Liberal education has as its end the free mind, and the free mind must be its own teacher.
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Scott Buchanan as he asks a series of questions to discover the fruit, in individual character and thought, of a liberal arts education. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
I have some questions I want to ask you, questions for St. John’s graduates and questions for American citizens. As I understand the questions, one leads to another, and they all add up to: How are you doing? The first question is: Do you believe in and trust your intellect, that innate power that never sleeps? This is not a theoretical nor a dogmatic question, but rather one of experience. Do you recognize the action of this power as you live and learn? Many of you have gone on to graduate and professional learning, and, I happen to know, many of you have lived a lot in addition. You have fallen into the hands of scholars and into the grooves of practice. You have suffered the winds of doctrine, and have gotten lost in the jungle of ideologies. Latterly you have been stormed by scientific miracle and guess. In all these learnings and practices, have you listened to the small spontaneous voice within that asks continually if these things are true? Have you allowed this voice to speak louder and remind you that you do not know, that you know you do not know, that you know what you do not know? Do you believe that knowledge is possible, that truth is attainable, and that it is always your business to seek it, although evidence is overwhelmingly against it? This is the first question; I shall not just now press for an answer.
The second question seems to flow from the first. Have you in the course of your life, before, after, or while you were at St. John’s, become your own teacher? Perhaps this is not quite the question that I intend. This may be better: Have you yet recognized that you are and always have been your own teacher? Amidst all the noise and furor about education in this country at present, I have yet to hear this question raised. But it is basic. Liberal education has as its end the free mind, and the free mind must be its own teacher. Intellectual freedom begins when one says with Socrates that he knows that he knows nothing, and then goes on to add: I know what it is that I don’t know. My question then is: Do you know what you don’t know and therefore what you should know? If your answer is affirmative and humble, then you are your own teacher, you are making your own assignment, and you will be your own best critic. You will not need externally imposed courses, nor marks, nor diplomas, nor a nod from your boss . . . in business or in politics.
My third question is different from the first two, more superficial perhaps, but fateful, nevertheless. Under the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, have you persuaded yourself that there are knowledges and truths beyond your grasp, things that you simply cannot learn? Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise. Most of us have done this and come short of what that threadbare slogan, human dignity, really means. We are willing, and shamefully relieved, to admit that each has his specialty, his so-called field, and the other fellow has his, and we are ready to let the common human enterprise go by default. We are willing to become cripples in our minds and fractions of men in our lives. Some of us are willing to crush the Socratic formula and say, I know nothing. The fourth question: Do you accept the world? This is reminiscent of Margaret Fuller’s Yea-saying to Carlyle: “But I do accept the universe, Mr. Carlyle. I am thinking of a slightly different context in The Brothers Karamozov, when Ivan tells Alyosha that he finds it easy to believe in God, but that he finds it impossible to believe in the world.” The second clause follows from the first in a crushed syllogism: Because he believes in God, he cannot accept the world. For most of us these days, the case is that we have believed in some things so weakly or fanatically that other equally or more real things have become absurd or impossible. This results from our crippled minds, our self-imposed limits on understanding, our deafness to the voice that asks: Is it true? I am persuaded that the cure for this sickness of mind is in some vigorous and rigorous attempt to deal with that most puzzling and mysterious idea, the idea of the world.
It is not a simple idea, nor even a merely complicated idea. Kant called it an antinomy, an idea of speculative reason governing all other uses of the intellect. There have been other such ideas that have governed thought, the idea of God or Being as it puzzled and dazzled the ancient world, the idea of Man as it stirred and fermented the world from the Renaissance on. God and Man have not disappeared as charts and aids to intellectual navigation, but they are in partial eclipse at present, and the world is asking us the big questions, questions in cosmology and science, questions in law and government. They are not merely speculative questions; they are concrete and immediately practical; they are as much matters of life and death and freedom as the old questions were. Most of us have made, with Ivan, a pact with the devil, an agreement not to face them and accept them—yet.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in October 2015.
These remarks were made on May 31, 1958, at a party held in honor of Buchanan and Stringfellow (“Winkie”) Barr, the co-founder of the New Program of St. John’s College. Their photo is courtesy of the St. John’s College Digital Archives.
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