Wednesday, June 18, 2003

More on Education

Oxblog has a favorable assessment of Larry Summers' thoughts on liberal education in his recent commencement address. Oxblog may be a little too optimistic, however.

Although Summers seems to be genuinely interested in reform, it is disappointing that those with the authority to do so almost never choose to implement the simplest solution: a great books program. This is the heart and soul of liberal education, the purpose of which is to give students contact with ideas that they are not likely to hear anywhere else in society, especially (oddly enough) in a democracy, despite the regime's pretensions to be perfectly open or liberal.

I suspect that such programs are not implemented because universities prefer not to view themselves as providing a counterpoise to the prevailing opinions of society; rather they would like to be viewed as working with and for society.

But a liberal education, one that provides citizens of a democracy contact with anti-democratic views (as Tocqueville said Greek and Latin books did), may do democracy a great service by keeping it liberal, by making the most thoughtful in the regime guard against the inherent defects of the regime without becoming enemies of the regime. To continue with Tocqueville, in what other modern book but Democracy in America will the citizen of a regime that upholds equality above all other principles come into contact with arguments that democracy or equality hinders freedom, encourages conformity, and may result in despotism? Such books should be the cornerstone of a liberal education.

It's basically easy to pick the books that would comprise such an education. The difficulty is facing up to the fact that such programs would be uneasy friends and not flatterers of a democratic regime. Are Harvard and other universities willing to take such a stand?


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