When I teach The Federalist Papers to college students, I usually preface the assignment by asking them if they think we are more advanced or intelligent today than the folks of the American Founding period. Without hesitation, most students rush to point out that we today are vastly smarter, what with computers, cell phones, air conditioners, and a host of technologically advanced products that the Founders never imagined. Some students are even smug in their confidence that there is little they might learn from the reactionary souls who lived some two centuries or more ago.
Then they return from their first reading of The Federalist Papers. And the complaining begins. It is difficult to read and understand, they say. The arguments are nuanced and often draw upon broad historical accounts. Grappling with The Federalist Papers is no easy task, students soon discover. And when they learn that these essays were originally published in newspapers and read and discussed by ordinary Americans, it is a humbling experience for these modern, sophisticated students, and they are better off for it.
The reason modern students find The Federalist Papers especially difficult, I believe, is because those papers were written from an older understanding (and, we might add, a better understanding) of what it means to be an educated person, an understanding that has been largely lost in our halls of education today. In the scholarship of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay we see the practical exercise of classically educated men.
Classical education views the here and now in light of the world as it used to be, attempting to understand how we got from there to here. But it would be a mistake to think of classical education as merely historical education. It was education based on the nature of man and the physical universe of which he is part; it studied the physical, moral, and intellectual properties of man’s universe so that men could better understand why things are the way they are, and what ought to be done to further human happiness and well being. Classical educators believed that means are subordinate to ends—without a proper understanding of ends, means will be misdirected or abused. Thus at the pinnacle of higher education stood the highest questions regarding the highest ends of human life.
The premise of classical education is almost alien to educational institutions today. Our liberal arts universities have been transformed into vo-tech schools, where mastery of means precludes thoughtful discussions of ends. In our universities and colleges, almost all emphasis is on learning a technical skill or expertise, such as those of the accountant, the lawyer, the nurse, the computer programmer.
The replacement of classical liberal education with technical training is in part the result of a superficial historicism or progressivism—a naive faith that history is necessarily progressing, that the new equals the good, and that the only genuine knowledge is knowledge of the latest technologies and techniques. In this light, the distinction between means and ends is blurred: he who controls and commands new means is the creator of new ends. Science replaces God and nature.
The decline of classical education is also the result of politics. As the all-encompassing bureaucracy of modern liberalism has eclipsed limited, self government, so has the independent spirit of Americans been eclipsed with a dependence on experts telling them how they ought to live their lives. Imagine those Patriots of ’76—you know, the ones who flew flags that read “Don’t Tread on Me”—seeking government advice on how to raise their children or run their businesses. Never! Yet many Americans today are far too willing to let those with credentials and degrees and licenses order their lives for them. This transformation in the American character has given a powerful boost to the new education, and a powerful boot to the old.
But the older classical education has not been completely lost. I bring to your attention a wonderful little piece by fellow traveler Terrence Moore of the Ashbrook Center, titled, “The Classical Trivium Remains the Best Course of Learning.” I also would like to direct you to one of my favorite essays—one that I pass out every semester to students—by our friend and Claremont Institute senior fellow Christopher Flannery, “Liberal Arts and Liberal Education.” For those of you who enjoyed Allan Bloom’s chapter on the universities in his Closing of the American Mind, you will find Mr. Flannery’s piece a delightful read, and in my opinion an improvement on Bloom.
Saving Western Civilization from the corrosive effects of modern philosophy and the modern liberalism that flows from it is the task before us today. And it is a mighty task. But we can begin by recalling the older, better way of educating ourselves and our children, the kind of classical education upon which Western Civilization was built.