Once again, presidential candidate Marco Rubio, when asked a question about education, disparaged liberal learning by repeating his well-rehearsed lines about preparing students for careers in a “global” and “twenty-first-century” economy.
During the CNN town hall last week, he said that rather than teaching philosophy (“Roman philosophy,” no less), colleges should teach practical things—like welding. Sadly, Rubio is not alone. Many Republicans, forgetting their conservative roots, have joined Democrats in advancing a utilitarian view of education.
Now, there is nothing wrong with being a welder. My father, an immigrant, was one. And there is nothing wrong with philosophy—for the student in a technical school. In fact, it was our Founders’ belief that only a literate, well-educated citizenry could govern themselves. Even the tradesman should be versed in the basics of literature, history, and ancient philosophy, they thought. “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” said James Madison.
Modern Philosophy Is Merely Cynicism
Rubio, however, does not distinguish between legitimate philosophy and what philosophy, like the rest of the humanities, has become under the regime of tenured radicals. The problem is that philosophy professors no longer teach their subjects or, if they do, it is to cast suspicion upon the very enterprise, as I learned in graduate school in the 1990s.
My seminar on ancient rhetoric consisted of the professor elevating the sophists, the teachers who for fees taught the art of persuasion by making the worse case seem better. The ends were practical: so citizens could defend themselves in court. To my amazement, my professor ridiculed the traditional philosophical goals of searching for the truth.
In the intervening decades, the situation has become worse. Consider Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy. This full professor, according to the university’s website, specializes in “Critical Philosophy of Race (phenomenology of racial embodiment, social ontology of race),” “Critical Whiteness Studies (white subject formation, white racist ambush, white opacity and embeddedness. . .),” and “African-American Philosophy and Philosophy of the Black Experience (resistance, Black identity formation . . .).”
Yancy received national attention in December for penning the screed “Dear White America” in The New York Times. He began, “I have a weighty request. As you read this letter, I want you to listen with love, a sort of love that demands that you look at parts of yourself that might cause pain and terror, as James Baldwin would say. Did you hear that? You may have missed it. I repeat: I want you to listen with love. Well, at least try.”
Yancy would do well to review the Greek philosophers on the art of rhetoric and what they have to say about not insulting your audience (“Did you hear that?” “Well, at least try.”). Behind such appeals like Yancy’s is an implied threat. Invoking the names of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other allegedly innocent victims of police violence, he accused “White America” of being racist through and through. Such rhetoric presages and justifies the angry mobs on our campuses and in our streets.
Philosophy Doesn’t Mean Grievance-Mongering
College campuses, once the places where the civilized arts of debate and the pursuit of truth were taught, have become places where the PhDs, doctors of philosophy, lead mobs of students in pursuit of retribution against some “systemic” wrong, usually in reference to race, ethnicity, or gender. Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, supporter of the Black Lives Matter mob movement, is promising to make such education free.
Our presidential candidates should consider what philosophy, rightly understood, could do. Indeed, by studying Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” students would be able to distinguish between different rhetorical appeals and learn the legitimate arts of persuasion—those that allow us to live in a civilized manner, where we resolve our differences through debate, not violence.
Were students to study Plato’s “Republic,” they might understand the dangers of a popular democracy and why the American Founders rejected one. They would consider Thrasymachus’s contention that justice is synonymous with strength, with being a “winner,” regardless of the methods. They might decide to evaluate such rhetoric carefully when it comes from a political candidate, like Donald Trump.
They would consider whether it is good for the government to put people in certain classes, as craftsmen or “guardians,” instead of allowing them to choose for themselves, or whether government should raise children rather than parents. What has been the historical outcome of such societies with centralized government, five-year economic plans, government-assigned jobs, and child-rearing from infancy? Are there any similarities to what Sanders is proposing?
Education Is Ultimately about Self-Governance
This is not to say that a class discussion should center on current political candidates. Indeed, the truly philosophical professor will keep the discussion largely away from the immediate. If the lesson is taught well, the student should come to his or her own conclusions and be able to carry those lessons into adulthood. That is the purpose of an education, not regimented job training and political molding.
The responses to Rubio’s statements in November, by such leftist outlets as ThinkProgress, CNN, and Huffington Post, were quite telling. They replied in kind to his materialist arguments. “Philosophers make more money than welders!” they said. In this they betrayed their utilitarian view of education, one that dominates the Obama administration, specifically through Common Core, a federally coerced program designed to produce compliant workers in the global economy.
The job training part has lured some short-sighted or corrupt Republicans. In higher education, too, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker advanced short-sighted “careerism,” as if he had forgotten, as Peter Lawler pointed out, Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument for studying the Greek and Roman classics. Earlier this year, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin suggested that electrical engineering was worthy of support, while French literature was not.
The other part of the progressive vision for education is to produce graduates who adhere to the state’s status quo. Students are trained to work collectively, focus on emotions, refrain from making independent judgments, and read in a way that does not go beyond ferreting out snippets of information. They are not asked to read an entire Platonic dialogue or novel. They do not get the big picture, from the dawn of civilization.
Our current educational methods are a far cry from the Founders’ robust views, of preparing citizens who are literate, logical, and knowledgeable; citizens capable of voting intelligently.
We Need Cultural Renewal, Not Materialism
We should embrace this conservative view of education. Although it is extremely rare in today’s college classrooms, it is being advanced in more than 150 privately funded academic centers on and off campuses. According to the John William Pope Center for Education Renewal, these centers “preserve and promote the knowledge and perspectives that are disappearing from the academy.”
One of these is the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, where I am a resident fellow. It was founded by three Hamilton College professors in 2007, and is located in the village of Clinton.
AHI offers students the option to read the classics in a manner that is increasingly difficult to find in the typically highly politicized open curriculum. AHI-sponsored reading groups have focused on the works of such important figures as Leo Strauss, St. Augustine, and Josef Pieper. This semester Dr. Elizabeth D’Arrivee is leading a discussion group on Plato’s “Republic.”
Political candidates would do well to explain how they will support such efforts for educational renewal, instead of disparaging philosophy and literature.