On the New Duty of Scholars and Educators

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening lecture of a series on education and the duty of educators in America. The event was put on by the new educational society Dialektik, and it was well-attended by both members of the society and the general public at a local bookstore of some reputation, Adams Avenue Books. The main-thrust of the opening lecture was that there used to be a shared culture among Americans in the 17th-19th centuries, largely based on Christianity of some sort, but now that shared religion among the people is fading, no other cultural magneton has been found or created to replace it.

The talk and questions after it then focused on the role of education and particularly on educators, and what exactly can be done to restore some semblance of culture. Initial thoughts centered around legislative change at state and federal levels, but rather than being particularly productive, such lines of thought tended towards personal griping rather than objective change. A fruitful thought, however, did appear when discussion started to center on where true education actually occurs. Rather than again and again attempting the Sisyphean task of “reforming public education”, the thought arose that perhaps a more beneficial, though of course small-scale solution, would be to increase opportunities to educate others informally. With educators receiving less and less respect and feeling more and more estranged, clearly a new method for creating an educated public, or a culture, must be sought. But how do we do this?

The first goal, is effectively to limit the scope and measure of change. The change need not occur on a national, state-wide, or large basis at all at first. Much different from attempting to create cultural change through a grandly political maneuver, this change would be what is so tritely called “grass-roots” at these times. Believing, as Plato did, that a community and society is a reflection of its people, so does the solution to creating a shared culture seem to lie in humble and small beginnings and seeing if it takes off. Who, though, would be the intrepid captains to brave such ignominious and inglorious waters? Well, precisely those people who are being disenfranchised, disenchanted, and disillusioned: our scholars, intellectuals, and educators. The people here mentioned by Russell Kirk below:

“The disquietude of reflective persons in a country apparently given over to getting and spending, the condition of the underpaid professor or teacher in an acquisitive environment, the decay of the old American respect for learning-a decay which seemed actually to grow more alarming in direct proportion to the ease with which high-school diplomas and college degrees were obtained, on the principle that whatever is cheap has little value-all these influences tended to produce alienation of scholar and writer from established American society. “Intellectuals” appeared in America when the works of the mind began to lose ground in public influence.” (Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Mind” loc. 5969/6718)**

These people could come from several walks of life, a Kirk will continue to say, any person of some learned or creative degree who has a love for the creation and preservation of values, and who believes in the value of culture and that which unites people together. Any such person can lead this front.

“I understand by the scholar no mere pedant, dilettante, literary epicure or dandy; but a serious, robust, full-grown man; who feels that life is a serious affair, and that he has a serious part to act in its eventful drama; and must therefore do his best to act well his part, so as to leave behind him, in the good he has done, a grateful remembrance of his having been. He may be a theologian, a politician, a naturalist, a poet, a moralist, or a metaphysician; but whichever or whatever he is, he is it with all his heart and soul, with high, noble–in one word, religious aims and aspirations.” (Ibid. loc. 5973/6718)–quoted by Kirk from Orestes Brownson’s “The Scholar’s Mission”, an address given in 1843 at Dartmouth College.

The value of such a person, however, does not simply lie in his or her ability to lead, but precisely in the fact that he or she is one of the people today so strongly feeling the pull to nihilism which conventional educational reform is leading so many promising educators towards. Socrates once said that the value of knowledge is to keep one from becoming faint-hearted and weak in Plato’s Meno, and preventing our promising minds and souls from becoming so is of paramount importance.

“The scholar is not one who stands above the people,” Brownson had said, “and looks down on the people with contempt. He has no contempt for the people; but a deep and all-enduring love for them, which commands him to live and labor, and, if need be, to suffer and die, for their redemption; but he never forgets that he is their instructor, their guide, their chief, not their echo, their slave, their tool.” (Ibid. loc. 5979/6718)

So, now that we have identified the persons necessary to carry out this “grass-roots” change, but what exactly does informal education look like? Though there are many forms: distance-learning, PBS, open-source educational centers and the like, none of these offer the experience of a real moment of “teaching” shared between teacher and student. No doubt these methods are effective in conveying facts and potentially skills, but in our sense of education, the shared experience between teacher and student is of the highest value. Just as Aristotle says that one can have affection for one whom one has never met, nevertheless that person is not a friend due to lack of a shared feeling between you and him or her, so can there be no true education without shared feeling between teacher and student or scholar and public. Kirk offers an interesting portrayal here of what we have already begun to implement.

“It would be well for scholars in the human sciences, they declared, to address themselves to the concerns of genuine community, local and voluntary, rather than clearing the way for an egalitarian collectivism.” (ibid. loc. 5993/6718)

“It would be well to direct their energies to the examination of voluntary and private associations, rather than to planning new activities for the unitary state.” (Ibid, loc. 5993/6718)

Just as Kirk here asserts that scholars ought to create genuine community and do so voluntarily, so have I and my group begun conducting open-to-the-public seminars on shared works of the Western Mind. We meet in circles, every two weeks, and we discuss the Great Books. There are no tests, no fees, no papers, and no obligations. People come because they desire to convene, to learn, and to create what is valuable. As a scholar, I have re-envisioned my role: rather than becoming as expert as possible on an issue of importance to fewer and fewer people, I am using my expertise to broaden access to those texts, ideas, and feelings which I consider most valuable and universal to all men and women–those texts, ideas, and feelings so necessary to creating a common culture.

As a teacher, I teach in such a seminar-style, and I have developed a “Great Books” curriculum at the Charter high school at which I currently advise and teach. The model is effective and can be applied in a more wide-spread way. As a community-creator and organizer, I have three ongoing seminars (one on Dante’s Inferno, one on Homer’s Odyssey, and one on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov), and there is one more in the works on The Epic of Gilgamesh. Through re-envisioning my role as a scholar, and the role of a scholar itself, I am working towards the goal of creating a shared culture and public, and the educational group Dialektik is helping me.

The general belief is thus: educating without a concern for values is no education at all.* We reject the notion of a public with shared culture that does not also posit and exemplify noble, just, fair, and ethical maxims. Of course there will be endless debate on how exactly this should be done best, but in the interim, this scholar will be doing his best, while also considering what is best in his moments of private leisure.

This is but the beginning of this new series considering the best ways to promote and create a shared culture through education. Please continue to join us, and like our page!

*”…to abandon the sterile and sometimes disingenuous notion of a “value-free science,” and to reaffirm the existence of a moral order.” (Ibid. 5997/6718)

**All sources from Kirk’s The Conservative Mind are from the Kindle digital edition and thus are cited by their “location number” rather than “page number”, annoyingly enough.