In an age such as ours—beset by the conceit that the noblest political act is individual self-actualization—any philosophic discussion of education will be tenuous and fragile. True, our time has witnessed heated debates over educational policy—over the processes through which public schools are funded, over the criteria by which educators’ performance is evaluated, over the students injured by our current arrangements, and over the demographic composition of present-day college campuses. But to the reflective listener these discussions will ring hollow, for they evade the more fundamental question. What is education for?
In principle, the education of a child presupposes that there exists for him a discrete and normative good, preferable to his untutored state of ignorance. Indeed, this logic is bound up in the very etymology of the word. Our verb ‘to educate’ comes from the Latin prefix e-, meaning ‘out of’, and the verb ducere, meaning ‘to lead’ or ‘to guide’—to educate, then, is to lead out of. Such guidance presumes an end: to take a student from his original position α logically implies some eventual position β. Past a simple negative rejection of ignorance, educere orients the student vis-à-vis the concrete goal to which his teacher has chosen to lead him. When we trace these Latin constituents back to their Greek antecedents—ex-, ‘out of’, and hegeisthai, ‘to guide’—we see furthermore that the Latin educere is the substantive parallel of the Greek verb exegeisthai, from whence we derive the noun ‘exegesis’ and the verb ‘to exegete’. The implications of the Greek provide a nice counterbalance to the connotations of the Latin. Whereas we might imagine educere as a process of emancipation in which the pupil moves from ignorance to enlightenment, the Greek suggests extraction and retrieval. Just as exegesis in scholarship draws out hidden meanings and uncovers latent symbolisms, exegeisthai nurtures and develops a student’s innate talents and virtues, stirring them from dormancy and channeling them towards prominence.
Setting aside these connotative differences, however, the central point apparent in both Latin and Greek is this: education is impossible without a vital notion of the good. Plato was perhaps the first philosopher to recognize this truth, and offered a resonant defense of it in his Republic. He suggested that, like a hostage imprisoned in an unlit cavern, the uneducated man lives in a world of shadows. Because of his epistemic bondage, he cannot distinguish between appearance and reality, between shadow and substance. Nevertheless, there exists above him a splendid realm of illuminated objects. The goal of education, according to Plato, is to escape the cave of illusion and enter into the domain of the real—to pass from opinion to wisdom. Only in the light of the Sun can one ‘contemplate reality, the brightest of realities, which we say is the good’. For Plato, in other words, education was a political act. The proper role of the teacher consisted in revealing to his student the overarching moral order of the cosmos, and in habituating within him character traits that cohere with it. On this view, education was a precondition for liberty. The free man was necessarily virtuous: he held a true conception of the good, and had mastered his passions. But an immoral citizen, contrariwise—self-deceived about the good life, and is a slave to his passions—was unfree: his actions were not rational but impetuous, and his freedom was tantamount to a debased form of license.
Today, this ancient notion of freedom seems foreign. As the inheritors of the tradition of early-modern liberalism, contemporary Americans prefer the negative conception of liberty delineated by the political theorist John Locke. According to his Two Treatises on Government, the basic unit of politics is the individual. As a creature with irreducible metaphysical worth, the individual precedes his government, which possesses no moral or metaphysical status as such. Governments exist to secure the basic natural rights of their citizens to life, liberty, and property—the basic inalienable deserts of the human being—from molestation by other individuals and states. For Locke, citizens must construct their own visions of order. Thus, although he may not have intended the moral climate we now inhabit, the practical upshot of his instrumentalization of politics was the expulsion of metaphysical questions from the political sphere. By definition, liberalism is silent on questions of ultimate meaning.
Over the past few centuries—and especially over the past fifty years—as this Lockean understanding of political freedom have proliferated throughout American political discourse, skepticism about Platonic idealism has rendered philosophic discussions of education almost impossible. We Americans are timid to ask questions of final meaning in the political realm, even when the subject of our discourse—education, for instance—demands that we ask them. Although we senses that the man is profoundly deficient in his uncultivated state, we are tepid to diagnose the precise nature of his lack, perhaps for fear that such critique would transgress his right to lack what he pleases—his right to proscribe his own ends, to name his own good.
Ted MacAllister has termed this modern permutation of liberal skepticism ‘pale liberalism’. Today’s Americans are not actively hostile to final questions of human flourishing, he argues; we are rather disinterested in them. ‘Bourgeois and practical, rejecting high ideals in favor of the possible’, the pale liberal is unmoved by the convictions that animated his ancestors:
Pale liberals call for no great sacrifice. They smile indulgently, like the aged do at the young, at passion, at noble dreams, at sacrifice and duty. If passion persists, they fear its latent power. … They envision a prosperous land with a tolerable record of justice, peopled by decent folk who respect the individualism of others and who find the social and moral space to work out their own lives on their own terms. An ideal, self-actualized liberal, … expresses his moral commitments through his gregarious openness to the interests of those he meets, and he displays a historically unique democratic elitism as he carries his expensive organic groceries while wearing the carefully crafted casual clothes and easy gait of his species.
Not only have we Americans rejected the Platonic realm of the Sun as unreal or immaterial— our pale imaginations scoff with indifference at attempts to resuscitate its relevance. To convince a passionate atheist of his error is one thing; to persuade the pagan of the basic importance of theological questions is more difficult.
Present-day understandings of politics are incommensurate with serious debate about education. Nevertheless, there are moral resources within the American tradition deeper than Locke. In the pages that follow, I sketch out the educational theories of two thinkers in an important strain of American thought—Thomas Jefferson and John Gould Fletcher, both of the agrarian tradition. These men were contributors to an American discussion of education that was informed by moral resources prior to liberalism, and prior to politics. Through an examination of their educational thought, I mean to show that American political thought is rooted in a cultural and spiritual patrimony deeper, richer, and fuller than pale liberalism.
If the American worldview is indeed pre-liberal, it necessarily draws from both the classical and Christian traditions. So let us return briefly to Plato. The ancient pagans saw moral order was pregnant in nature per se. Plato and his contemporaries saw the cosmos as harmonious and rational, and arête (‘moral excellence’) as the ‘realization’ of nature—the enactment of an innate human potential for virtue. Human moral perfection, then, was not only possible: it was, in the relevant sense, natural. The ancients relied on organic metaphors in their pedagogical discussions. Aristotle, for instance, taught that the cultivation of moral virtue requires a long process of habituation. The moral sensibilities of a pupil must be sculpted, just like a gardener prunes a sapling into a full-grown tree. Echoing this intuition, Plato held that the human being ‘is most malleable and takes on any pattern one wishes to impress on it’ during childhood. He therefore banished immoral, venomous, and denaturing art from his ideal republic, because it corrupts young citizens’ intuitive, yet fragile moral inclinations. Of all of the ancient school of philosophers, however, the Stoics were the most ardently naturalistic. They defined moral rectitude as ‘living in agreement with nature’ and believed that, since logos (‘reason’ or ‘order’) permeates the physical cosmos, the experience of nature is tantamount to moral reflection. The Stoics called the process of ‘attuning’ oneself to nature ‘oikeosis’—literally, ‘homecoming’.
Against such natural perfectionism, early-Christian thought triggered a revaluation of the moral status of the cosmos. The Jewish scriptures had taught that human nature was damaged since the Fall—that human nature was itself corrupt, and that the moral order lies outside time and space. Oikeosis assumed the doctrinal status of heresy—‘be not conformed to this world’ charged St. Paul. The Gospel of John taught that logos was prior to nature: ‘in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’. In the Christian economy of moral formation, no degree of habituation or pruning was sufficient to attain citizenship in the City of God. Only the salvific intercession of Christ could extricate men from the natural pale of sin and suffering.
For agrarians, where does the good reside—nature, or beyond? In its American formulation, agrarianism has challenged mercantilism and urbanism, industrialism and commercialization, consumerism and market capitalism—and more recently, sprawling suburbanism and the rootlessness of modern life. These are decadent institutions and corrupting social forms, claims the agrarian. He proposes a return to the land—a return to a more humane climate, a return to nature. Yet insofar as the American experiment lies on the near side of the Christian dispensation, a philosophic defense of ethical naturalism on Stoic terms is untenable: the witness of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin intervenes.
In his religious writings, Thomas Jefferson charted one way through this dilemma. Jefferson heralded Christ as a great teacher simpliciter, and generalized his moral principles. In so doing, Jefferson drained the Christian worldview of its supernatural and metaphysical content. He famously revised and published an ‘improved’ version of the Bible—one shorn of miracles, evidence of natural depravity, incarnation, resurrection, and salvation. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson explained his motivations:
I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Christ] wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
Jefferson insisted that his beliefs were neither subversive nor atheistic: they were rather ‘the result of a life of enquiry and reflection, and are very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions’. An ethicized and emasculated Christian worldview, he believed, was ennobling and empowering. Nevertheless, however, his paganized belief-system was remarkably amenable to Stoic naturalism. Jefferson located moral flourishing in the immanent harmony of the rational cosmos. As Allen Tate later commented, his deism rested on the assumption that ‘the ends of man are sufficiently contained in his political destiny’. Moral virtue was, for Jefferson, basically indistinguishable from political virtue.
But this was not the only way through this dilemma. An alternative to such pagan deism can be found the more orthodox approach charted by the contemporary agrarian Wendell Berry. In his essay “Christianity and The Survival of Creation” Berry argues that, even though nature is fallen and therefore deficient, it contains evidence of an original goodness. He cites the theologian Philip Sherrard: ‘creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being’. For Berry, the modern lust to re-engineer nature is a sign of hubris, an echo of the fateful ‘non servum’ of the first sinner. In regards to the natural world, he explains
that we may disapprove … does not mean that God is in error, or that the creator ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding—that is, we are fallen’.
Man needs redemption on this view: human nature is not sufficient. Yet from within our synthetic and unnatural environs and lifestyles, we modern Americans are blind to the fact of our radical dependence, Berry argues. A return to nature is therefore a precondition for spiritual renewal: upon a return to the created order, Americans
will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good; that he made it for his pleasure; and that he continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us.… We and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate.
For Berry, the agrarian worldview provides the best resources for reflecting on a good beyond nature. On this view, education consists in enlivening the student’s moral and spiritual faculties, in teaching him to discern the imago dei in the natural world around him.
What might the content of an agrarian education entail? For Jefferson, the goal of education was, in a word, independence. Past the negative absence of constraint—that is, past pale Lockean liberalism—his understanding of independence implied the internal freedom of a well-constituted soul, one of sound mental and moral constitution. ‘The objects of that higher grade of education’, Jefferson explained to his compatriots, were
…to form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend;…to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts, and administer to the health, the subsistence, and comforts of human life; and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.
A piercing mind, integrity of moral character, an abiding sense of ‘virtue and order’—these qualities were, for Jefferson, the necessary conditions of interpersonal independence, of ‘happiness within’.
Jefferson paired this respect for the self-constituted man to a deep commitment to democratic republicanism—a commitment to independence for the widest number possible. Indeed, he saw these commitments as mutually reinforcing. In a letter to Charles Yancey, he explained that ‘if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.’ If Americans were to govern themselves, rigorous moral and political education would have to be available to every man able to benefit from it. And so, early in his career Jefferson devised a scheme of education that aimed to cull future statesmen and leaders from all strata of his society. ‘To diffuse knowledge generally through the mass of the people’, Jefferson explained in the Notes on the State of Virginia, his plan divided each county ‘into small districts of five or six miles square’. Each district was to have a primary school ‘for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic’, which all young men would attend. At the end of three years, primary schools would nominate ‘the boy of best genius in the school’ to advance a level to grammar school, where he would be instructed in ‘Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic’. Finally, after six year of tutelage, the best half of all grammar school attendees would be sent to the College of William and Mary, where they would learn the arts of government. This entire education was to be provided free of charge, which Jefferson hoped would ‘avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated’. Jefferson intended to reach all the ‘natural aristoi’ of potential ‘virtue and talent’. He hoped that the intellectual and political elite formed by this system would in turn serve their state with gratitude, forming a natural symbiosis of mutual benefit for both the student and his community.
The ideal of liberal independence dovetailed not only with Jefferson’s republicanism, but with his agrarianism as well. He celebrated the educated statesman for the same reason he prized the rural farmer—for his sound moral timber. As Jefferson explained in his Notes,
Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers… While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff… It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour.
For Jefferson, complementary to his educative program, the paradigmatic agrarian society was rooted in the self-sufficiency of the farmer. As one modern commentator explains, just as ‘a hierarchical but enlightened educational system…undergirded republican self-government’, for Jefferson ‘the spring of social and political virtue was economic independence, which, in turn, was nurtured by a … self-sufficient kind of farming made possible by America’s “immensity of land”.’ Indeed one striking line of the Rockfish Gap Report, Jefferson made explicit the connection between his agrarian worldview and his educational philosophy. ‘Education’, he wrote, ‘grafts a new man onto the native stock, and improves what in his nature was vicious and perverse into qualities of virtue and social worth’.
For Jefferson, the ideal statesman was intelligent, virtuous, self-reliant, and magnanimous—and therefore independent. Once his nature is improved, the ‘new man’ is a veritable testament to the highest potential of his species. With an aristocracy of learning and a yeomanry of hardy independence, Jefferson believed that his fellow citizens would possess the moral fiber needed to maintain a free political order.
One hundred years after Jefferson died, his agrarian project seemed doomed. In the early-1900s, industrial capitalism was on the rise, and no credible alternative seemed viable. The South—the historic counterweight against New England mercantilism—had never recovered from the destruction of the Civil War, and the farmers of the Midwest were disorganized and inarticulate. The rise of modernity—and with it the factories, cities, and machine politics that Jefferson so feared—seemed ineluctable.
In 1930, a group of academics and social critics associated with Vanderbilt University banded together to revive a Jeffersonian defense of the agrarian ideal. Dubbed the Fugitive Agrarians, these scholars contributed essays to I’ll Take My Stand, a collection that became the manifesto of agrarian résistance. In their various contributions, these men argued that modern democratic and egalitarian tendencies were incompatible with the nobler tradition of Western humanism. Despite historical shortcomings that the agrarians (to a degree) admitted, the Southern tradition provided a coherent picture of human flourishing—one that was integral and communal. In contrast, I’ll Take My Stand depicted consumer capitalism as an ‘evil dispensation’, the cult system of salesmen with atrophied moral and intellectual capacities. Against the hollow rhetoric of industrialism, the agrarians proposed a return to more basic questions:
It all comes down to the most practical of points—what is the end of living? What is the end of living that, regardless of all the progress, optimism, and noise, must be the answer to the civilization in the South?
This is a fundamentally educative question. It was fitting, then, that the agrarians chose John Gould Fletcher—acclaimed poet and eventual Pulitzer Prize-winner—to pen a contribution on education. His ‘Education: Past and Present’ offered a novel philosophic framework for thinking about the goals of education in the early-twentieth-century South.
If independence was Jefferson’s lynchpin, the dream of a renewed Southern civilization animated Fletcher. His ideal was the civilized man. His piece began with an extended quotation from Confucius that defined the sort of civilized consciousness that Fletcher sought to defend:
The ordinance of heaven is termed the natural law; the principle which directs us to conform our actions to the natural law is called the rule of moral conduct, or the right path; the organized system of rules of moral conduct which puts us on this path is called the doctrine of duties or of institutions…That is why the superior man, he who follows the right path, keeps watch in his heart over the principles which are not perceived by the many… Nothing is more evident for the sage than the things hidden in the secret conscience… When balance and harmony are carried to the point of perfection, heaven and earth are in a state of complete tranquility, and all beings receive their perfect development.
Although this conception of human flourishing parallels certain elements of the Jeffersonian paradigm—its the emphasis on ‘balance’, ‘tranquility’, and ‘moral order’, most obviously—the task of locating ‘things hidden in the secret conscience’ extends beyond the calculated Palladian virtue of Jeffersonian statesmanship.
According to Fletcher, by the 1930s the urge to systematize and demystify the moral universe had produced an inhumane educational climate, one that ‘make[s] the public school product of New York City or Chicago a behaviorist, an experimental scientist in sex and firearms, a militant atheist, a reader of detective fiction, and a good salesman’. The callous climate of modern education had given way to the logic of the ‘mass production factory’ and the ‘democratic public school’:
Formerly, quantity had to give place to quality; today it is the reverse. Formerly we followed Goethe’s maxim, to the effect that everything that frees man’s soul, but does not give him command over himself, is evil. Today we are out to withdraw the command of men over themselves, and to free, to no purpose, their souls.
To combat this functional nihilism in education, Fletcher argued strongly for a return to humane letters and the arts, ‘to culture and to civilization’. In contrast to Jefferson, he placed a central emphasis on literature and philosophy. Although early-twentieth-century education was oriented towards ‘industry rather than harmonious living, and self-aggrandizement rather than peace with God’, Fletcher believed that a revitalization of the humanities could rejuvenate the moral imagination of the public school system, making democratic schooling more prone ‘to excellence in something’, in Fletcher’s wry phrase. To do so, academics and teachers needed to reassert a hierarchy of knowledge: theology must once more reign as Queen of the Sciences. The higher disciplines had to be given preference, in order to impart meaning to the lower disciplines:
The inferior, whether in life or in education, should exist only for the sake of the superior. We feed and clothe and exercise our bodies, for example, in order to be able to do something with our minds. We employ our minds in order to achieve character, to become the balanced personalities, the ‘superior men’ of Confucius’ text, the ‘gentlemen’ of the Old South. We achieve character, personality, gentlemanliness in order to make our lives an art and to bring our souls into relation with the whole scheme of things, which is the divine nature.
Like Jefferson, Fletcher believed in the desirability of a social elite. Unlike Jefferson, however, Fletcher’s aristocrat was to have ‘spiritual roots in his own community’, roots that must be nourished by local traditions and customs and histories, as well as the great classics of the Western cannon. Fletcher hoped that by recourse to the civilizing force of letters, the South would be able to withstand the brutal onslaught of a deracinating modern world.
Though they run afoul of the boundaries of pale liberalism, such reflections lie at the root of the pre-political convictions that have sustained the American experiment to date. The agrarian educational philosophies of Jefferson and Fletcher belie a teleological and normative conception of human flourishing. With Shakespeare, these men proclaimed of the natural world—of the ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones’—
This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.
Though Jefferson and Fletcher held distinct readings of the testimony of nature, they possessed a mutual trust that man is something. He has a nature, an end. And he has a moral and political obligation to search for it and to effect it, both as an individual and within the context of his fellow citizens. In opposition to our current milieu of liberal paleness and moral indifference, these Americans believed in a good. There exist, in other words, moral resources within our tradition with which to reevaluate the aims and purposes of education. But whether we twenty-first century Americans will choose to avail ourselves of these resources is a question that remains to be answered.