Education and the South

Theories of education in any land are never easily divorced from the prevailing ideas regarding civics and economics. Education’s function, particularly toward the young, will become merely to render them fit to partake in the civic and economic institutions of a nation. Thus its methods and goals will be shaped by these spheres. The end result is a reciprocal relationship with the intended destination; successful integration into and participation with the national economy shaping and being shaped by the route traveled to reach that destination.

Our age is an age of Democracy and the means and stated goals of educational method (called pedagogy) now in vogue can only be understood when viewed with this fact in mind. Democracy (rule of the many) as a political institution is inseparably connected with the people who advocate it and staff its institutions: the middle class.

The middle class began to arise in Europe just as the Medieval era was drawing to a close and the Renaissance was dawning. They emerged as a third factor between the traditional landed aristocracy and the agricultural peasantry. Concerning themselves with the exchange of goods and being defined by their urban lifestyles, the middle class lacked the security and permanence of the older peasant and aristocratic classes.

For these and other reasons psychic insecurity became the keynote outlook of the new middle-class outlook. It still is. The only remedy for this insecurity of the middle class seemed to it to be the accumulation of more possessions that could be a demonstration to the world of the individual’s importance and power.

~~ Carroll Quigley; Tragedy and Hope; pp. 1235-1236

Liberal democracy in the West today still reflects the middle class idea that the primary way for men to distinguish themselves is through material advancement. Quigley refers to this as the “Acquisitive Society.” Naturally the goals of education in an Acquisitive Society are to teach men how to acquire material things.

The study of the ethereal is seen as a waste of time. Epistemological first principles are not necessary as long as the student picks up useful habits for trade and vocation. It is not necessary that the pupil know how to think, education must teach him how to make a living. Emphasis in this type of pedagogic economy turns to the material, the tangible, and the useful.

French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville explained the effect of the middle class mindset on education in 1830’s New England, saying,

The northerner is absorbed, as it were, by the very material concerns that the white southerner disdains. From childhood on he must struggle against misery, and he learns to place comfort above all the pleasures of the mind and heart. His imagination, concentrated on life’s petty details, suffocates; his ideas are fewer in number and less general, but they become more practical, clearer, and more precise. Since all his intellectual effort is bent solely to the study of well-being, he soon excels at it… The northerner has knowledge as well as experience. Nevertheless, he does not prize knowledge as a pleasure but esteems it as a means, and only its useful applications whet his appetite.

~~ Alexis de Tocqueville; Democracy in America; pp. 433-434

Tocqueville concludes that these are “the qualities and flaws characteristic of the middle class,” and they certainly hold sway in modern educational theory.

But this servile focus in education was not characteristic of the Old South. The mindset and outlook of her men was different. This was equally reflected in her institutions and economy.  

Aristocracy had been transplanted from Europe to the South in a way that had never gripped the North. The Puritan settlers of New England had come with their middle class mindset and the relative barrenness of that land had not allowed the conditions necessary for gentrification to take place.

Contrast the Congregationalist Puritans of New England with the English Episcopalians and Scottish Presbyterians of Virginia and South Carolina who founded large plantations, acquired slaves, and successfully utilized the fertility of the southern soil. The status of men in such a system was based upon heredity and inheritance, just as it had been in the Old World. The daily life of the Planter was not consumed with material concern and to flout possession as a means of status was base and crass.

To miss the link between aristocracy and leisure on the one hand and slavery and the plantations on the other is to misunderstand why Virginia and South Carolina vastly outstripped New England in the production of statesmen in the Colonial era. Being freed from the daily schemes of worldly advancement the youth of the South were trained in theology, philosophy, oratory, rhetoric, languages, and literature. In short, they were trained in the Liberal Arts.

Tocqueville comments on the predominant mindset of the Planter in the 1830s:

In the southern states, man’s most pressing needs are always satisfied. Thus the southerner is not preoccupied with life’s material concerns. Someone else bears the burden of looking after these on his behalf. Free in this respect, his imagination turns to other objects, grander and less precisely defined. The southerner loves grandeur, luxury, glory, excitement, pleasure, and above all idleness. Nothing obliges him to exert himself in order to live… The southerner is more spontaneous (than his northern counterpart), wittier, more open, generous, intellectual, and brilliant.

~~ Alexis de Tocqueville; Democracy in America; pp. 433-434

This, this is the philosophy that gave rise to Madison, Jefferson, Randolph, Washington, Macon, and Henry in their generation, Calhoun and Tyler in the next, and Stephenson, Davis, Lee, and Jackson in their turn. These men furnished their conservative minds with a liberal education.

There is a warning to be heeded as these two systems of thought and education are compared. The aristocratic avoidance of labor is a weakness compared to the can-do attitude of a democratic people. Necessary to a society that will last is a balancing of both. The Southern people have for a long time learned how to work. Providence has ensured that. They must relearn how to think. If we are truly to emulate the forefathers we profess to love so much we must no longer ignore or even mock the means and standards of education that played such a factor in making them great. We must take back that which is rightfully ours.

Students at Southern seminaries such as Columbia in South Carolina and Union in Virginia were taught the finest in theology and philosophy. Southern theologians such as Robert Dabney and James H. Thornwell are amongst the greatest the Christian Church has ever known.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Brazier in 1819 on the subject of classical learning saying,

To the moralist they (the Greek and Latin classics) are valuable, because they furnish ethical writings highly and justly esteemed… The lawyer finds in the Latin language the system of civil law most conformable with the principles of justice of any which has ever yet been established among men… The physician as good a code of his art as has been given to this day.

~~ Thomas Jefferson; Writings; p. 1424

Tocqueville wrote on the usefulness of classical studies for a democratic people:

Indeed, a glance at texts left us by Antiquity is enough to reveal that although ancient writers sometimes lacked variety and imagination in their choice of subjects and boldness, energy, and generality in their thought, they always demonstrated admirable mastery of technique and care in rendering details. Nothing in their work seems hasty or accidental. Everything is written for connoisseurs, and the search for ideal beauty is always apparent. No literature brings out the qualities that writers in democracies naturally lack better than that of the Ancients. Hence there is no literature more appropriate for study in democratic centuries.

~~ Alexis de Tocqueville; Democracy in America; pp. 545-546

This was the taste in education in a day when our people did great things. In his 1930 essay The Irrepressible Conflict, Frank Lawrence Owsley spoke of the deluge of Yankee textbooks and the reconstruction of Southern education. The eventual result of this mental reconstruction has been the abandonment of the broad and liberal education which the South used to furnish her sons. Gone now is the training in theology and philosophy. Gone are the Greek and Latin, the literature and letters, oratory, rhetoric, and the martial sciences. In their place are the servile and material preoccupations which characterize education amongst a democratic people. It is high time this stopped.

There is much to be gained in putting a stop to it. For starters, the government schools sure aren’t going to be of any help. Over the decades, nothing has contributed more to our loss of identity and character then the prevalence of government education. Southerners who really want to reclaim their heritage by seeing their children get a truly Southern education are going to have to look elsewhere than the government schools that have done so much harm to us.

As an added bonus, our nation is in desperate need for the type of men the South used to produce. We are long overdue for real leadership by men of vision and integrity who can integrate multiple fields of knowledge. The servile focus on economic production has driven democratic education into the dangerous waters of “specialization,” and left wide open the door of opportunity for those who will but walk through.

Carroll Quigley summarized our plight fifty years ago when he wrote:

These remarks bring us close to one of the major problems in American culture today. We need a culture that will produce people eager to do things, but we need even more a culture that will make it possible to decide what to do. This is the old division of means and goals. Decisions about goals require values, meaning, context, perspective. They can be set, even tentatively and approximately, only by people who have some inkling of the whole picture. The middle-class culture of our past ignored the whole picture and destroyed our ability to see it by its emphasis on specialization.

~~ Carroll Quigley; Tragedy and Hope; p. 1274

Values, meaning, context, perspective, these are things that our nation desperately needs today. They are things we can stand up and provide. The South still faintly holds onto the religious principles which make values and meaning possible for a people. She can put these things into context and perspective if she will once again take up the education necessary to do so. If she fails, we will continue to slide until our character, identity, and faith are gone.

Richard Weaver discussed the clash of these two mindsets in education and the clash of the men they produce. He feared the dominance of the compartmentalized specialist and men of mean mind. Yet these are the men we have lived under since World War II. Do we have it within us to rest the education of our young away from Washington D.C.? To begin rebuilding minds that will rebuild our land? The fields lie fallow and whatever we sow, that shall we reap.

In closing, I will have Richard Weaver summarize what has been said:

It will be useful to review here this flight toward periphery, or the centrifugal impulse of our culture. In the Middle Ages, when there obtained a comparatively clear perception of reality, the possessor of highest learning was the philosophic doctor. He stood at the center of things because he had mastered principles. On a level far lower were those who had acquired only facts and skills. It was the abandonment of metaphysics and theology which undermined the position of the philosophic doctor, a position remarkably like that prescribed by Plato for the philosopher-king. For the philosopher doctor was in charge of the general synthesis. The assertion that philosophy is queen of studies meant more to him than a figure of speech; knowledge of ultimate matters conferred a right to decide ultimate questions… In the course of the evolution that we have traced the philosophic doctor was displaced; but a substitute had to be found, for synthesis required the reconciling of all interests.

In attenuated form the ideal survives until today, though the forces of modernism conspire to extinguish it… In the United States the new and old Europe came into conflict in 1861… The South’s tradition of learning was the Ciceronian tradition of eloquent wisdom, and this circumstance explains why the major creative political figures of America, from Jefferson through Lincoln to Wilson, have come from this section. But the Civil War brought defeat… Europe, after the agony of the first World War, turned … for leadership, to gangsters, who, though they are often good entrepreneurs, are without codes and without inhibitions. Such leaders in Europe have given us a preview of what the collapse of values and the reign of specialization will produce.

~~ Richard Weaver; Ideas Have Consequences; pp. 49-51

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