February 1, 2001
always makes me uneasy when politicians talk about education.
And they talk about it a lot.
Our new president, a product of
privilege and the Ivy League, is an enthusiast for improving education. Yet
he has trouble speaking in complete and coherent sentences. This
isnt a matter of being shy and tongue-tied; he really is uneasy with
the English language. He lacks two of the basic accomplishments of a
public leader: the ability to think and to communicate thought. How, then,
can he be expected to direct a national educational revival?
The intellectual shortcomings of
George W. Bush have already inspired mockery, and I dont wish to
pile on. But really, he ought to have the modesty to leave education alone.
If the Constitution means anything, its not a proper concern of the
federal government anyway, and it really ought not to be a concern of
government at any level.
What is true of Bush is true of politicians in general. His recent
meeting with the congressional Black Caucus was a riot of garbled syntax,
notwithstanding that all these men and women were presumably college
graduates. I couldnt help thinking of the contrast between this
meeting and the conversations of President Abraham Lincoln and the
ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, neither of whom had had
much schooling, yet both of whom were admirably literate and
well-spoken men, unmatched in American public life today.
Americans in general were far more
literate in the days before education became a national
mantra. The level of public discussion in the nineteenth century, as you
can see from speeches, letters, inaugural addresses, and other surviving
records of politicians of the time, assumed a populace that knew how to
read, write, listen, and think. Politicians spoke to the voters about first
principles, knowing that the voters cared about such things. Grappling
with principles was among the chief concerns of education.
Today colleges offer remedial
English when its already too late. In those days, high
schools taught Greek, Latin, Euclid, and the King James Bible; students
memorized passages from Shakespeare, Edmund Burke, Daniel Webster, and
other masters of rhetoric. People understood how the ear and the memory
can form and enrich the mind. Education meant something more than job
Self-taught men like Lincoln and
Douglass knew all this too. They cared little for the prestige of having
gone to the best schools, socially speaking; reading them
today, one is struck by the absence of snobbery in their makeup. They were
intent on great truths, and they cultivated their own minds for the sake of
apprehending and imparting such truths.
Nowadays, except at small private and
usually religious colleges, few speak of education in terms of
truths. Education is conceived in terms of economic utility;
and any educational policy directed by the federal government is bound to
be limited by this narrow conception. It will produce many Bushes, but no
Most of us now talk about schools as
if they were factories. We are dissatisfied with them in terms of
measurable production test scores and the like. We arent
disturbed that even their most successful products, as we
judge success, have little capacity for philosophical reflection.
Philosophy itself has become one more narrow specialty, with little to
say to those outside the discipline. Socrates, get lost.
If we no longer have Lincolns and
Douglasses, neither do we miss them much. We dont expect public
figures (or, for that matter, ordinary citizens) to be concerned with great
truths if there are such things. Politics is about material
production. Its the economy, stupid: that is all ye
know on earth, and all ye need to know.
No wonder our leaders, on occasions
that call for grand utterance, always seem so banal. Every presidential
inaugural address falls flat, leaving our craving for eloquence and meaning
disappointed. Our politicans never say memorable things because they
cant even remember memorable things. Their education has left
them strangers to their own heritage.
Lincoln, our most Shakespearean
president, was shot in a theater by a Shakespearean actor, who shouted a
Latin phrase as he did the deed. Not only have our presidents declined in
literacy; even our assassins arent what they used to be.
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