Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Educational Philosophy

    The Ennobling of the Masses

    July 14, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]C[/dropcap]lassical education has been, over the course of the millennia of its history, a privilege of the elite class. Yes, it is true that those who were well educated have almost always been (until the 1900s) educated in what is called the classical style, but we can also see throughout history that the vast majority of people were not educated formally at all.

    The Ennobling of the Masses

    Arts and letters were for the aristocratic classes, for the nobility. The underclasses either farmed as their fathers did, or found apprenticeships in various trades.

    In chapter seven of Norms and Nobility, David Hicks explains that this situation {classical education for the few, utilitarian education for the many — if they were educated at all} is perceived to serve practical purposes even today:

    [M]odern technological society requires a horde of technicians to keep its machinery running smoothly and its denizens well-housed and well-fed … An educated elite is … needed to preserve and develop culture: the innumerable artistic, literary, political, religious, and social means of articulating society’s purposes and values.

    Or so the thinking of modern classical scholars goes.

    In this chapter Hicks begins by asking the question of whether this division of education by class is appropriate, especially within our American context of democracy {yes, I know we are a democratic republic rather than a pure democracy, but considering that we have universal suffrage, his argument stands}. One of the central questions of the first section in the chapter is:

    [I]s it necessary or possible for a few to preserve and develop culture for the many?

    He offers Thomas Jefferson as an example of someone who answered this question in the affirmative.

    Jefferson thought that culture in a democratic society depended on the recognition of an elite that would inherit its cultural responsibilities from its parents, as well as on the formation of an elite which would share these responsibilities because of its native abilities … Jefferson’s elitist mythology was fine so long as the technical needs of the country remained modest and could be handled by a system of apprenticeship rather than of education.

    One thing that is left out of Hicks’ discussion of Thomas Jefferson was that the culture at the time had captured a classical ideal. Yes, the many tended to be educated by apprenticeship in a trade rather than in arts and letters, but the literacy rate was astounding compared to today. Not only could most colonists read, they actually did read:

    “Almost every man is a reader,” wrote the Reverend Jacob Duche in 1772. Duche didn’t have to go far from his church at 3rd and Pine Streets, to find evidence to support this observation. “The poorest laborer upon the shores of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentlemen or scholar … such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind …”

    When we couple this literary culture with the acceptance of man’s nature as not only physical but also intellectual and spiritual, we see that the spirit of classicism was alive and well within the average person in the colonies. Yes, there was a formally educated elite which directed the nation, but the culture of classicism touched the women, the poor, and even the slaves.

    In other words, Hicks’ argument makes more sense to me not because universal formal education is necessary to a sound government {throughout history it tends to be an anomaly associated with the purposes of centralized government more than anything else}, but because we already have universal formal education {whether we like it or not; whether it has proven itself useful or not}. Since we have universal education, we would do well to acknowledge the difficulty that poses for democracy and ensure this education be classical.


    The War: Elitists v. The Masses

    In today’s society, we still have these two groups. On the one hand, there is the “classically educated” elite {well, mostly — some of them are just given expensive utilitarian educations along with a smattering of Latin} whose education didn’t capture the heart and spirit of the thing, and the result is arrogance and disdain for the masses rather than an embodiment of the Ideal Type. On the other hand, there are the masses who, having received a utilitarian education, tend to look at everything through a purely physical, utilitarian lens {because education shapes the soul}. Because they see no purpose in the abstract, they question the usefulness of such an elite:

    Of what value to society is an elite culture anyway? How does culture further the chief ends of modern industrial democracy, ensuring prosperity, security, and equal opportunity for all? How does culture help the individual put bread on the table and keep him off the welfare rolls? How does culture prepare him for the complications of day-to-day living in a highly bureaucratized, technological society?

    A materially-minded man has no use for the explanation that classical education addresses the soul and forms the character, and the impact of the embodiment of the Ideal Type is too far off in the future for him to recognize. The materialist is, of necessity, the possessor of a mostly present-tense mindset.


    Classical Education within a Democracy

    Hicks makes a number of excellent arguments for universal classical education, and here is a sampling:

    • “The elitists are foolish to assume that culture can be cultivated for the many by the few in a democratic state.”
    • “The logic of democracy .. .demands that everyone be educated as members of an elite.”
    • “[D]emocracy puts Aristotle’s ‘good life,’ the life of virtue, within reach of every man; but only a classical education is designed to turn this theory into practice, while safeguarding democracy with a norm-minded citizenry by extending culture to all.” {Note: “norm-minded,” if you recall, refers to the existence of absolute and transcendent truths, along with a working knowledge of how things are in their created nature and how things ought to be in the imperative sense rather than simply how things might be.}
    • Hicks holds up the universal classicism of ancient Athens as an example to follow: “Since the entire free citizenry of the democracy was involved in this education, paideia — the Greek word meaning both “culture” and “education” — was not for some elite to preserve and develop. It was the property of every citizen…”
    • “In a democracy, the purposes and sense of values cultivated by a few will not for long be able to proved direction and meaning for the many, who control policy directly with their votes and society indirectly with their appetites. In the end, elite culture will be rejected in favor of a ‘bread and circuses’ perversion of culture — a life of pleasure being the only utility a nonnormative citizen body can appreciate.” {Popular culture, anyone? Anyone?}
    • “To speak of classical education for the few is a contradiction in terms, for paideia is the inheritance of all men as individuals, not of any class of men as servants to the state.”
    • “Democracy is a noble form insofar as its aim is to proved the freedom necessary for all people to develop their full human potentials, but it becomes a vile form when, bereft of culture, it abandons this purpose and begins to value freedom for its own sake. When this happens, democracy — which only survives as a means toward higher ends — dies, and the many subtle forms of tyranny begin to infest its rotting corpse.”
    • “Democracy is a political ideal, not a fact of life. Its infrequent and precarious manifestations have always depended on two types of men, both products of classical education: I refer to the ascendancy of the uncommon man, the Pericles, Lincoln, Roosevelt [{Teddy! Not Franklin!}], or Churchill; and the self-governance of the common man.”
    • “[F]or our present purposes, we might turn this question around and ask: What sort of education fails to produce self-governing individuals?”
    • “True democratic citizens are not born, they are made.”
    • “A man without knowledge of the truth … has no use for rights. He has no knowledge of how to use them, except in a manner that would deny the rights of everyone and everything around him.”
    • “[M]an, exploiting liberty and learning to fill his belly rather than to find his salvation and to achieve his full human potential, inadvertently throws over his moral democracy for anarchy and tyranny.”
    • “To the extent that any society fails to provide a rigorous, normative education for all, it creates a social, cultural, and political need for elites. Consequently, it is not those who argue for universal classical education who are elitists, but those who dismiss this view in the name of utility and of democracy.”

    I think Hicks’ strongest argument lies in the nature of democracy itself. What is democracy but the tyranny of the masses? Especially in our current situation, where we have taken many unwise steps away from the republic we once were {such as the Seventeenth Amendment — tailored by the Populist Party}, we find it necessary to form in this tyrannical mass as much benevolence and wisdom as possible. A utilitarian, physicalist education can never do this.

    If we want to know why the country is the way it is, we must look at the paideia of the voters — the culture which surrounds them, the religious instruction they were given, and the education they were offered. The only way to change the paideia is to change these three areas. As children are typically in schools for the vast majority of the waking hours of their childhood, starting with the schools is the logical first step. Hence the strength of Hicks’ argument.

    Of course, there is another way of looking at this, which is to say that the system of education we have set up will always fail us in the most important ways, and we would be wise to simply abandon it {i.e., repent} and do something entirely different, but I know that is asking a bit much. Tradition — even traditions such as these, which are only a hundred years old or so — hold us fast, do they not?


    In Summary

    When America eliminated aristocracy, it wasn’t the way we often think of it. We are tempted to think that everyone, then, could be “average.” But it was really the other way around — it was an ennobling of the masses, as Hicks likes to call it — it was an elevation. All men became aristocrats, the kings of their little castles, the lords of their tiny spheres of influence. They all were entitled to an aristocrat’s education.

    Unfortunately, our modern world is governed by men who think take the expedient route and equalize society not by pulling up the bottom but by squashing all men equally. So, for instance, they wish the rich to become poor {rather than all men to flourish}, and they offer all men a slave’s education {rather than a free man’s classical schooling}. This may be expedient in the short-term, but it is nothing less than the road to tyranny.

    More importantly, a purely physical education eliminates the question of God from the outset, does it not?


    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit

    No Comments

    Leave a Reply