Humane Education Represents What We Possess in Common

There is a pernicious idea afoot in educational and literary circles that will further fracture what is already a (terminally?) maimed commonwealth. I refer to the idea of “representation” in curricula. “Representation” sounds innocuous enough—it’s a fine word, after all—until one realizes it means jettisoning a view of education that assumes as a first principle our commonality or shared human nature in favor of group-based identitarian politics intended to foreground our differences from one another. Everyone must see his or her group “represented” in assigned readings or, well, it isn’t fair. The impulse is not unrelated to the “#DisruptTexts” movement, which aims to replace or supplement canonical works with more, you know, “disruptive” ones. I trust the nonsense is palpable—as if novels like Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn don’t fill this function already, in a way that is perhaps (I speak as a fool) more compelling than, say, the vampiric “representation” of Twilight.

But, alas, the nonsense spreads.

The most recent example—actually, as it has been a few days it is probably not the most recent example anymore—comes to us via the U.S. Department of Education. (Stop laughing; it isn’t funny.) This esteemed body, which finds not till it feels, entered a set of “proposed priorities” for “American History and Civics Education” in the Federal Register on April 19.

It is difficult to imagine, I confess, that the proposed rule was written without parody. It refers, for example, to the widely panned “1619 Project” as a “landmark” event that is in line with the goals for “teaching and learning” (sic) American history (sic) that the newly proposed rule recommends, and it appears to intend no irony by doing so. It recommends the so-called “antiracism” agenda of Ibram X. Kendi to schools. Again, no irony appears to be intended.

The entry in the Federal Register is, like everything composed in managerialist bureaucratese, almost unreadable. It consists in the main of the robotic repetition of trite and contentless phrases (“culturally responsive teaching”; “the ongoing national reckoning with systemic racism”; “an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda”; “the vital role of diversity”) that serve more as ciphers for a righteous and laudable ideological posture than as symbols of anything resembling careful thought. I read it (ok, I skimmed it)—you might say I “put in the work”—so that you don’t have to.

And what do the rule-makers want? A refocused curriculum that is centered (is that the word to use now?) around an incoherent set of sectarian loyalties and irreducible differences that makes the very notion of a “common” school definitionally impossible. What we are left with instead is a cacophonous clatter, the metallic screech of the disjoined cars of a runaway train. Clique-claque. All of this is couched—of course!—in the notions of “identity” and “diversity.” Each term, or one of its compounds, is used eight times in this short rule. The noxious psychobabble modifier “identity-safe” appears, mirabile dictu, four times (“identity-safe classroom”; “identity-safe learning environments”).

Leave aside the extremely shallow view of personal identity and diversity entailed in classifying people by their color and then counting up curricular appearances to keep score.

What is the uniting factor for human beings under all this difference? Just nothing, apparently.

This is all quite far from the spirit that has long animated the best reflection on the nature and ends of education, an endeavor designed to lift man up out of himself and his own partialness, his own individuality, and his own narrowness into the more healthful air of the universal and the whole.

Take, for example, Tayler Lewis, a mid-19th century professor of classical and oriental languages, a man who was a towering figure in his own day and is almost totally forgotten in ours. (So great is the oblivion into which he has fallen that he does not even have a Wikipedia page to call his own.)

Lewis wrote a number of fascinating and incisive essays that no one reads. One of them, published in 1869, is called “The True Idea of Liberal Education,” one of the best treatments of the subject I have read. To read it is to turn from chewing on the boiled grass of our Department of Education to feasting on the fatted calf.

For Lewis, “the term Liberal Education” properly refers to

that spiritual culture which is for man as man, whatever may be his special distinctions of condition; and for every man, as far as his short and troubled and much occupied life may yield the means and furnish the motives for its attainment.

Immediately one marks a difference. What is most important in the educational endeavor is not the “special distinctions of [one’s] condition”—exactly what our current educationalists want most to highlight. It is instead what is shared that is important, for what we share is our humanity itself. It is for this reason that education can be called “humane.” To the degree that current theory obsesses over difference and group identity, then, to that same degree is it appropriate to call it “anti-humane.”

For true education is predicated “on what man is in himself,” a human being. As Lewis puts it,

Such a scheme [of true Liberal Education] is built on what man is in himself—in his own inner world of being. It may be said to rest, too, on the nature of man in his most unchanging and universal relations to things within, beneath, above and around him. As thus growing out of the human condition, it has heretofore, in all civilized communities, been recognized as presenting the prime elements and main outlines of true scholastic discipline.

It is “that,” Lewis says, “which tends to free the soul from the selfish contracting influence of local, temporal, and partial associations as connected with local and partial pursuits.” The opposite, in contrast, rests—not coincidentally—on a false theory of the nature of man and his political community and “yields only an “armed armistice; a Babel of jarring pursuits, with an ever restless jealousy of partial privileges, a never-ceasing apprehension of rights invaded, a tormenting fear of monsters whom one portion are ever employing to devour the liberties of others.”

Lewis was a conservative, as well as a fierce opponent of slavery. This was not an accident: It was the result of exactly the same commitments that made his theory of education what it was. It is fair to say that the theory that currently predominates in the United States, in the name of fighting racism and all other forms of real or imagined oppression, is diametrically opposed to it. I will leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusions about what the significance of that fact might be.

But it is worth noting that Lewis’s position was not the exclusive purview of self-styled “conservative” thinkers. In its rough outlines it was more or less standard, notwithstanding the perversions of scientific racism, and the ranks of its adherents included men much more radical than Lewis—men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance—who believed something about human nature that was, if not identical, then at least similar enough to what Lewis believed to prevent the utter destruction of a truly liberal education. That is to say, they believed that human nature exists, that there is such a thing as human nature—one human nature that is shared by all human beings and that is stable across the differences of time, place, and everything else. Such a belief is not inconsequential. It is the article that in certain hands, for instance, gave abolitionism its teeth. And it is the one thing that today’s progressives are hell-bent on denying, either in word, in deed, or in both.

I mentioned Emerson, so permit me to dilate upon him for a moment. He is a difficult case, for he was an opponent of slavery as well as a believer in racial inferiority, in which matter he thought he was “following the science.” (He is not the only progressive to have been so conflicted. In myriad ways, there is a warning for us here.) And yet the foundation of his philosophy—chalk it up to his “better angels” if you wish—cuts directly against a basic disunity of man. As a pantheist, he is at bottom bound to a concrete and non-figurative view of the participatory unity of the human mind: In the end, there is only one mind and one man. (Readers skittish about pantheism need not worry; you can get to the same place via orthodox Christianity, and Emerson’s Christian-sounding language in this regard is another item to place in the “not a coincidence” column.)

Let me give an example of Emerson at his best that connects this digression directly back to the question of education. In “The American Scholar,” his 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard, Emerson devotes a lengthy section to his view of books and reading. Though it is of intrinsic interest, most of it does not concern us here. But one paragraph in particular does, a paragraph in which Emerson gives an account of why we feel an immediate connection to “the best books,” regardless of when or where they were written. “It is remarkable,” Emerson comments,

the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,—with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. But for the evidence thence afforded to the philosophical doctrine of the identity of all minds, we should suppose some pre-established harmony, some foresight of souls that were to be, and some preparation of stores for their future wants, like the fact observed in insects, who lay up food before death for the young grub they shall never see.

Note the key phrase: “one nature wrote and the same reads.” If Emerson is right, it makes the identitarian demands of contemporary educationalists superfluous at best, and dangerously misguided at worst. To paraphrase Dickens, we might say we get both the best and the worst in this case.

But is Emerson right? Just this week, I have proven to my own satisfaction that he is, in a way that simultaneously demonstrates what actual mental sympathy is and exposes the unmitigated vacuity of the counterfeit version of “identity-safe” representation.

For the final meeting of a course called “The Liberal Arts Tradition,” comprising mostly college freshmen, I assigned Emerson’s address. Now, Emerson was white and American (and, worse, a man!). Most of the students in the room were white, and all were American. (Exactly half were also guilty of being guys.) The skin-deep shallowness of today’s conventional wisdom tells us that all the white people and all the American people were therefore “represented” in the assigned reading. Anyone who knows the average Hillsdale student knows how stupid such a claim is. There are few writers our students are more predisposed to encounter with visceral loathing, because he flaunts his disregard and rejection of a number of their most deeply held beliefs. It is obvious to any thinking person that the fact that Emerson was a “white American male” tells us neither more nor less than nothing important about how white American students will respond to him.

For that reason, it was an experience of “some awe mixed with joy,” to use Emerson’s phrase, to watch students over the course of the discussion come to find value in Ralph Waldo Emerson and to consider suggestions about how they might make use of what is best in him for their own edification, all without compromising any of their most important commitments. The classroom was not “identity-safe,” and for that reason, education—real education—could occur.

It is only the essential unity of man’s mind and nature that makes this possible. It has become fashionable to argue, if that’s the word I want, that “color-blindness” in education and civil society, which is based on precisely the same belief and is the necessary corollary of the view of education I have been commending, not only cannot combat racial bigotry but actually enables it. This is, to use a quaint term, a lie. Thus the undefeated Hillsdale College football team refused to play for the national title in the 1956 Tangerine Bowl (now the Citrus Bowl) because black players (the team had four) were not allowed to play on the same field as white players. They did so at a time when the educational establishment hadn’t yet figured out (they still haven’t) that blacks and whites are equal, because character, friendship, and loyalty demanded that they not treat people differently on the basis of the color of their skin. They did so, that is, because of “color-blindness.” A group of our undergraduates just released a stunning documentary about the event this month; it is well worth your time. Their action only recapitulated what had happened four decades before, when “the College refused to comply when the U.S. Army mandated black students be segregated to a separate unit if they wished to participate in the Student Army Training Corp.” (I just learned of this from a student the other day.)

In all of these instances, the college was more humane than the government, and even than the rest of contemporary society, because it had a different view of the nature of man and the task of education. Sadly, the ascendant educational ideology manifested in the proposed rule with which we began represents a conscious rejection of the tenets of humane education. It is foolish, and because it is foolish it will not work. At the moment, almost the totality of our public life is an irrational cacophony of competing group interests and enmities. Our educational bureaucrats wish to extend the reach of ideological total war to an even greater extent than they have to date. The proposal of the Department of Education may seem trivial, but the view of man, education, society, and citizenship it epitomizes is not. The classroom is no place for such base activity, and should be protected from it at all costs.

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.

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