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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conserving Liberty

At Defining Ideas, Mark Blitz has an essay adapted from his new book, Conserving Liberty:
Do or must regimes devoted to liberty diminish serious education? The short answer is that they need not, although they do now. They need not because a link exists between liberty and liberal education. Authoritative self-direction suggests that no one blocks me in what I seek; this is consistent with responsibly securing equal rights. It also suggests that I can see and consider the possible goods I might choose, and that my understanding can grasp the general conditions for which I could take responsibility. Liberty requires more than appropriate lack of external limits and restrictions. It requires an expansive mind if it is to be true self-direction.
For much expansiveness, liberal education is beneficial if not necessary. This is a chief reason why liberty and enlightenment go hand in hand. This union also is meant to decrease the influence of religion and of ascription generally. Liberal education is one cause of the weakening of the implicit power of traditional institutions.
Liberal education and, especially, mass education beyond economic need seems nonetheless to counter excellence precisely because it is so widespread. What could it mean to teach literature or philosophy seriously to so many who are apparently unable to give them the subtle attention they deserve? Moreover, education’s tendency to try to be useful seems exacerbated in liberal democracy. The emphasis on material expansion and technology means that advanced education is largely technical—agricultural, commercial, legal, and scientific.
Yet, this emphasis was once compatible with a deep grasp of our political principles. In fact, this grasp seemed to exist even with grammar or secondary education alone. The technically-minded founders and the technically-minded Lincoln are obviously unsurpassed by anyone today. And even at a more general level, the notion that The Federalist was meant to sway votes and be widely read would bemuse or frighten today’s political consultants and advisers.
Among the founders, Benjamin Franklin has long been famous for his scientific work.  In addition, Jefferson made contributions to architecture and natural history.  Lincon's technical bent is perhaps less well-known today.  But to date, he remains the only US president to hold a patent. As a railroad lawyer, he had to know a great deal about the technology of trains and bridges.  And as commander in chief during the Civil War, he took a deep interest in the development of new weapons.