Commentary Magazine


Education in Defense of a Free Society

As we approach the bicentenary of the American Constitution, it seems to me fitting and fruitful to explore two related themes in the intellectual legacy of Thomas Jef- ferson, the first philosopher-statesman of the fledgling American republic to call himself a democrat. These themes are, first, his conception of a free self-governing society; and second, his faith in the processes of education to guide, strengthen, and defend this free self-governing soci- ety from the dangers-internal and external-that might threaten its survival. Since Jefferson’s own time, discussion of the relation between democ- racy and education has not been absent from political discourse, but as a rule, it has been sub- ordinated to narrow curricular issues. Periodical- ly, however, the question becomes focal whenever we seek, as we are doing today, to rethink, revise, and reform the educational establishment of the nation.

Jefferson was not a systematic thinker and his rhetoric sometimes carried him beyond the bounds of good sense. A revolution every twenty years or so, which he advocated to nourish the tree of lib- erty, would have destroyed the American repub- lic long before the Civil War came near to doing so. Nor were all elements of his thought consis- tent. Jefferson once wrote that man was "the only animal which devours its own kind." Yet in the very passage in which man is so characterized, he declared that "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter." The case for a free press does not rest on such an absurd position, which overlooks the fact that in a state of anarchy, one without govern- ment, there would be no press at all. It would be destroyed by mob rule when it exercised its crit- ical functions, as indeed happened during some SIDNEY HOOK, professor emeritus of philosophy at New York University, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institu- tion, Stanford. His books include The Hero in History, From Hegel to Marx, and Philosophy and Public Policy. The present article is the text of this year’s Jefferson Lec- ture. Established in 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Jefferson Lecture is the highest official award the federal government bestows for distinguished in- tellectual achievement in the humanities.

stormy years of American history in various re- gions of the country. Of course, government is not a sufficient condition of a free press, but it is a necessary condition not only of press freedom but of any freedom. For how can any freedom be exercised unless those who would violate it are not free to do so? Rhetorical excesses and logical inconsistencies apart, the most profound feature of Jefferson’s political philosophy, and what all major political groups in American life today regard as possess- ing a perennially valid significance, is its emphasis on self-government. Self-government in Jeffer- son’s conception has three central features. It is based on freely given or uncoerced consent. Sec- ondly, freely given consent entails the guaranteed right to dissent, to wit, the freedoms of speech, press, association, and assembly, and all other freedoms legitimately derived from them. It is this feature that distinguishes the Jeffersonian, or modern, conception of self-government from the ancient and transient democratic orders of the past which recognized no limits on government power, and treated opponents within the demo- cratic system as enemies. Finally, given the recog- nition of the right to dissent, a sine qua non of a self-governing community is the principle of majority rule. In the absence of a consensus, rarely to be expected in the inescapable conflicts of human interests and opinions, this rule is the only way to reach orderly decision and effect a peaceful succession of government. Jefferson stressed this, as did many years later the uncom- promising individualist, William James. "The first principle of republicanism," writes Jeffer- son, "is that the lex majoris partis is the funda- mental law of every society of individuals of equal rights. To consider the will of society enunciated by a single vote, as sacred as if unani- mous, is the first of all lessons in importance.

This law, once disregarded, no other remains but the use of force." Jefferson was acutely aware, as are we all, that majorities may go astray, be injudicious, and even be morally tyrannical within the letter of the law. For this he had only one remedy: not the rule of presumably enlightened minorities, but the education of experience. His not unrea- sonable assumption is that, given access to knowl- 1718/COMMENTARY JULY 1984 edge, most adult human beings are better judges of their own interests than are others. However, to be able to learn effectively from their present experience, to make it available for their future experience, citizens should have access to educa- tion of a narrower kind-to schooling that de- velops the intellectual skills and imparts the relevant knowledge necessary to sustain a free society. The people themselves, Jefferson contin- ually observes, are "the only safe depositories" of non-oppressive rightful government.

One may ask, of course, whether such govern- ment is not only safe, but whether it is sound, not only whether it is right, but whether it is good. Jefferson’s reply indicates where he puts his faith: "To render them [the people] safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.

This is indeed not all that is necessary though it be essentially necessary. An amendment of our Constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence on government must be shared by all the people." How far we have come from the Jeffersonian faith that the people or their representatives are the only safe depositories of a free society is evi- denced by current discussion of a constitutional convention. I am not a partisan of any particular measure advocated for the agenda of such a con- vention and I disapprove of most. But I am ap- palled at the reasons offered by some who oppose its convocation and who cry out in alarm that it will run amok and even abolish the Bill of Rights.

No more flagrant contradiction of the Jefferson- ian faith is imaginable than such a sentiment. It confidently predicts that measures threatening the foundations of a free society will not only be adopted by a majority of the delegates but also by three-quarters of our fifty states, and by both freely elected legislative assemblies in those states.

If such a thing were to come to pass, it would certainly establish that a majority of citizens are either too obtuse or too vicious to be entrusted with self-government. And if this were indeed true, as some philosophers from Plato to Santa- yana have asserted, why should anyone be in favor of a politically free society? The current state of civic education and behavior is indeed deplorable. But the situation is not so far gone as to make the case for a free society a lost cause.

Far from fearing a constitutional convention, I believe its convocation, timed for our bicen- tenary, could become the occasion for a great historic debate. Reviewing and interpreting the experience of two centuries, it might strike a more adequate balance among the branches of our government and clarify some central ambi- guities in present constitutional provisions that sometimes generate dangerous deadlocks.

EFFERSON, as we know, was in advance J of his time. He provided the ration- ale for the systems of public education that de- veloped in the United States after his day, espe- cially for instruction going beyond the funda- mentals of literacy-reading, writing, and the arts of calculation. He even ventured on the out- lines of a curriculum of studies, mainly based on science and history, to strengthen faith in a free society and safeguard it from the corruptions of human ambition and power.

Now suppose that, in the spirit of Jefferson, we wanted to devise an educational system that would indeed strengthen allegiance to our self- governing democratic society: how would we do this today? One possible way-consistent with Jefferson’s own prescriptions-would be to modify our educational system so that its central emphasis became the detailed study of the sci- ences. But is there really any convincing reason to believe that this would result in an increase of support for a free self-governing society? After all, the subject matters and techniques of the sciences can be mastered in any kind of society. Even though it is true that the greatest burgeoning and bursts of creative discovery in science have occurred during the last two centuries in modern democratic countries, it does not tax our imagina- tion to conceive a world in which, once political freedom has been lost, the sciences become not only the organon of continuous inquiry into nature but also the instrument of enforcing a cruel and ruthless despotism over society. The domination man exercises over nature has often been used to fasten bonds of domination over other men.

To be sure, as John Dewey often pointed out, there is much in the process of scientific inquiry -its openness, sense of evidence, tentativeness, and cooperative intelligence-that when carried over into the discussion and practice of human affairs vitalizes the free society. But Dewey also never ceased to remind us that, desirable as it is to carry over scientific methods in the pursuit and testing of human ends, science and politics differ in several crucial respects. For one thing, not every- one is qualified to be a scientist or has a right to a scientific judgment, while all citizens of a free society are deemed qualified to participate in de- termining judgments of political policy. Deny this and one is committed to the view of govern- ment by experts, which is incompatible with the premises of a self-governing society. For those premises imply that on crucial questions of policy one does not have to be an expert to judge the work of experts or choose among their oft-con- flicting proposals.

Further, scientists are united in one overriding interest-the interest in the pursuit of truth; hu- man affairs, on the other hand, are a field of con- flicting interests. The agreements scientists reach are ultimately determined by the compulsions of fact; in human affairs, even when there is agree- ment on facts, the resolution of differences may require tolerance and compromise of interests. InEDUCATION IN DEFENSE OF A FREE SOCIETY/19 a free society, it may be necessary to forgo de- mands for the full measure of justified claims in order to preserve the process by which future claims may be peacefully negotiated. Science de- velops by the elimination of error. But the life of a free society consists not so much in the elim- ination of interests as in their reconciliation. In science, a wrong judgment loses all value as soon as it is shown to be wrong; in a democracy, even the interest which is outvoted has value. It must be respected in defeat if only because it has submitted itself to the arbitrament of argument and persuasion.

In short, a curriculum concentrating entirely on science could not be expected to achieve the aim Jefferson sought. Not that Jefferson himself was a simple-minded believer in the effect of sci- ence and science education on the moral estate of humanity. He called freedom "the first-born daughter of science"; yet he was aware that sci- ence could "produce the bitter fruits of tyranny and rapine." He never wavered in his belief that through the diffusion of scientific knowledge the human condition could be advanced. And if by the advance of the human condition we mean the material improvement of the human estate, the extension of longevity, and the increase of our power over nature, none can gainsay him.

Yet even if we grant the dubious proposition that all knowledge is good, surely not all of it is relevant for ‘our political purpose. Henry Adams to the contrary notwithstanding, no law of physics has any bearing on the justification for a free society. Einstein’s theory overthrew New- ton’s, not the Declaration of Independence.

IT IS a commonplace but an important one that it is not science and tech- nology that are fateful to man, but the uses to which they are put. When we speak of uses, we imply purposes and ends, goals and policies. We therewith find ourselves in the realm of values.

The humanities, broadly speaking, are concerned with the exploration of this realm. Though Jefferson prescribed a mainly scientific course of study for the intellectual elite, a curriculum built on the humanities is roughly what he had in mind for the ordinary citizen, whose studies should, he thought, be chiefly historical. Might not such a curriculum today provide what the sciences cannot-a strengthened faith in a free self-governing society? I wish to declare at once that regardless of how we answer this question, the humanities-pri- marily the disciplines of language and literature, history, art, and philosophy-should have a cen- tral place in the education of any society. For their subject matter is perennial and transcends, even when it touches on, the temporalities of politics.

The reasons for this are manifest and heralded in many ways from ancient days to the present.

The study of the humanities nurtures an under- standing and appreciation of the great and often unfamiliar visions and modes of life. Within any mode of life, they present "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself" (William Faulkner). They therefore embrace but go be- yond the dimensions of the political and ideo- logical. They strike no consensus. They have no flag or creed, even when they celebrate ways of life and death fought under warring battle cries.

They take us out of ourselves and enable us to see with the eyes and minds of others, just as we become aware of the reach and power of others in us. Define the humanities and limit their con- cerns for curricular purposes as one will, their cultivation leads to the permanent enrichment of the internal landscape of the mind in any clime or social station. For they provide an ever re- newed source of delight, consolation, insight, sometimes hope.

Surely this is merit enough to justify the place of the humanities in any curriculum of liberal studies. Surely this justifies us in maintaining that their absence is the sign of a truncated, one- sided, and impoverished education-whatever other virtues such education may have.

Nonetheless, we cannot honestly maintain that the study of the humanities of itself generates allegiance to the free society. Two considerations prevent us from doing so. The first is the his- torical fact that the student population of West- ern Europe, who until recently were brought up in their lycees and gymnasia largely on classical studies, were certainly not noteworthy for their ardor and enthusiasm for free democratic soci- eties. Indeed, not infrequently in countries like Spain, Italy, France, and Germany, it was students who provided the intellectual shock troops for anti-democratic movements.

There is a second troubling reason why we cannot maintain that an organic relationship exists between the humanist tradition in life and letters and commitment to the free or liberal society. This is the fact that many of the monu- mental writers of the past regarded the promise of democratic progress as a threat to the life of the mind and to the creative spirit, as the polit- ical gloss on the mechanisms that were leveling and standardizing culture and taste. No one can reasonably dispute the record. From the age of Plato to the present, the dominating figures in the humanistic disciplines have been critical of, sometimes even hostile to, the extension of polit- ical power to the masses, even when safeguards against the excesses of popular sovereignty have been adopted. In the 19th century, writers like Dickens, George Eliot, and Shelley were sym- pathetic to the advance of the democratic idea, but their influence was more than counterbal- anced by Wordsworth, Balzac, Goethe, Dostoev- sky, and many others. In our own time, such major literary figures as T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Pound,20/COMMENTARY JULY 1984 Faulkner, and D.H. Lawrence typify the distrust and suspicion of democratic society prevalent among the creative vanguard.

Why there should be this "adversary" relation- ship, as Lionel Trilling called it, between the sympathies and values of so many great human- ists and the democratic tendencies of their cul- ture, and why there should be a corresponding bias toward the aristocratic tradition, is hard to explain. A partial answer may lie in the greater receptivity among aristocratic classes to the novel and experimental than is generally found in the larger public. ("Nothing is so foreign to the plain man," observes Santayana, "as the corrupt desire for simplicity.") To this may be added the fact that where the people are sovereign they have sometimes been less tolerant of heresies that chal- lenge accepted beliefs than have some benevolent despotisms, which under the mantle of a patroniz- ing Narrenfreiheit, the freedom accorded to the court jester, sometimes sheltered purveyors of doctrines dangerous to the state.

Whatever the explanation, we cannot plausibly deny that the outstanding humanist figures have rarely been protagonists of the ordered freedoms we associate with democratic life and republican virtue in a self-governing society. The growth of such a society in the West owes more to the dis- sident, nonconformist religious sects, to the agita- tion and battles of the early trade unions and other manifestations of class struggle than to the classical humanist tradition. It was not a scholar inspired by Plato or Aristotle, Aquinas or Dante, or any figures of the Renaissance, but a spokes- man of the Protestant Levellers who proclaimed that "the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he," and therefore argued for the right "to choose those who are to make the laws for them to live under." In pointing to the considerations that prevent us from making the easy inference that a liberal- arts education centered around the study of the humanities is integral to the existence and sur- vival of a liberal society, I do not mean to suggest that there is a simple causal relation between curricular study and political behavior.

A contemporary literary critic (George Steiner) has written in a tone of bitter discovery: "We know now that a man can read Goethe and Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning." But he could have added that those who studied Euclid and Newton also built the crematoria at Auschwitz. And he undoubted- ly is aware that those in previous times who led the massacres of innocents in their holy wars against heretics or infidels invoked the blessings of the God of love on their dedicated work. This is an old story. The face of evil can wear the mask of learning. The devil can play the role not only of a gentleman but of a scholar-but this does not make learning or manners evil or less desirable. The guilt of a criminal does not stain the means by which he commits or conceals his crime. As well maintain that the abuse of lan- guage is an argument for permanent silence.

Moreover, after one has said everything there is to be said to the contrary, there still remains at least some positive connection between the rationale of a free society and the great expres- sions of the human spirit in art and literature.

Regardless of their specific political orientation, these works are usually animated by a passion or vision of opposition to the customary. They move by challenging complacency. They are essentially nonconformist. To reach their mark they must disturb, upset, and sometimes frighten.

To the extent, then, that a free society thrives on diversity, the play and struggle of varied per- spectives, the dialectic of confrontation, it is served by the humanities, just as in turn the free society often serves the humanities better than the authoritarian societies some humanists tend to favor. For a free society offers an unlimited theater for works of the spirit to develop, in con- trast with authoritarian societies that always in some crucial area of the mind invoke the Augus- tinian dictum that "error has no rights," as a bar to further inquiry and experiment.

To be sure, free societies sometimes sin against the light of cultural freedom. But when they do, they are violating their own ethos. Conversely, some unfree societies may tolerate, even encour- age, experiment and variation in some restricted area, but never in all the realms of the human spirit. I am struck by a story told about General de Gaulle. In refusing to endorse the arrest of Sartre for an infraction of the law, he is reputed to have said: "In a free society one does not ar- rest Voltaire." Sartre was no Voltaire, and he was to boot an apologist for Stalinism; but we know what his fate would have been as a dissident under a Stalinist regime.

I do not want to go beyond the modest claim that there is no essential or necessary hostility between the humanities and a free society, and that there need be no conflict between a love of the humanities and a commitment to liberal democ- racy. But I believe I have also shown that a cur- riculum concentrating on the humanities can no more be expected to achieve the Jeffersonian ob- jective of strengthening faith in the free society than a curriculum based on the sciences.

HAVE brought up Jefferson’s ideas about the relation between education and freedom not out of an academic concern with those ideas, but rather in the hope that examining them might yield some guidance in dealing with our urgent contemporary crisis. It is a crisis that threatens the very survival of a free self-governing society in the United States. For it consists precisely of an eroding allegiance to the ideals of a free self-governing society itself. ItEDUCATION IN DEFENSE OF A FREE SOCIETY/21 would require volumes to document the failure to abide by the democratic ethos in American life today. Restricting ourselves only to phe- nomena observable without enlisting batteries of research teams to report on them, we find: (1) the vehement assertion of rights and entitlements without the acceptance of corresponding duties and obligations; (2) the invocation of group rights to justify overriding the rights of indi- viduals; (3) the growth of violence, and the toler- ance of violence, in schools and local assemblies; (4) the open defiance of laws authorized by demo- cratic process, and the indulgence of courts to- ward repeated and unrepentant violators; (5) the continued invasion by the courts themselves into the legislative process; (6) the loss of faith in the electorate as the ultimate custodian of its own freedom.

Each reflective observer can make his own list of the multiple threats from within our own soci- ety to the health, security, and civility of the processes of self-government. However conceived, they raise the question of whether we possess the basic social cohesion and solidarity today to sur- vive the challenge to our society from without, particularly that posed by the global expansion of Communism. Although there are different views of the immediacy and magnitude of the Communist threat to the free world, it is plain political folly to deny its existence. The map of the world from 1945 to the present bears witness to the fact that the policy of containment, initi- ated by President Truman after the Baruch- Lilienthal and the Marshall Plan had been re- jected by the Kremlin, does not contain.

The threat of Communist expansion is com- pounded by the fear that the defensive use of nuclear weapons will result in a nuclear holo- caust. The artful, unremitting, and often un- scrupulous propaganda by fanatical groups, ex- emplified by television programs like The Day After and by terrifying classroom scenarios on every level of our school system from kindergar- ten to university, has generated a mood of fear not far removed from hysteria. The fallout from this sustained propaganda has often short-cir- cuited reflection. It has led to the mistaken be- lief in some circles that we are confronted by the stark alternatives of unilateral disarmament or inevitable war, and to a disregard of the well- grounded position that an effective deterrent is the best way of preserving peace without sacrific- ing freedom. Clarity, however, requires recogni- tion that to renounce in advance the retaliatory use of a deterrent is to proclaim in effect that we have no deterrent, thus inviting the very aggres- sion the policy of deterrence was designed to dis- courage.

In our precarious world every policy has risks.

What shall we risk for freedom? What shall we sacrifice for mere survival? If our nation were confronted by a nuclear ultimatum, would there be enough loyalty to a free society to generate the necessary resolution to cope with the threats without bluster or paralyzing panic? To many the answer seems doubtful, and this in itself is an alarming sign of the state of the national mind.

Past generalizations about the American character are no guide, whether drawn from de Tocque- ville, Whitman, or Lord Bryce.

WHAT then must be done? Not long ago our President proposed and our Congress approved the organization of a National Endowment for Democracy to encourage the spread of democratic forces abroad. As welcome as such a program is, I submit that it is even more necessary to organize a National Endow- ment for Democracy at home. The first goal of such an endowment would be to develop pro- grams to study the basic elements of a free soci- ety, and suggest them as required parts of instruc- tion on every educational level.

Today it is widely agreed that fundamental educational reforms are needed to improve the levels of skill and literacy of American students so that they may cope with the present and future problems arising from multiple changes in our complex world. Agreeing with this propo- sition, I am suggesting that it is just as important to sharpen the students’ understanding of a free society, its responsibilities and opportunities, the burdens and dangers it faces. Instead of rely- ing primarily on the sciences and humanities to inspire loyalty to the processes of self-govern- ment, we should seek to develop that loyalty directly through honest inquiry into the func- tioning of a democratic community, by learning its history, celebrating its heroes, and noting its achievements. Integral to the inquiry would be the intensive study of the theory and practice of con- temporary totalitarian societies, especially the fate of human rights in those areas where Com- munism has triumphed.

The first retort to such a proposal is sure to be that it is just a variant of the propaganda and indoctrination we find so objectionable in Com- munist society. As to propaganda, Karl Jaspers somewhere says that the truth sometimes needs propaganda-a dark saying. I interpret it to mean that we require courage to defend the truth when challenged and the skills both to make it more persuasive and to combat its dis- tortions. But as to indoctrination, the retort misses the basic difference between the open and closed society. This lies not in the presence or absence of indoctrination, but in the presence or absence of the critical, questioning spirit. Indoc- trination is the process by which assent to belief is induced by non-rational means, and all educa- tion in all societies at home and in school in the tender years is based on it. The habits of charac- ter, hygiene, elementary sociality and morality are acquired by indoctrination and become the22/COMMENTARY JULY 1984 basis of all further learning. In a free society, however, such methods are, and always should be, accompanied by, and gradually become sub- ordinate to, the methods of reflective, critical thought at every appropriate level. When stu- dents achieve greater maturity they are able to assess for themselves step by step the validity of the beliefs and the justifications of the habits in which they have been nurtured. A free society not only permits but encourages questioning, com- mensurate with the intellectual powers of stu- dents, as integral to learning.

In a closed society indoctrination induces as- sent by irrational as well as non-rational means, beyond the early years, and throughout the en- tire course of study in all except certain technical areas. It never permits a critical study of its first principles and the alternatives to them. The un- free society regards its subjects as in a perma- nent state of political childhood; it controls what they read and hear by a monopoly of all means of communication. The free society can live with honest doubt and with faith in itself short of cer- tainty. Skeptical of perfect solutions, it eschews the quest for absolutes. In contrast with the closed society, it can live with the truth about itself.

I am not making the utopian claim that any- thing we do in the schools today will of itself redeem or rebuild our society. Continued institu- tional changes must be made to strengthen the stake of all groups in freedom. But of this I am convinced. In our pluralistic, multi-ethnic, unco- ordinated society, no institutional changes of themselves will develop that bond of community we need to sustain our nation in times of crisis without a prolonged schooling in the history of our free society, its martyrology, and its national tradition. In the decades of mass immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries that bond was large- ly forged by the American public school. What I propose is that our schools, reinforced by our colleges and universities, do the same job today in a more intelligent, critical, and sophisticated way.

There was a time when most Americans under- stood that the free self-governing society be- queathed to them by Jefferson and the other founding fathers was the "last best hope on earth." If anything, the experience of the 20th century, and especially of the past fifty years, should have made that truth even more evident than it was to Jefferson himself. During that period, our own society has been able to make gigantic strides in the direction of greater free- dom, prosperity, and social justice, while its totalitarian enemies-first Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union-have produced war and holocaust, economic misery, cultural starvation, and concentration camps. Yet in spite of that record, the paradox is that faith and belief in the principles of liberal democracy have declined in the United States. Unless that faith and that be- lief can be restored and revivified, liberal democ- racy will perish. Jefferson thought that proper education was necessary to the birth and estab- lishment of a free society. He would not have been surprised to discover that it is also neces- sary to its perpetuation, and indeed to its very survival.

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