A few weeks back I suggested that Eva Brann’s Paradoxes of Education in a Republic is one of the top five books on liberal education written in the past 35 years. I shall revisit this marvelous book to consider how well it speaks to the current situation in higher education. Brann is tutor and former dean of St. John’s College, the great-texts college in Annapolis, Maryland.

She first published her book in 1979, before the political correctness of the 1980s hit hard in American universities, and before the “research ideal” (1) drove up the costs of higher education and (2) created a system of incentives that require scholars to become so specialized to render them ill-equipped to think seriously about the nature of liberal education (to say nothing of teaching in this mode). By returning to Brann’s concise book, one gains clarity on why these recent (and related) developments in the academy are permutations of paradoxes found within the very nature of education in a modern republic.

One of the virtues of Brann’s book is the extent to which she ties together the nature of education with the nature of the republic. To modify her argument concerning the college that “education should be temporally cosmopolitan and spatially parochial,” her book considers the tension between the cultivation of the good citizen and of the good human being, and reflects upon the paradoxes of this tension as it takes place within the American republic.

The meaning of republic itself is paradoxical because the “public thing” (the literal meaning of res publica) assigns a dual position to a citizen as one who, qua member of society, is a part of that society, and qua person, is a dignity that transcends it. So far, this formulation suggests a close affinity between education in a modern republic with that of Aristotle, who provided the classic statement that the good citizen is not the same as the good human being.

Brann adds two key observations to show the distinctiveness education in the American republic to that of the ancient republic.

First, the “public thing” of the modern republic is instrumental. It promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the republic does not dictate the meaning of happiness to citizens, at least not directly. The “public thing” is instrumental to the good of the individual. This instrumentalization of the “public thing” might be seen as what happens to republicanism when squeezed through the press of Christianity, where individuals owe ultimate allegiance to God, not to their republic. This instrumentalization might be seen in the fact that the American revolution agrees with the liberté andégalité slogans of the more “religious” French Revolution, but omits fraternité.

However, and this leads to the second point, the omission of fraternité as one of the defining components of the regime is only apparent, as the founders thought it needs to be transmitted through back channels, namely, through education. Thus, the Founders of the republic considered the education of the young (including higher education) one of the key features of republican statecraft.

Joel Barlow, the “poet of the Revolution,” points out the relationship of friendship to republican education: “The liberal sciences are in their nature republican; they delight in reciprocal communication; they cherish fraternal feelings, and lead to a freedom of intercourse, combined with the restraint of society, which contribute together to our improvement” (quoted on p. 48).

For his (central) part, Thomas Jefferson wished to inculcate “universal philanthropy” and understood virtue to consist of being useful to others (53). Brann notes that the early republican writers were advocates of a state and even national system of higher education: “they expected such centralization to make for more intellectually powerful, selectively accessible, nationally unifying institutions of learning, but they were oddly blithe about the dangers of domination such institutions exercise at their best and the mediocrity they spread at their worst” (50).

In regarding education as the backdoor in which to import fraternité, the republican writers then represent one pole of the dual nature of citizen in the modern republic–that of a member or part of society. The burgeoning of private colleges after the Revolution represents the other pole–that of the citizen who is a person whose dignity transcends the “public thing.” The dual nature of the res publica implies education receives governmental direction, but it must also be initiated and maintained in civil society. The tension between good human being and good citizen depends on keeping the balance between these two modes of education vital.

Educators today are frequently slaves to the new, either by slavishly embracing every innovation in educational theory and technique, or by groaning under the burden of unwanted innovations imposed upon them by administrators who absurdly regard themselves as channeling the zeitgeist.

Eva Brann reminds us that innovation is the very meaning of modernity, taken from the Latin, “modo.” No one needs reminding of how much our culture embraces “change.”

Yet, change is paradoxical. Does it mean a complete abandonment of the old? Or is the new merely a refashioning and rearranging of the old? Consider the innovators themselves: all the founders of the U.S. republic were classically trained, and all of them, by varying degrees, sought to liberate their generation from the classical tradition. For them, and for modern philosophers from whom they learned, the “tradition” had become a pile of accreted words that bore little relevance to the things to which these same modern thinkers turned their attention. Thus, the modern preference for studying things instead of words.

Yet, this modern turn produces a problem for modern thought and for the republic that was inspired by modern thought. It is not only slightly hypocritical that the education that made Madison and Jefferson so great will now be denied to subsequent generations who benefit from their liberation. One thinks here of the claim Francis Fukuyama made of Lenin and his revolution–that it took Tsarist Russia to breed Lenin, and the revolution he led was meant to prevent future Lenins from arising.

But the problem of innovation runs deeper. Brann observes that this spirit of innovation and liberation, which views the old as obsolete, ends up obscuring the meaning of the founding of the republic itself. This happens all the time in the sciences, where the originating thoughts that transformed the meaning of science (i.e., Galileo, Bacon, etc.) get ignored. For scientists, this does not become such a big problem until scientists start making unwarranted claims for scientific knowledge (a common phenomenon, especially in the last 50 years or so). However, the ignorance of originating thoughts is perhaps a problem more acute for political ideas, especially those that constituted the republic.

In an age of perpetual innovation–frequently identified with the very core of modernity–it can be difficult to defend tradition as a depository of wisdom. However, Brann proposes to take what is strong and weak of the modern republic’s lax attitude toward tradition, and use them to illuminate the advantages of liberal education for the republic.

The paradox of a modern republic’s love of innovation is that it makes citizens neglectful of its own founding. Having forgotten the alternative to freedom, citizens neglect to guard freedom.

The same goes for science and learning. Having forgotten why Galileo thought to transmogrify time and place into “mere magnitudes capable of entering into a ratio, and how those magnitudes have in turn been transformed into quantities able to constitute a rational number,” scientists go on to publish textbooks whose “first” principles are actually secondary; that is, said textbooks begin with velocity (110-111). Neglect of origins undermines that original achievement. Premises become an article of unexamined faith instead of science, and soon become dogma. This is a common story that gets retold in various forms in today’s debates on the moral and political implications of science.

In response to this paradox, Brann suggests how liberal education, which draws upon tradition, can be defended. In contrast to the republic’s love of thinking new things (which are never new anyway), she suggests thinking things anew. Instead of treating the contents of the tradition as the entire scope of one’s learning, she suggests it should be treated as laying the foundation for any reasonable person to know.

Brann thus treats tradition not as a traditionalist but as one who regards the texts of the tradition as a depository of great thoughts and conversations regarding the human good. It is necessary not only to understand them, but also to converse with them and, in order to do that, one must enter into the original thoughts that generated them. Only by entering into the “radical originating power of thought” does one preserve the wonder that constitutes the beginning and proper end of liberal education. This way too one avoids the sedimentation of “mere words” that traditionalism falls into, and against which the founders of the republic (and of modernity) railed.

The bulk of Brann’s elaboration of this principle involves sifting through some of the sedimentation that has accumulated over the primacy of science and technology in our culture. Go back and read Galileo, Descartes, Vico (who objected to the modern method), Bacon, and so forth. Behind them, of course, are the medieval and ancient thinkers. Re-discover what Galileo thought objectionable in Euclid, and rediscover why Plato regarded mathematics, with its subject area about pure realities, one step away from philosophy: “Let no one ungeometrical enter here” was purportedly the Pythagorean inscription on the gate of Plato’s Academy (112). One gets the sense that Brann’s recipe for pressing the rewind button on the tradition is also a way to uncover the ontological roots of that tradition. If so, then one needs to go even further and elucidate not only the “originating thoughts” but also the originating experiences, which include the meaning of wonder and periagoge (conversion), as described in Plato’s Republic. What causes wonder? Me? You? The god?

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