Education and alientation

One of the best essays that I’ve read on education is by historian D. G. Hart in Touchstone, “Education and Alienation: What John Henry Newman Could Learn from Wendell Berry” (October 2005). After sketching two rival models of liberal education in the West, Hart makes this truthful but troubling observation:

The end envisioned in each model favors cosmopolitanism over parochialism. In each construction, an educated person is someone who, after studying the right books, is identified more by the ideas he thinks or the knowledge he possesses than by his or her membership in family, community, or church. . . . The result is a liberal arts education that is supposed to yield a person whose mind has been freed from the constraints of prejudice, the narrowness of specialization, the blindness that comes with folly. The newer model is more obviously guilty of regarding attachments to family, region, or faith as illiberal. But by lumping together a variety of authors and texts under the umbrella of “the West” or “the humanities,” the older model has tended to produce students freed from attachments to the personal relationships that nurtured them, an ironic outcome given the strong sense of the local and the particular in most of the works in the literary canon of the West.

Here’s how I would distill Hart’s argument: The cosmopolitan end of education will focus on colleges and careers (“how to make a living”), which contributes to the alienation of persons from their “little platoons” (family, community, church), whereas the parochial end of education will focus on wisdom (‘how to make a life”), which deepens affections for those platoons.

Hart quotes these arresting words of Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry:

The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance that it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to say the future, of the child. The orientation is thus necessarily theoretical, speculative, and mercenary. The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.

All this makes me think that educators should be asking these questions: Do our schools promote personal advancement at the expense of communal attachment? Do our schools strive to pass on civilization (John Henry Newman’s emphasis) to the neglect of passing on a local culture (Wendell Berry’s emphasis)? Hart poses the dilemma this way: “Does a liberal education so broaden the minds of its pupils that it turns them into learned cosmopolitans who cannot go home anymore? In other words, how can students go back to the farm [or suburb], after having read Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare?”

Hart has helpfully provoked me to see “the potential narrowness of a liberal education, since it tempts us to look at students and ourselves as merely minds without bodies, that is, without reference to the families and communities in which we learned to talk, treat others politely, endure eccentric neighbors, root for football teams, and fall in love.” In short, any education that turns people against their “little platoons” (Burkean language) or neighbors (biblical language) is not an education for life.

Here is Hart’s superb conclusion to the essay that should be read in its entirety:

The West is merely an abstraction if severed from the local settings in which Westerners live, from Empire Falls, Maine, or Levittown, Pennsylvania. In fact, the very survival of liberal education may depend on efforts to leaven Newman with Berry, or to ground intentionally the liberally educated mind in the particularity of local cultures.

For without the real generation of children who learn about the West and its virtues from parents, neighbors, teachers and pastors, a liberal education may become little more than a game for cosseted academics, or a disembodied five-foot shelf of decorative books, cut off from real people whose lives and communities embody and situate the true, the good, and the beautiful.

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One thought on “Education and alientation

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