“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” —Jesus
The unintended consequences of an action are often the most tragic.
In April of 2014, unbeknownst to its citizens, Flint, Michigan officials sought to save money by changing their city’s water source from treated Detroit water, sourced from Lake Huron, to water from the Flint River. Unexpectedly and unintentionally, the new source of untreated water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the city’s drinking water, poisoning some 10,000 inner-city children, leading to a wide range of serious health problems that shocked the nation.
A similar and surreptitious poisoning of American and British schools took place in the 20th century. First chronicled by Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, astute observers began to suspect something was horribly wrong in schools. Schools began to graduate people who were incapable of basic intellectual skills that all previously educated generations took for granted—like the ability to trace an author’s line of argument, or the ability to distinguish between a material and a final cause, or the ability to transfer the understanding acquired in the study of one subject to subjects other than those in which they were acquired.
More significantly, schools were producing men without virtue, in Lewis’ words, “men without chests.”
With prophetic insight, Lewis in particular saw in 1943 the devastating way in which subjectivism was poisoning schools and would of necessity lead to the creation of a generation of soulless “trousered apes” and irredeemable “urban blockheads.” Lewis perceptively argued in The Abolition of Man, that exchanging the pure doctrine of transcendent, objective value for a system of relative values would ultimately lead to the destruction of society as we know it. The belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, in relation to the essence of the universe, is essential to the sustaining of human freedom.
Apart from an education in virtue, there can be no true freedom. Apart from a classical, Christian education, our society will be filled with hordes of technicians incapable of carrying out their essential duties as custodians of society.
Two Concepts of Liberty
In exploring the relationship of virtue to freedom, it’s necessary to distinguish between two radically different concepts of liberty—negative and positive liberty. In his book, “A Free People’s Suicide,” Os Guinness defines negative freedom as freedom from—in essence, freedom from any kind of interference and constraint. Conversely, positive freedom is freedom for—in essence, freedom for excellence according to the objective vision and natural law ideals that define excellence. Guinness contends that contemporary Americans have abandoned the concept of positive freedom and have voted unambiguously for negative freedom. Americans have exalted freedom as an essentially private matter, a liberty conceived only as freedom from all outside interference.
This singularly negative concept of liberty is relatively new in western civilization. While the American Revolution was unashamedly a struggle to gain negative freedom from Britain, the founders did not stop there. Unlike most modern citizens, the founders were equally committed to the complementary importance of freedom for excellence. Their aim was true liberty and not just independence.
The modern mind’s exchange of liberty for license has had a cancerous effect on our society and on our schools. A wholesale return to classical, Christian education can reverse the damaging consequences of rejecting the natural law tradition. Only a classical, truth-based, education can prepare a citizenry to answer the question, “What is freedom for?” The survival of a free people demands the return to the kind of classical education that Andrew Kern defines as “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty…so that, in Christ, students are enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.”
Is Christian, classical education the best way to prepare all students for life in the 21st century? If it can be shown that a paideia education is best for the last, the lost, and the least of society, then it can be proven to be best for all. Classical education is desirable for all citizens for three reasons. First, a classical education is necessary for all because without virtue there can be no true, personal freedom. Second, a classical education is necessary for all because democracy is unsustainable apart from an education in virtue for all citizens. Finally, a classical education is necessary for all because life is for more than earning a living, life is ultimately for knowing and glorifying and enjoying God.
Freedom to Practice the Good
What is the relationship between moral virtue and personal freedom? If we believe there is an objective moral law, an idea of right and wrong that we can know through reason, then the question arises of whether or not we can do the right thing. Are we really free if when we know what is right, we sometimes choose to do otherwise? And how can we reform our actions so that they better align with the good?
C.S. Lewis’ treatise on education, The Abolition of Man, once again helps us understand the problem. Lewis explains that our appetites and desires (our “belly”) need to be under the control of reason (our “head”) if we are to live a free and well-ordered life. But given the strength of our appetites, reason by itself is insufficient to control them. The head thus needs “the chest” to govern the belly. Our heart is the seat of right affections trained by habit and the spirit to pursue virtue. The heart, or “the chest” in Lewis’ words, is the indispensable liaison officer between the mind and body and is therefore the right and proper focus of classical education.
David Hicks writes similarly in Norms and Nobility, “The purpose of classical education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” A man cannot be said to be free if he doesn’t know and love the true, the good, and the beautiful. And neither can he be free if he doesn’t have the trained habits of the heart necessary to do the right thing.
Freedom to Serve Others
In addition to securing personal freedom, how is classical education essential to sustaining a democratic society? What is the proper place of virtue in guarding corporate freedom? Is classical education the best preparation for exercising man’s duty to his fellow man? And is government of and by the people sustainable apart from the training of an ethically moral citizenry?
Freedom requires virtue; it cannot be sustained merely by laws. In his book, A Free People’s Suicide, Os Guinness says, “The reason for the need for virtue is simple and incontrovertible. Only virtue can supply the self-restraint that is the indispensable requirement for liberty. The self-government of a free republic has to rest on the self-government of free citizens, for only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people.
“Leadership without character, business without ethics, and science without human values—in short, freedom without virtue—will bring the republic to its knees,” says Guinness.
Therefore, character matters in leadership. Leadership cannot merely be a matter of competence. And while virtue and character are not sufficient alone for freedom, they are absolutely necessary. Sustainable freedom depends on the character of the rulers and the ruled alike, and on the vital trust between them—both of which are far more than a matter of law.
Hicks puts it brilliantly when arguing the democratic logic of extending classical education to all the masses in Norms and Nobility. He says, “The logic of democracy demands that everyone be educated as members of an elite. Each student in a democracy must be educated as an aristocrat.
“Education, therefore, must impress on the citizen a lively sense of the responsibilities attending these privileges: his responsibility to the past, his obligation to govern and discipline himself, to contribute in every way he can to the preservation and development of his society’s purpose and sense of values, his duty to love the law and to carry himself before his compatriots in an exemplary manner, and the opportunity to use his leisure for the realization of his marvelous human potentials.”
Clearly, only a classical education can carry the awesome weight of such a noble and transcendent purpose—to prepare men capable of self-governance. This is “the unshifting ground of greatness.”
Guinness argues for the necessity of a virtuous citizenry and the classical education it requires as follows:
“The liberty of the American republic is not self-sustaining, and it needs a safeguard beyond that of the Constitution and its separation of powers. But what does it take to turn parchment barriers into living bulwarks? What is the catalyst that can bond together the external laws of the Constitution with the internal commitments and duties of citizens—rulers no less than ruled? The framers’ answer was to understand, cultivate and transmit …the habits of the heart that sustained the citizens and the republic alike.
That is true liberal education or paideia. There is simply no schooling and no apprenticeship that is more challenging yet more fruitful than that. Freedom requires virtue, which in turn requires faith of some sort, which in turn requires freedom. Only so can a free people hope to remain ‘free always.’” Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide, p.129.
Freedom to Worship God
More important than securing personal freedom and sustaining a democratic society is that of preparing citizens of the kingdom of God for eternal life. Divorced from its ultimate end—the worship of God—even the best penultimate educational goals will prove meaningless and hollow. As Jesus himself said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Or consider the Apostle Paul’s statement that he “considered everything as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.”
Only an education in truth, goodness, and beauty can prepare one to truly know and enjoy the glory of God to the fullest. A classical education is designed to bring to light the glory of God hidden in creation. As the creator of all things, God has hidden his Logos in his creation, and human beings are obligated to investigate the Logos and bring it to light, to the honor and glory of God. True scholarship brings to light the hidden glory of God in all things. Every person of learning should be fired with a zeal to wrest the light of God’s splendor from the recesses of creation, which is more than stuffing your brain full of facts and theories. It is entering the world of God’s thoughts with all your heart and all your mind.
Calling all Seers
All persons agree that the ultimate goal of education is preparation for life. Classical, Christian education presupposes that the ultimate goal of life is the worship of God. All lessor ends will malfunction and fail and ultimately enslave those who submit to its impoverishing paradigms.
In The Talented Tenth, W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 prescription for the education of African-Americans rising out of slavery, he said,
“Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools—intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it—this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.”