Literacy and Liberty

This week I’ve been in several conversations with people and with books I’m reading around the theme of the connection between cultural literacy and preserving our liberties. This item first came up as I was reading Os Guinness’s Suicide of a Free People. Guinness’s basic idea is that there are two kinds of freedom–freedom from and freedom for–and that our society almost exclusively emphasizes the former in a manner that is unsustainable for the long haul.  He argues that our founders were wiser in part on these matters because their thought was formed by the classic Greek and Latin writers on government and human affairs, as well as more recent writers like Locke.  For example, they knew of Polybius and the three ideal forms of government, including democracy, and each forms degraded expression, which for democracy is mob rule and built into the constitution various constraints against mob rule in the balancing of powers.

In John Henry Newman’s Idea of a UniversityNewman doesn’t address this directly but speaks of the enlargement of mind that he believes is a function of a liberal education as it classically has been understood:

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.

What both writers have in common is the recognition of a breadth of perspective that comes when we engage the great writers and great books.  And this is what came up in a couple conversations with university faculty this week. The great concern is that in place of this kind of education, today’s student usually gets a smattering of self-selected GEC courses and lots of focused training in a very specific, job-related area, unless they opt to go to a liberal arts college, or a place like St John’s, that focuses on a Great Books curriculum.  (Here is the reading list for their curriculum.)

What troubles me is that while there is great emphasis on preparing students for entering the world of work, it seems there is little that facilitates the enlargement of mind of which Newman speaks.  Many of us bemoan the smallness of mind that characterizes our present political discourse.  The question for me is whether in fact we are achieving the result that we are aiming for, highly skilled specialists who fuel our economic engines but lack the enlargement of mind and the habits of literacy to think cogently over a lifetime about the important matters required of us as citizens in a representative democracy? Perhaps what troubles me most is wondering what will happen should the cohort entering our workforce wake up and recognize that their education has been directed primarily to the end of making them cogs in our economic machine, and the only resource at hand to them is inchoate anger?  That, it seems, is a prescription for mob rule.

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