What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become.  One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,

[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry.  They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.

 We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well.  The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”.  It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty.  In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.

Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts.  It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts.  Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.

However,  I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied.  We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on.  We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction.  As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.

The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us.  And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have.  And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.

A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education.  You can listen to it here as you have interest:  Convocation Address: Education for Praise

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2 thoughts on “What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

  1. Although I do not subscribe to any religion, I found your convocation address most interesting and I would certainly subscribe to the idea that ‘the more one sees, the more one burns to see.’
    This idea, I believe is what Wordsworth said in a different context about “the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder.” In more prosaic language, it is an inherent thirst for knowledge. Why this insatiable quest for knowledge? Who knows the answer to that? But, I do believe that the desire to know is very often intimately connected with the desire to dispel fear. By fear I mean the conscious and unconscious anxiety of human existence. Perhaps, in your conext, love is the answer to that anxiety.

    • Thanks for these very generous comment, Dermot. I’ve been mulling over this whole question of the purposes of education for a while, deeply dissatisfied, of course, with our current preoccupation with the fiscal bottom line, however inevitable that may be. (If we do not live by bread alone, we surely live by bread.) One central problem, I think, is not simply that we have no discourse about the higher purposes of education; it’s that such a discourse depends upon a shared narrative of common purpose. In ancient days of yore church-based institutions found this in a collective spiritual purpose; the Enlightenment found it in “humanity” and then “the nation”–both of which I take to be quasi-religious terms in some respects. Now we have no common narrative of collective purpose except possibly the shared purpose of increasing the GDP. Our sense of education as a moneymaker first and last is related to this larger cultural narrative (or the absence of a larger cultural narrative). Baudrillard proclaimed the death of metanarratives as liberatory. I’m not so sure. The one thing we have not been freed from is the logic of the market. Even in religion, of course, believers largely function more as consumers than as disciples–joining and leaving faiths on this basis. But I am starting to sound despairing so I better stop. 🙂

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