Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The end of liberal education heralded a new Dark Age

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“We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity. I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture.” -- T.S. Eliot

Bradley J. Birzer
"Anyone who has studied the larger history of the West finds it hard to forget that the defining aspect of a “dark age” is the loss of liberal education. T.S. Eliot dated the beginning of our current dark age to roughly 1898.
It would be hard to argue with Eliot’s claim. At the turn of the last century, America began to embrace a public education that emphasized the nation as a whole (soon to be called 100% Americanism) over the world at large and over any subgroup or culture. Grant, perhaps more than any president before him, pushed for nationalism uber alles: in his economic policies, his savage warfare against the Indians, and in his near maniacal dislike of parochial schooling. In Europe, the German model of higher education walked tall, and America adopted the Germanic system rather than the Oxbridge model. As with almost everything, modernity dissected education into subject and professional categories, thus diminishing the whole picture of the human person. In more direct words, much of the western world embraced illiberalism, professionalization, and bureaucratization.
Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Albert Jay Nock, B.I. Bell, Christopher Dawson, C.S. Lewis, Russell Kirk, and almost every important and great figure of the last century lamented the loss of liberal education. One could legitimately claim that the entire movement of the “right” in interwar America and in much of Europe centered not only on the growth of the state, but also on the decline of liberal education.
These two things, of course, are related. For a nation-state to thrive, it needs at least three components, all in good working order, allowing the political sphere to predict with some certainty the stability of the years to come: a bureaucracy to collect taxes on a regular schedule, a police/military to collect such taxes, and an education system to convince the population that it should support the first two things.
For five hundred years, nation-states have done exceedingly well at collecting taxes and waging wars. They have, in relative terms, only very, very slowly learned how to homogenize populations with educational systems.
[B]y almost any measure, it is stunning that the liberal arts have survived in America as long as they have. No nation-state would ever defend liberal education, as liberal education liberates one from the concerns of this world. A liberal education would be the exact thing a nation-state and a nationalist (neocon or liberal) would hate. Liberal education connects us to the past, the present, and the future, and it asks us to join a Country (or, best, a republic of letters) that transcends the ephemeral nation and moment. Those truly liberal love what is always and everywhere true, not what is particularly true. They love love [i.e., God], not power."

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