Robert Nisbet war

Robert Nisbet

In a recent posting on The Imaginative Conservative, Bruce Frohnen laments the loss of civility and decency in present-day America. By looking at the roots of foul behavior (in this case, a group of middle school boys bullying an elderly school bus monitor), he finds fault in the “warehouse model” of schooling that he believes has fostered “pack mentalities” and has led children down the road of de-humanization. According to Professor Frohnen, children raised by strangers in large, impersonal institutions cannot develop the civilizing prejudices that allow community to function humanely and peacefully. Under such conditions, order can be re-established only through a larger and more powerful centralized “leviathan administration,” but this only further compounds the problem of estrangement. Professor Frohnen’s brief against modern, progressive mass schooling is the latest in a long line of conservative critiques of our failing educational institutions.

Just a cursory glance at what is being written today on the state of education reveals that the foundations of healthy schooling have largely disappeared. Incivility, alienation, overwhelmed adults, dislocated children, poor levels of achievement, and increasing student debt suggest significant problems in our educational institutions at all levels, problems which demand coherent, strong, and humane reforms. To understand this crisis, I believe it is vital for imaginative conservatives to re-examine the writings of Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet since these founding fathers of the conservative movement directly witnessed, analyzed, and fought against the implementation of such reforms that have precipitated this crisis. Many social, economic, and political elements have contributed to the deterioration of educational standards, but in this article I will examine one element which both Kirk and Nisbet expounded upon at length, namely, the effect of war on our institutions. I believe that this is highly relevant today as the United States has been actively involved in several wars over the past decade, and, as Nisbet tried to show in many of his works, the effects of war on social and political institutions can be tremendous. It is imperative that those who believe in the norms of human experience, in what Kirk called “the permanent things,” revisit the analyses and prescriptions of Kirk and Nisbet in order to revitalize our schools and find ways to address the degradation of our educational culture.
The prevalence of war over the past one hundred years has had a powerful impact on western civilization. In his classic work on the history of the conservative movement, George Nash argued that it was “attempts to extract meaning from the nightmare of destruction” of World War II that stimulated the birth of conservative thought in postwar America.[1] The level of devastation in the wake of a half-century of warfare left many, like Robert Nisbet and Russell Kirk, pondering the effects and worthiness of modernization and its consequences. Nisbet and Kirk, both of whom served in the military during the war, expressed concerns and reservations about the militarization of American society. In several of his works on the development of modern society, Nisbet struggled with the dynamic roots of social change proffered by militarization, and Kirk, in his memoirs, The Sword of Imagination, wrote that “in his life, as in that of many other young men, the War would be a great gulf fixed between family and community on the nearer rim and the antagonist world on the further: the Grand Canyon of a Time of Troubles.”[2] In the first part of this article, I will address Dr. Kirk’s thoughts on the effects of war on education.
Probably no institution outside the military has been affected by war more than educational institutions.[3] We must remember that in his farewell address in January, 1961, President Eisenhower warned of the strong link between the military and education in the United States. The phrase “military-industrial complex” has entered our national vocabulary and psychology, but Eisenhower made clear in his speech that, largely owing to the forces of centralization of governmental power and finance in the wake of war, the university was also at great risk: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded,” the President warned. In his writings, Russell Kirk feared the growing unhealthy relationship between the military and schools, as well.
In 1936, by his own admission, Dr. Kirk entered Michigan State College in East Lansing “having nothing better to do” (SI, 35). He was quite fond of simple living in rural Michigan, and education – or rather, schooling – was not a priority; he found schooling excessively prolonged and imaginatively stultifying. However, his intellectual talent provided him the opportunity to pursue advanced study, and in 1940 he entered graduate school at Duke University to study history and write on John Randolph. This sojourn into the old south opened up a new world to him, a world of communities “that had not surrendered unconditionally to the new order of American life” (SI, 53), the new order of the industrial, organized, urban hustler.
It was also at this time that the young Kirk confronted the prospect of wartime service. Although he would later assert that “all wars fought by the American people…might have been averted” (SI, 54),he attempted to enlist twice, first in the Canadian military, then in the Army Air Corps only to be conscripted into the army and sent to the Great Salt Lake Desert to train at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Kirk found this experience numbing and took solace in his voracious reading habits, studying the ancients Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, and finding intellectual challenges with contemporary writers, such as Albert Jay Nock and Bernard Iddings Bell. Kirk was growing weary of the life of mass man in large institutions, of conformity, and of the “American lust for aggrandizement” (SI, 59). In an oft-quoted passage from his memoirs, he placed himself squarely against this stream in American thought:

His was no Enlightenment mind, Kirk now became aware: it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. He did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what he sought was a complex of variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. He despised sophisters and calculators; he was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. He would have given any number of neoclassical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle. The men of the Enlightenment had cold hearts and smug heads; now their successors, as the middle of the twentieth century loomed up, were in the process of imposing upon all the world a dreary conformity, with Efficiency and Progress and Equality for their watchwords – abstractions preferred to all those fascinating and lovable peculiarities of human nature and human society that are the products of prescription and tradition. This desert of salt would be a cheerful place by comparison with the desolation of human hearts, should the remains of Gothic faith and Gothic diversity be crushed out of civilization (SI, 68-69).

Kirk brandished his sword of imagination against the progressive orthodoxies of the time and his years in the army moved him to conclude that army life embodied the powerful, yet injurious forces of modernity, uniformity, and standardization, which he believed a healthy imaginative mind had to confront. Wartime service had made him fully aware that militarization would negatively affect American peacetime institutions and would render the populace indolent, unimaginative, and increasingly dependent on a growing state apparatus. In an article in the South Atlantic Quarterly (1946), he decried the national call for continued conscription, as he believed that conscription would be used not simply for military preparedness, but also as a tool for social reform. “If modern society can provide no better way of existence than crowding young people together like so many ants and keeping them in a state of servitude in return for sustenance, there is little reason for modern society to continue to exist.”[4]
When Kirk returned to Michigan State at the end of the war to teach history, he was very disheartened to find the college suffused with the forces of progressivism that he had witnessed in the army: the students generally were inattentive and unprepared and the culture of the college “unfriendly to the higher learning” (SI, 76). Particularly disappointing, yet indicative of the new educational reforms, was the implementation of the objective, standardized test. Originally developed by the military, mental testing had expanded into educational institutions in order “to depose the existing, undemocratic American elite and replace it with a new one made up of brainy, elaborately trained, public-spirited people drawn from every section and every background.”[5] Kirk found this distasteful: “[S]tandardized multiple-choice questions put to students in great number in a short space of time and calculated to encourage the conditioned response of the indoctrinated mediocre student rather than the calculated judgment of the serious student” is what he saw in the new scientific culture of testing (SI, 77). He was beginning to despise the world that the war had created. He expressed his concerns in the South Atlantic Quarterly just a few months before the end of the war (January 1945):

Before commencing our work of world reformation, it might pay us to consider whether we are going to beat the Nazis and enlighten them, or beat the Nazis and join them. We are fit to weigh this question only if we retain some vestige of the liberal learning so quickly cast aside in one crowded hour of glorious life; and it is to be feared that a smattering of trigonometry and physics and chemistry is not sufficient to make the mind liberal. The physical sciences have their place, a respectable one; but they, primarily, do not win wars; the human spirit does that; and physical sciences certainly cannot suffice for the men who are to make and maintain a peace, who are to establish liberty and justice, who are to set free the body and the mind.[6]

As the American university succumbed more and more to the pressures of the modernizing forces of the postwar world, Kirk packed his bags and set out for the ancient university town of Saint Andrews, Scotland where learned scholars were not coerced into being “salesmen or Rotarians” (SI, 88). In Scotland the scholar Kirk had the freedom to put together his major salvo in defense of the permanent things: his doctoral dissertation on the Anglo-American conservative mind.
What is striking about Kirk’s first major work, published in 1953 as The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, is its defense of a type of mind, imaginatively, not ideologically, formed. That is to say, it is, like its author, a lively defense of the “Gothic”, the irregular, the non-standardized. Critics of the work have strongly suggested that many of the minds that Kirk reviewed could hardly be called politically “conservative.” But Kirk was not assessing his characters as ideological prototypes; he found it difficult and self-defeating to offer a simple and systematic definition of what a “conservative” was. He settled, therefore, on narrative descriptions of types and from these types he drew out six canons. Given the social transformations that had taken place in the postwar world, the rise of bureaucracy, political centralization, educational standardization, and Kirk’s rebellion against that world, we can see how greatly important the first two canons were for him and his understanding of the conservative mind. The first canon stated that the imaginative conservative maintained a “belief that a divine intent rules society as well as consciences,” the second that this type of mind has an enduring “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.”[7] In his summation to the first edition of the work he wrote that “conservatism’s most conspicuous difficulty in our time is that it confronts a people who have come to look upon society, vaguely, as a homogeneous mass of identical individuals, with indistinguishable abilities and needs, whose happiness may be secured by direction from above, through legislation or some manner of public instruction. Conservatism must teach humanity once more that the germ of public affections…is ‘to love the little platoon we belong to in society’” (CM, 401). In a later edition (1978), in words that could have been set to paper by Robert Nisbet, Kirk was even more direct in his critique of a society that he saw suffering under the weight of centralization and mass standardization:

Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association. What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance. Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration camp are only the more recent developments of this system…All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and the sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community. [8]

Kirk’s criticism in the postwar world reveals a mind intellectually and imaginatively sensitive to powerful forces pressuring American society toward political centralization and standardization, pressures arising directly from the consequences of years of war. While many others celebrated the wartime transformation of American education and advocated mass comprehensive schools in support of attention to the “global struggle” [9], Kirk argued against these socially disruptive forces believing that they would further destroy the purpose and dignity of the academy. As Brad Birzer has noted, Kirk foretold the inhumane and essential servility inherent in the vast utilitarian reforms of the 1950s and saw that the triumph of technology and efficiency would mean the degradation of humanity. [10] 
Dr. Kirk was so concerned about the degradation of the ethical dimension of the educational curriculum that he wrote several lengthy works on education and for twenty-five years wrote a column on education for National Review. His writings addressed very directly the politicization of the academy, the threats to liberty, and the waning of sound learning. As a critic in the Christian humanist tradition, he firmly believed that our problems and concerns at the deepest level were spiritual and religious. He did not wrap himself in the contingencies and policies of the immediate political circumstance; rather, he wrote of principle and permanence. While others affirmed the immediate political and economic purposes of schooling, Kirk defended the philosopher with the long view against the present mindedness of the sophist:
[T]he philosopher in the Greek sense [is] the lover of wisdom, who is convinced that the human soul has transcendental aims; and the sophist, who teaches success in life…disdains standards. When men are arming, the defense of the Academy always falls to the lot of the philosophers: the sophists, by that time, have joined the enemy or fled away to Sybaris…So it is even now: democracy finds its best defenders in the men who think there is something higher in the universe than pure democracy, and academic freedom its most able champions in men who believe in just authority. [11]

Kirk’s defense found a small audience. During the post-war decades, universities expanded greatly in terms of physical plant and in terms of student populations, curricula were reformed, often to accommodate those ill-prepared for the higher learning, and since then, many traditional departments, such as philosophy and languages have struggled to maintain their honored places in the college program. The pressure for school administrators to sacrifice the academic dogma for budgetary concerns has only increased in recent times. Compounding these difficulties are the calls from the politicians to open the doors of higher education to all students, no matter how ill-prepared. Kirk greeted these reforms of cold calculation, efficiency, and homogenization with disdain, and he insisted that if such forces were to proliferate in our schools, reason and imagination, the life-blood of our civilization, would dry up. Kirk clearly foretold this degeneration of our educational institutions and his numerous writings were grand attempts to forestall and repair the damage to humane learning.

Click here for part 2 of this essay.

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[1] George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (NY: Basic Books, 1976), p. 36.
[2] Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 46.
[3] Along with the works by Kirk and Nisbet, see Willis Rudy, Total War and Twentieth Century Higher Learning (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1991); American Education and the War in Europe (Washington, DC: NEA, 1940); and Wartime Handbook for Education (Washington, DC: NEA, 1943). This handbook includes the incredible statement, which underscores the crisis mentality of the time, “A child attending the elementary schools at this time will probably not see service in the armed forces. He will feel the war in a very personal way” (p. 6).
[4] Russell Kirk, “Conscription ad infinitum,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 45 (July 1946), p. 315. On-line here.
[5] On the history of the development and implementation of mental testing, see Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999). The quotation is from p. 7.
[6] Russell Kirk, “A Conscript on Education,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 44 (January 1945), pp. 87-88.
[7] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Regnery, 1953), pp. 7-8.
[8] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. 6th revised edition (South Bend: Gateway Editions, 1978), p. 423.
[9] At that time, of course, in the post-war decades, the global struggle involved the protracted conflict with the Soviet Union. For the effects of the Cold War on educational policies and theories, see the many writings of James Bryant Conant, Harvard President, chemist, poison gas specialist, Newsweek‘s 1952 “Educator of the Year.”
[10] Bradley J. Birzer, “More than ‘Irritable Mental Gestures’: Russell Kirk’s Challenge to Liberalism, 1950-1960,” Humanitas, XXI, Nos. 1 and 2 (2008), pp. 64-86. Found here.
[11] Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (Chicago: Regnery, 1955), p. 185.

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