Here’s a question that bothers educators more than it should: Is liberal education about learning content or acquiring a method of thinking? For me, it’s undeniable that content is prior to method. You can’t think well without knowing what to think with.
The argument for content is typically framed around the need for literacy. Surely every American citizens needs to possess civic literacy. That means having knowledge of the key moments and documents of our long and bookish political tradition of liberty, as well as knowledge of how our form of government actually functions.
From this view, civic literacy is prior to the often-touted method of “civic engagement.” To take part in our political process responsibly, citizens need to be informed or not just about shooting the bull over alleged outrages.
In any country, civic literacy is intertwined with historical literacy. In the case of America, that seems to mean both knowing the history of our country and the place of our country as part of Western civilization—a civilization based on a very definite kind of poetry, philosophy, and theology, as well the one in which the modern conceptions of freedom and technological progress arose. It is a civilization animated by different views of who the free person or individual is—and so by disputes over the proper relationships among personal or individual freedom, economic freedom, civic freedom, familial freedom, and freedom of equal creatures under the personal and relational God (which includes both freedom of conscience and the freedom of the church as an organized body of thought and action).
Technology and the Human Good
It would be easy to add here, of course, economic literacy—given how dependent our country now is and has always been in some measure on the global competitive marketplace. And, of course, technological literacy. Nobody really thinks economic productivity and technological progress are good for their own sakes. The “how” of money and power are for the “why” of properly human purposes. Still, there’s no way to hope to subordinate the “how” to the “why” without understanding how the how works. The last thing liberal education should do, especially these days, is facilitate the vanity that comes with having unreasonable contempt for what making money and deploying technological creativity can do for us all.
Even libertarians, who often seem to be unreservedly technophiliac cheerleaders for the unimpeded primacy of market forces, don’t really think money and power are the bottom line. They don’t even think money and power are merely good for satisfying “subjective preferences” and nothing more. For libertarians, typically, the bottom line is the free or sovereign individual, the being undefined by class, caste, or oppressive relational imperatives. That understanding of freedom, of course, requires a philosophical defense, and that defense requires real knowledge of its philosophical and theological alternatives. That understanding of freedom is also far from whimsical; it requires taking responsibility for oneself and one’s own and refusing to be thoughtlessly dependent on others.
But there’s even more: The point of modern technological efforts are to deploy smart and even genius machines to enhance human productivity to the point where most of us live in abundance with considerable leisure. Libertarians, for good reason, point to the screen as a kind of liberty that has been made available to us all. Through the screens on our smart devices, we all have access—for free!—to most of the great cultural achievements of Western civilization.
We also have access, of course, to all manner of mindless games and porn. There’s no way anyone could be satisfied by saying that the whole progress of Western civilization has been toward producing a kind of idiocracy where most people spend their days immersed in online games and porn—perhaps enhanced by legalized marijuana.
People Need Literacy to Master Their Technology
There will, of course, be no effective laws limiting access to most of what can conceivably be made available on the screen, just as there’ll be no laws limiting Google’s hugely intrusive efforts to know and manipulate our preferences. So the only alternative is an effort to educate people to use their leisure and their technology well, to have what it takes to fend off mindless addiction and Silicon Valley scripting.
So literacy has to be expanded to include musical, artistic, and literary literacy. It’s great that what used to be available only to lazy and unjust aristocrats is now available to us all. But it would be much greater, of course, if our democratic understanding of education aimed beyond techno-vocational literacy to an elevation of personal choices concerning what to do with the unprecedented power at one’s disposal. Who can deny that one of the most intricate, difficult challenges to our free will these days is to be able to use the screen with moderation?
That means, if you think about it, that the content of education should mainly be found in books. It really makes all the difference—when it comes to both economic success and the choice of worthy leisure—when a particular child is raised in a home animated by love of reading. We should prize no skill more than being able to attentively read a “real book,” a book that’s more than a source of self-indulgent entertainment or technical self-help. That skill is all about effective access to content. It’s for building a huge and precise vocabulary that opens the particular person to the daylight of meaning—to living in the truth—that comes with connecting words to the way things really are.
That skill, after all, is the source of the freedom that comes from being able to use techno-happytalk ironically, to see, in the field of education, that “collaborative learning,” “competency,” and even “critical thinking” are lazily abstract ways of diverting oneself from the challenge of figuring out who an educated person really is. Being able to read with the joyful shared pleasure of discovery is, after all, what literacy really is. It also may be the only way of being able to deploy the screen with the ironic moderation that puts it in its proper or reasonably quite limited place in our lives.