slanted to show that we should move in the direction of socialism or some other collectivism. Often this kind of study is simply frivolous; the student is invited to give his thought to the “dating patterns” of teenagers instead of to those facts which explain the rise and fall of nations. There is more to be learned about the nature of man as an individual and as a member of society from a firm grounding in ancient and modern history than from all the “social studies” ever put together by dreamy “progressive” educators.
Philosophy too is an essential part of liberal education because it alone can provide a structure for organizing our experience and a ground for the hierarchical ordering of our values. But under “progressive” education there is but one kind of philosophy: that of experimental inquiry in adapting to an environment. This has no power to yield insight and no means of indicating whether one kind of life is higher than another if both show an adjustment to the externals around them.
Thus, with amazing audacity, the “progressive” educators have turned their backs upon those subjects which throughout civilized history have provided the foundations of culture and of intellectual distinction.
If this has been stressed at some length, it is in order to deny the claim that “progressive” education fosters individualism. It may have the specious look of doing so because it advocates personal experience as a teacher and the release of the natural tendencies of the person. Yet it does this on a level which does not make for true individualism. Individualism in the true sense is a matter of the mind and the spirit; it means the development of the person, not the well-adjusted automaton. What the progressivists really desire to produce is the “smooth” individual adapted to some favorite scheme of collectivized living, not the person of strong convictions, of refined sensibility, and of deep personal feeling of direction in life. Any doubt of this may be removed by noting how many “progressive” educators are in favor of more state activity in education. Under the cloak of devotion to the public schools, they urge an ever greater state control, the final form of which would be, in our country, a Federal educational system directed out of Washington and used to instill the collectivist political notions which are the primary motives of this group.
No true believer in freedom can contemplate this prospect with anything but aversion. If there is one single condition necessary to the survival of truth and of values in our civilization, it is that the educational system be left independent enough to espouse these truths and values regardless of the political winds of doctrine of the moment. The fairest promises of a hands-off policy on the part of Federal educational authorities would come to nothing once they were assured of their power and control. If education were allowed to become completely statist affair, there is no assurance that the content of even science courses would be kept free from the injection of political ideas. The latter might seem a fantastic impossibility, yet it has actually occurred in the Soviet Union. This is a case well worth relating as a warning to all who would put faith in centralized education under a paternalistic state.
Some years ago the leading Soviet geneticist was one T. D. Lysenko, who occupied the post of President of the All-Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural Science. Lysenko claimed that he had disposed of the genetic theories of Mendel and Morgan, his motive being that these were “reactionary” and counter to the theories of socialism. Western scientists exposed the fallacies in his work and denounced him as an ignorant quack. But Lysenko, working through a stooge named Michurin, established what he called “Michurin science” in genetics, to which Soviet geneticists still have to bow because it is in accord with the Marxist political line. How far the Communists are willing to go in perverting science to the uses of politics may be seen in the following excerpts from an article in the USSR Information Bulletin written by Lysenko himself.
It was the great Lenin who discovered Michurin and the great Stalin who launched Michurin’s materialistic biological theories on the high road of creative work.
Not only has the great Stalin rescued the Michurin teaching from the attempts of reactionaries in science to destroy it; he has also helped to rear large forces of Michurinist scientists and practical workers. His guiding ideas have played and are playing a decisive role in the triumph of the materialistic Michurin teaching over the reactionary, idealistic Weissmannism-Morganism in the Soviet land.
The works of Joseph Stalin are an invaluable and inexhaustible fount for the development of theoretical Michurinist biology. His classic work, Dialectic and Historical Materialism, is an indispensable general theoretical aid to all agrobiologists, which helps them to gain a correct understanding of biological facts. Only when examined in the light of dialectical and historical materialism, the principles of which have been further developed by Stalin, does the Michurinist biological teaching gradually reveal its full depth and truth to us.
Where education is under the control of collectivist fanatics, not only is the individual’s loyalty to truth despised, but the objective findings of science may be thus perverted to serve the ends of a political ideology.
Even though this may be regarded as an extreme case, we are living in a world where extreme aberrations occur suddenly, so that “It can’t happen here” may be followed rather abruptly by “Now it has happened here.” Dangers are always best met at the frontier, and the frontier in this instance is just where the state proposes to move in on education. Education’s first loyalty is to the truth, and the educator must be left free to assert, as sometimes he needs to do, unpopular or unappreciated points of view.
Education thus has a major responsibility to what we think of as objectively true. But it also has a major responsibility to the person. We may press this even further and say that education must regard two things as sacred: the truth, and the personality that is to be brought into contact with it. No education can be civilizing and humane unless it is a respecter of persons. It may be that up to a certain utilitarian point, everyone’s training can be more or less alike. But in a most important area, no educational institution is doing its duty if it treats the individual “just like everybody else.” Education has to take into account the differing aptitudes produced by nature and individual character, and these differing aptitudes are extremely various. Physiologists are just beginning to understand how widely men differ in their capacities to see, to taste, to bear pain, to assimilate food, to tolerate toxic substances, and in many other physical respects. On top of this are the multifarious ways in which individuals differ psychologically through their nervous systems, reflexes, habits, and patterns of coordination. And above this are the various ways in which individuals differ physically in their ways of intuiting reality, their awareness of ideals, their desires for this or that supersensible satisfaction, and so on. When all of these factors are brought into view, it is seen that every individual is a unique creation, something “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that the educator who does not allow for special development within the discipline which he imposes is a repressor and a violator.
Now the educator who is aware of all the facts and values involved in his difficult calling will recognize in the individual a certain realm of privacy. Much of present-day education and many of the pressures of modern life treat the person as if he were a one-, or at best two-dimensional being. They tend to simplify and indeed even to brutalize their treatment of the person by insisting that certain ways are “good for everybody.” Yet it is a truth of the greatest importance that our original ideas and our intuitions of value form in certain recesses of the being which must be preserved if these processes are to take place. The kind of self-mastery which is the most valuable of all possessions is not something imposed from without; it is a gestation within us, a growth in several dimensions, an integration which brings into a whole one’s private thoughts and feelings and one’s private acts and utterances. A private world alone is indeed dangerous, but a personality whose orientation is entirely public is apt to be flat, uncreative, and uninteresting. The individual who does not develop within himself certain psychic depths cannot, when the crises of life have to be faced meet them with any real staying power. His fate is to be moved along by circumstances, which in themselves cannot bring one to an intelligent solution.
Most people have marvelled how Abraham Lincoln was able to develop such a mastery of logic and such a sense of the meaning of words while growing up in a society which set little store by these accomplishments. Yet the answer seems easy enough; Lincoln had a very real private life, in which he reflected deeply upon these matters until he made them a kind of personal possession. He was an individual—keeping up a train of personal reflection, even while mingling in friendly and humorous way with the people of his frontier community. Lincoln paid a price for this achievement, of course, the rule of this world being “nothing for nothing.” But no one who believes in greatness will say that the price was out of proportion to what was gained. If it is true that Lincoln “belongs to the ages,” it is so because he learned to think about things in a way that enabled him to transcend time and place. This is what is meant by developing a personality.
How far modern theorists have drifted from these truths may be seen in the strange remarks of the “progressive” educator John Dewey.
The idea of perfecting an“inner” personality is a sure sign of social divisions. What is called inner is simply that which does not connect with others—which is not capable of full and free communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as a thing which a man might have internally—and therefore exclusively.
For Dewey, an inner consciousness is exclusive, aristocratic, separative. What Dewey denies, what his spurious system forces him to deny, is that by achieving a depth of personality, one does develop a power and a means of influencing the community in the best sense of the term “influence.” To speak personally is to speak universally. Humanity is not a community in the sense of a number of atoms or monads, knocking together; it is a spiritual community, in which to feel deeply is to feel widely, or to make oneself accessible to most of one’s fellow members. In consequence, it cannot be too forcefully argued that the education which regards only development with reference to externals is not education for a higher plane of living, for the individual and for the society of which he is a part, but for a lower—for an artificially depressed level of living which, were it to be realized, would put an end to human development.
Although it may at first seem paradoxical to insist both upon discipline and the development of private and inner resources, the cooperative working of the two is a proved fact of education. Nothing today more needs recovering than the truth that interest develops under pressure. Man is not spontaneously interested in anything with an interest that lasts or that carried him beyond attention to superficial aspects. Natural interest which is left to itself nearly always proves impermanent, disconnected, and frivolous. It is only when we are made to take an interest in something that we become exposed to its real possibility of interesting us. It is only then that we see far enough into its complications and potentialities to say to ourselves, here is a real problem, or a real opportunity. We need not suppose that institutions are the only source of this kind of pressure. The situation a person finds himself in when he must earn a living or achieve some coveted goal may exert the necessary compulsion. But here we are talking about what formal education can do for the individual, and one of the invaluable things it can do is face him with the necessity of mastering something, so that he can find the real richness that lies beyond his threshold indifference to it. An interest in mathematics, in music, in poetry has often resulted from an individual’s being confronted with one of these as a “discipline;” that is, as something he had to become acquainted with on pain of penalties. The subject there by its own powers begins to evoke him, and before long he is wondering how he could ever have been oblivious to such a fascinating world of knowledge and experience. From this point on, his appreciation of it becomes individual, personal, and creative.
As individuality begins to assert itself in the man or woman, we realize that its movement is toward a final ethical tie-up of the personality. Individuality should not be equated with a mere set of idiosyncrasies. Idiosyncrasy is casual, fortuitous, essentially meaningless. No enlightened believer in individualism rests his case on anything as peripheral as this. To be an individual does not mean to be “peculiar” or somehow curious in one’s outlook. It does, however, mean to be distinctive.
Individuality as a goal must be explained by men’s inclinations toward the good. All of us aspire toward something higher, even though there are varying ways in which that something higher can be visualized or represented. Whether one is prone to accept an ethical humanism, a tradition of religious principles, or a creed having its authority in revelation, the truth cannot be ignored that man is looking for something better both in himself and in others. But because different persons have, through their inheritance, nurture, and education different faculties, they have different insights into the good. One man is deeply and constantly aware of certain appearances of it; another of others; and sometimes these differences are so great that they lead to actual misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the wisest have realized that such differences express finally different orientations toward values, and that the proper aim of society is not to iron them out but to provide opportunity for their expression. Variations appearing in these forms do not mean simply that one man is right and another wrong; they mean that the persons in question are responding according to their different powers to apprehend an order of reality. In this kind of perception, some persons are fast movers; others are slow but deep; some have to see things concretely; others are more successful in working out ideas and principles; some people are profoundly sensitive to place; others would do about the same kind of thinking anywhere; some do their best work while feeling a sense of security; others require the excitement and stimulus of uncertainty to draw forth their best efforts. Such a list of differences could be extended almost endlessly. But what it comes down to is this: The reason for not only permitting but encouraging individualism is that each person is individually related toward the source of ethical impulse and should be allowed to express his special capacity for that relation. This is at the same time the real validation of democracy. Democracy cannot rest upon a belief in the magic of numbers. It rests upon a belief that every individual has some special angle of vision, some particular insight into a situation which ought to be taken into account before a policy is decided on. Voting is perhaps only a rough way of affecting this, but the essential theory is clear: every person is deemed to have something worthy to contribute to decision-making, and the very diversity and variety of these responses are what makes democracy not indeed a more efficient, but a fairer form of government than those in which one, or a few men at the top assume that their particular angle upon matters contains all the perception of the good that is needed.
Yet there is a very true sense in which one does not become such an individual until he becomes aware of his possession of freedom. One cannot act as a being until one is a being; one can not be a being unless he feels within himself the grounds of his action. The people in this world who impress us as nonentities are, in the true analysis, people whose speech and actions are only reflections of what they see and hear about them, who have no means of evaluating themselves except through what other people think of them. These are the “other directed men,” the hollow men, the men who have to be filled with stuffing from the outside, of which our civilization is increasingly productive. The real person is, in contrast, the individual who senses in himself an internal principle of control, to which his thoughts and actions are related. Ever aware of this, he makes his choices, and this choosing is the realist thing he ever does because it asserts his character in the midst of circumstances. Then, the feeling of freedom comes with a great upsurging sense of triumph: to be free is to be victorious; it is to count, whereas the nonentity by his very nature does not count.
A liberal education specifically prepares for the achievement of freedom. Of this, there is interesting corroboration in the word itself. “Liberal” comes from a Latin term signifying “free,” and historically speaking, liberal education has been designed for the freemen of a state. Its content and method have been designed to develop the mind and the character in making choices between truth and error, between right and wrong. For liberal education introduces one to the principles of things, and it is only with reference to the principles of things, that such judgments are at all possible. The mere facts about a subject, which may come marching in monotonous array, do not speak for themselves. They speak only through an interpreter, as it were, and the interpreter has to be those general ideas derived from an understanding of the nature of language, of logic, and of mathematics, and of ethics and politics. The individual who is trained in these basic disciplines is able to confront any fact with the reality of his freedom to choose. This is the way in which liberal education liberates.
Finally, therefore, we are brought to see that education for individualism is education for goodness. How could it be otherwise? The liberally educated individual is the man who is at home in the world of ideas. And because he has achieved a true selfhood by realizing that he is a creature of free choice, he can select among ideas in the light of the relations he has found to obtain among them. Just as he is not the slave of another man, with his freedom of choice of work taken from him, so he is not the slave of a political state, shielded by his “superiors” from contact with error and evil. The idea of virtue is assimilated and grows into character through exercise, which means freedom of action in a world in which not all things are good. This truth has never been put more eloquently than by the poet Milton.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
Freedom and goodness finally merge in this conception; the unfreeman cannot be good because virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, and if this latter is taken away, there is simply no way for goodness to assert itself. The moment we judge the smallest action in terms of right and wrong, we are stepping up to a plane where the good is felt as an imperative, even though it can be disobeyed. When education is seen as culminating in this, we can cease troubling about its failure to accomplish this or that incidental objective. An awareness of the order of the goods will take care of many things which are now felt as unresolvable difficulties, and we will have advanced once more as far as Socrates when he made the young Athenians aware that the unexamined life is not worth living.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in November 2011. Books by Richard Weaver may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review (September 1965).