Education seems universally—and almost self-evidently—supported as a Good Thing. Few would argue that a liberal democracy could do without literate citizens. Fewer still that a modern economy could do without a skilled workforce. Accordingly, spending on education is higher than ever. But what does it mean to be educated?
At present, education seems understood primarily as coursework in vocational topics, and “useful” natural and social sciences. There is a lot to be said for such education, as individuals need to be prepared to make a living. But there is also reason for concern. It is not obvious how well the “useful” courses prepare students for the world of work. Moreover, knowledge of the foundations of our culture, prerequisites of liberal democracy and fundamental assumptions in science is transmitted haphazardly or not at all. Individuals are hence increasingly clueless about our civilisation and their responsibilities. It is also unlikely for university graduates to have even basic familiarity with the history and philosophy of their disciplines, leaving many without critical distance from the fashionable views of the day. This sits ill with democratic citizenship, innovation and a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy.
Much as in China’s stifling scholarly tradition, to be a good student has become tantamount to conformity to a maze of institutionalised dogma, rendering the rise of university “safe spaces” and formal and informal speech codes sadly unsurprising. In effect, students are socialised for bureaucracies, both governmental and corporate. Thus diplomas, more than proving good judgment, function as tokens in a signalling game for the job market. Paradoxically, as the increased number of degrees has deflated their worth, proxies for competence (accent, dress, social circle and manners) have gained renewed importance.
Taken together, these developments represent a break with the traditional understanding of education, aimed at good judgment. For most people, the practice of apprenticeships, acquiring practical skills, fulfilled exactly this purpose. They also attended church, where they might receive moral instruction.
The academically gifted followed a different path. In a logical sequence, first they were trained to think, and then they absorbed both fundamental and more specialised knowledge. This encouraged development of independent judgment, inviting an examined renewal of our civilisation. Ideally, any vocational training (such as in law, engineering or medicine) would take place after such a liberal education.
Today apprenticeships have become unpopular, especially outside Germany and Switzerland. Liberal learning tends to survive in name only, as broad introductory classes to a largely random range of subjects. Rarely do these classes prepare students for making moral, aesthetic and empirical distinctions (a tulip is not a cactus and what is true regarding a tulip is not necessarily so for a cactus). Often they have the opposite effect, emphasising how things are the same. Differences (such as between men and women) are increasingly taught to be “socially constructed” rather than natural, with the implied—but false—suggestion that this makes them arbitrary. To illustrate: the difference between Turks and Greeks is socially constructed, for example, but not random or insignificant, as their history of conflict shows. Pretending otherwise may flatter the egalitarian prejudices of our age, but it also stifles critical thinking. For if you cease to recognise the distinctiveness of anything, you accept the truth of everything. Judgment consists in discriminating.
This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
Western learning, then, has grown confused. It is has ceased to educate for good judgment, but the human condition requires us constantly to judge, in the interest of right action. Indeed, the whole point of learning, with or without formal instruction, is to improve our judgment. Such improvement is possible because judgment is a practice with a history, generating knowledge. Not coincidentally, good education consists in the examined “handing over” of past judgments.
Taking the measure of a practice—such as education—is to ask for an understanding of its good practice and to apply this benchmark. This, in turn, presupposes an understanding of the practice. What, then, do we mean when we speak of education? Here ordinary language points to acquiring skills, receiving insights, and character formation—three related but distinct notions.
Education in the first sense—acquiring skills—is frequently called training: we train to be a lawyer, physician or carpenter, for example. We also say that someone who has acquired the skills to apply the scientific method has trained to be a scientist.
Education in the second sense—gaining insights—is about furthering understanding. For example: What does it mean for water to freeze? When such questions concern not the natural but the human world—When might anger be appropriate?—they may overlap with education as formation of character.
Finally, education as character formation concerns moral development. This does not have to include formal instruction. It is also how great literature (including traditional narrative history) used to be read and written. Indeed, life itself, the “school of hard knocks”, has frequently been called the best such education. In this sense we are always educated into something. Formal places of learning, such as schools, colleges and universities, are merely the most obvious institutions doing so, exposing us to ideas or providing training in skills. Other institutions, both governmental and of civil society (voluntary associations and the family) shape us by example, opening or closing opportunities, and rewards and punishments.
Each of these types of education shares the characteristic of being aimed at something. Like all human action, in other words, education cannot exist without purpose. But what is this purpose? At first sight there does not appear to be a uniform answer. A ballet school, for example, aims at producing good ballet dancers, whereas the Royal Agricultural University aims at producing good farmers. These are particular purposes, in their particularity appearing far apart.
Looked at more carefully, however, in each case we find the aim to be developing good judgment (a type of excellence). Such judgment concerns not only or even primarily matters of ethics (as judgment is frequently understood today), but the recognition of distinctions in all areas of life. Ballet is not hockey; agriculture is not gardening. In each case, also, such judgment (be it theoretical, technical or purely practical) is shaped with the interest of “right action” in mind—although, obviously, its concrete understanding differs by field. To be a good ballet dancer does not make you a good farmer. Finally, in each case, implicitly or explicitly, judgment is part of a tradition of thought by which it frames and comes to understand the structure of what is examined. This means that judging, in each field, is part of a practice with a history, carried out by an individual. Each of us acts within a mental horizon largely not of his own making.
If the world is always mediated through our judgment in this way, to be successful we should be self-aware, which is to say: aware and in judgment of our judging. A good judgment is hence a considered judgment—a judgment containing reflection on the tradition that gave rise to the horizon which enabled it, thus revisiting and revising both.
Three implications seem to follow. First, formation of considered judgment must include recognition of proper authority. After all, by ourselves we cannot constructively question everything. If we tried, we would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. Thus we must ask such questions as: What, up to our time, has been the considered judgment of the most thoughtful people? What have language, argument and creative thought—the timeless tools of learning—taught us so far?
Second, academic disciplines are shown to be interdependent. More precisely: the modern sciences (both natural and social) turn out to be dependent on the humanities, or at least on philosophy. This is because modern sciences explain things in terms of matter in motion, using mathematical and quantitative models. And, powerful though they are, such models are silent about the non-mathematical assumptions supporting them.
Moreover, because “matter in motion” denies natural purposes, modern sciences deny purposes natural to themselves, making it impossible for them to justify or explain themselves. Biology and medicine, which understand organs and organisms in terms of their functioning, are only partial exceptions to this.
It is true, of course, that by their nature materialist explanations and mathematical modelling are fit to be used for some things and not others (compare the use of a hammer). But recognition of these limits depends on deliberation, not on the tool (a hammer does not stop you from trying to slice a cake with it). Nor does it point to a specific purpose.
Third, all knowledge is united in our inquiry, rendering philosophy queen of the arts and sciences. Fundamental leaps of imagination, first expressed in great books and pioneering experiments, are the sources of academic disciplines—not their products—and subsequently become imperfectly reflected in everyday thoughts and arguments. Understanding this, reading forward in history, is hence a delicate balance between revision and unreasonable doubt. New paradigms may prove partial improvements only; old ideas may give life to new hypotheses. Scientific and social improvement is not necessarily linear.
Upon reflection, therefore, learning is about the matrix of our understanding. It is to recognise problems, formulate theses and develop arguments, thus to gain awareness of the whole that is each field and, indirectly, the ultimate whole of which each field is but a part. This invites us to engage the minds which have discussed the most significant questions in the most significant ways. It also requires joint exploration of our own tradition, which has shaped our horizon, and traditions foreign to us. For to see is to compare and contrast.
Doing so demands mastery of language, argument and creative thought—the timeless tools of learning. Properly understood, such mastery includes awareness of their limits. As Aristotle famously put it, “It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each class of things which the nature of the subject admits.” Because: “It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from a rhetorician.”
Pascal, similarly, distinguished between l’esprit de géométrie and l’esprit de finesse. The former is an axiomatic, exact way of thinking, applied most fruitfully to things that can be quantified, whereas the latter is an inexact, non-axiomatic way of thinking, appropriate to things refusing quantification. The former deals primarily with the realm of matter and goes beyond common sense, whereas the latter primarily, but not exclusively, deals with human action (what German thinkers call the Lebenswelt) and is a development of common sense. The former involves recognition of causes (in German: erklären) and coincides strongly with empirical description and breaking things into component parts (seeing the trees rather than the forest). The latter mostly coincides with interpretation and inter-subjective understanding, involving what is perhaps best translated as “comprehension” (verstehen) of situational wholes, by recognising reasons and reasoning, but also for example intuitively or through empathy (seeing the forest rather than the trees). The former tends to suit simple phenomena (such as planetary movement), whereas the latter better fits complex phenomena (such as an economy or ecosystem).
Both l’esprit de géométrie and l’esprit de finesse require judgment if they are to be used well. Indeed, judging whether or to what extent a problem requires l’ésprit de géométrie or l’ésprit de finesse, or erklären or verstehen, is itself perhaps the most important and basic judgment; here misjudgment may lead to disaster. Think, for example, of blaming a tree for one of its branches hitting you, or using mathematics to gauge whether your spouse loves you. Think, also, of important questions about the purpose of institutions (such as banks) or of activities (such as banking). Here mathematics cannot provide any answers, but deliberation may help us pose and approach such problems.
What is more, these distinctions bear on our judgment of the academic disciplines. Physics and chemistry seem to have discovered strictly deterministic, empirical regularities organising the world of matter. For reasons we do not understand, these regularities (the laws of nature) are mathematical, making mastery of mathematics crucial to studying nature.
In contrast, as we are unable to reduce human action to organic chemistry (much as we have been unable to reduce chemistry to physics), it appears that the study of man and society has to centre on human action—the “stuff” causing and constituting social phenomena. The main challenge in understanding social phenomena is hence to account for the objectivity of human subjectivity. Humans have contingent reasons, feelings and purposes; particles do not. Humans are able to reflect on their situation, take into account new information and to change course; particles are not. Humans experience choice (or the illusion thereof); particles do not. As a result, for actors and observers alike, making sense of human action involves a type and degree of uncertainty, interpretation and causal density that is very different from making sense of particle movement. Not even biology, so much more complex than physics or chemistry, can compare.
This makes it hard to see how we could reasonably describe social phenomena in a way modelled on the natural sciences—as if individuals were akin to particles or as fully open to materialist explanation as they would have been if they had been but the sum of particles. Yet that is what the first social scientists (notably Comte and Condorcet) tried to do, back in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The crudeness of these attempts led to their failure and abandonment, but much current social science appears to be a more sophisticated version of the same mistake. To illustrate, it would be one thing for economists to mathematically model preferences and draw insights (although Austrian economists reject even this limited use of mathematics in describing human action); it is something else altogether to use such models for strict prediction, as happens frequently.
Of course, if a physics, chemistry or even biology of society were possible, there would be no choices to be made! There would hence also be no need for good judgment and hence no need for education to improve our judgment. Still, our experience of choice remains limited, as it is shaped by situations. Good judgment therefore depends on recognising the manmade and natural constraints that create situations. For example, the decision whether to buy a particular house depends at least in part on the quality of the house, given the market price. The market price is the product of human action (notably, of the supply of housing given the demand); the quality of the house is dependent on human action (say, whether the house has been well maintained) and on nature (corrosion by wind and rain and so on).
Thus the logic of good judgment hence points to understanding situations as constituted by layers of constraints. Some constraints we can decide on (the realm of action); other constraints we can aim only to describe and perhaps manipulate, but not change (the realm of nature). This broadly matches Aristotle’s distinction between practical sciences (aimed at understanding action), technical sciences (understanding the subset of action organised by rules for production), and theoretical sciences (understanding things beyond human action).
In this division, ethics (aimed at understanding right action) and politics (aimed at understanding government) are purely practical sciences. Engineering and medicine are examples of technical sciences. What I have called “theoretical sciences” coincide with orthodox views of natural science and metaphysics. The label “theoretical sciences” can be somewhat confusing, however, as practical and technical sciences are themselves examples of theory.
Theoretical sciences are the backdrop to both practical and technical sciences. They study permanent constraints on our actions. At the same time, because all judgment (including theoretical judgment) is a type of action, practical sciences are intertwined with theoretical and technical sciences. For example, we never understand “biology” as such, but always an aspect of biology (chosen by us), and we always do so in a particular social setting (which is how taboos may come to frustrate science). Similarly, rules for making things (technical sciences) always have to be applied in unique circumstances. We never simply build a bridge, we always build a particular bridge at a particular time and place.
In preparing for good judgment practical sciences hence take centre stage. Properly understood, their focus is on the impossibilities and tendencies inherent to instances of contingent situational logic and their unintended aggregate consequences. To illustrate: Tocqueville, the great nineteenth-century philosopher of liberal democracy, notes that equal rights imply the impossibility of a privileged class and the tendency for shallow development, creating a society characterised by Walmarts rather than cathedrals. In this situation almost all people have to work for a living, rendering it difficult for individuals or groups to develop themselves deeply. But this logic does not prevent democracies from encouraging deeper development in ways not dependent on a leisured class; it merely indicates this would require separate action (for example, by founding universities).
The massive causal density involved in creating any situation (especially including the role of ideas) and the impossibility of controlled experiments ensure that practical sciences have an interpretive rather than an experimental character. Being in a situation is hence more like playing a game, or playing a character in a novel or film, than being a particle in an accelerator. The humanities, and sports or other games, may therefore have important roles to play in training our judgment. By providing insight into situations they allow for the imaginative anticipation of possibilities and thus for better decision-making, without the twin illusions of strict prediction and control. Consider the global financial crisis. Most economists, using mathematical models, were taken by surprise, but Trollope’s The Way We Live Now was proved relevant beyond his time, sensitive to recurring problems within global finance.
If this is true, much of what is understood as social science appears confused. Indeed, economics—the most prestigious social science—seems sometimes understood as knowledge of wealth creation (making it a technical science) and sometimes as the study of human action regarding exchange or money or scarcity (making it a practical science). Furthermore, whereas the logic of good judgment shows proper study of social phenomena—as practical sciences—to be close to the traditional understanding of the humanities, modern social sciences have been modelled on the natural sciences. Finally, as the natural sciences are naively thought to present a “view from nowhere”, the social sciences are frequently similarly presented as value-free. In practice, however, they cannot avoid the footprint of an implicit ethics (the ultimate practical science), as they inevitably use normative language (are we facing “refugees” or “illegal migrants”?) and—like the natural sciences—necessarily focus on one thing rather than another.
On and off, for a long time something like this logic of good judgment was well understood. Arguably, the main components of our tradition—Classical and Renaissance thought, Christianity, and the Enlightenment—all thought of man as characterised by reasonability. Human dignity hence came to be seen as at least partially dependent on development of our judgment of the true, beautiful and good. Education for good judgment, preparing for freedom (understood as independence) and citizenship, became known as humane, humanistic or liberal.
In this context ancient Greece pioneered the idea of paideia, the development of excellence in all aspects of human life. Subsequently the Middle Ages and the Renaissance transformed this idea into a curriculum of seven liberal arts and sciences, consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). Finally, by broadening the range of academic subjects (expanding the quadrivium), the Enlightenment and its aftermath changed liberal learning yet further, adding first the new experimental and mathematical study of nature, and later history, European literature and modern languages.
In its prime, the practice of the liberal arts and sciences followed a clear order, with the trivium preceding the quadrivium. The point of the trivium was to train the student’s capacity for independent judgment. He would study Latin and Ancient Greek not “scientifically” or as “subjects” or branches of knowledge, but to develop taste and learn how to think. The tripartite sequence of grammar, logic and rhetoric corresponded to training in language, argument and creative thought—the timeless tools of learning. By first acquiring the facts, then recognising necessary relations between the facts, and finally developing one’s own synthesis, the tripartite structure prepared the student for the quadrivium, ready to master any subject. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did the argument gain ground that an explicit trivium could be abandoned and that an expanded quadrivium alone would also be able to teach students how to judge. In an irony of history, this left Latin and Ancient Greek increasingly “trivial”—now mere subjects, their purpose confused.
For those who had the means and the talent, the liberal arts and sciences jointly taught moral and empirical knowledge, yielding understanding of the different areas of inquiry and how they were related. They also united the development of skills, the acquisition of insights and character formation. Indeed, the core assumption of liberal education—that all knowledge is united in our action—managed to survive until well into the twentieth century. In some places, such as a few Great Books colleges, it survives even today.
Seven developments in particular seem to have corroded this practice. First, the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries introduced a strictly deterministic, materialist understanding of nature, replacing Aristotle’s purpose-oriented explanation of change. The natural world was now understood in terms of particles in motion, best described mathematically; Hobbes suggested that man and society could be explained in the same way. This created doubt as to the existence and role of free will as traditionally understood, in turn questioning the relevance, let alone prominence, of the humanities. The humanities were suspected of providing nothing but prejudice, or at best merely subjective views, rather than situational insight and training for judgment. Increasingly, many considered it only a matter of time before we would also arrive at exact, mathematical social sciences. Traditional moral or practical sciences, which had claimed to be true only “for the most part”, thus accounting for causal density, were expected to become obsolete, seemingly fatally associated with Aristotle’s teleological thinking.
Second, with the success of the new natural sciences came growing specialisation, prompting the birth of the research university, further undermining the unity of knowledge, both as an ideal and as a way of organising a curriculum. For teachers and students alike it became difficult to see what might be the relation between, say, physics and philosophy, or biology and literature.
Third, the humanities, traditionally organised around the transmission of classic texts, increasingly focused on research, imitating the new natural sciences.
Fourth, schools and universities came to be structured according to the model of classroom teaching, primarily provided by the state, based on age cohorts. With origins in Prussian designs to prepare for the army and the factory, this fared poorly with individual needs, strengths and weaknesses, and made it easier to uproot tradition.
Fifth, during the twentieth century it was shown that Bildung (formation of judgment) had not prevented Germany’s Bürgertum (educated middle classes) from descending into barbarism. Worse: the Holocaust, two world wars and the unprecedented brutality of modernity’s totalitarian tyrannies (both national socialist and communist) could not have taken place without rational organisation and science and technology—quintessential products of Western thought. This created ambivalence about the Western heritage, encouraging interpretations of our tradition that cast it as inherently oppressive of particular races, classes and sexual identities.
Sixth, the democratic notion of equal liberty came to be interpreted in ever more egalitarian, relativistic ways. A concern for equal flourishing turned into equal rights; equal rights turned into equal expression of autonomy; equal expression of autonomy turned into authenticity and the reign of meandering feelings. This sat ill with the disciplined study of the liberal arts and sciences.
Finally, at present about a third of the population is enrolled in higher education—a historic peak. But only a minority of those enrolled seems capable of academic study. Standards have hence frequently become too low for the academically gifted, whilst those with other talents are forced to engage in pointless simulacra of higher learning. Anecdotally, it seems no longer widely expected that students write grammatically, spell properly, defend an argument, follow logic or reference sources. The humanities and social sciences are hence broadly perceived as “easier” than the exact sciences or mathematics. But it would be better to say that the exact sciences have not abandoned their basic standards.
Many of these developments should not surprise us. Tocqueville explained that in a modern democracy no permanent group or class could afford the “luxury” of “merely” cultivating the liberal arts and sciences—that is, without getting paid for it (see On Democracy in America). In democratic societies the equal status of each citizen renders each in need of a trade, making it both natural and largely beneficial to be practical and to identify preparation for the job market as the main purpose of education. Most people should hence focus on acquiring technical judgment by developing vocational skills, be they those of an engineer, a lawyer or a cook. They should also acquire practical judgment by exercising self-government in the widest sense, from making decisions in their private sphere to participating in civil society and local and national public life. Book learning could contribute to this, but never substitute for experience. Indeed, absent the habit of self-government abstract ideas would remain without a reality check; this is how writers played a harmful role in the run-up to the French Revolution.
But Tocqueville also had worries. It may be true, he warned, that theoretical and applied science “can be cultivated apart” in the short run, but “reason and experience make it known” that “when absolutely separated” they cannot “prosper for long”. Thus the disinterested study of theory is important to liberal democracies, especially from the partisan perspective of those societies themselves. In this Tocqueville saw a resemblance with the duties of citizenship and participation in civil society. Their benefits are crucial, but not immediate.
During the 1960s C.P. Snow sounded a similar alarm. He warned that attempts to focus on applied science at the cost of pure science would backfire, since the line between them is difficult to draw. In addition, increased specialisation had created a detrimental and increasingly wide division into “two cultures”—the one scientific, the other literary. Between them, little or no communication or comprehension existed, “leading us to interpret the past wrongly [and] to misjudge the present”, and making it “difficult or impossible for us to take good action”. Thus, far from undermining liberal education, the rise of modern science had increased its importance.
If these considerations are right, a narrowly technical, instrumental focus in education is incoherent and self-defeating. Just as you cannot run before you can walk, you cannot innovate (for example with an eye to new technology) if you lack the basics, and existing knowledge has not been transmitted to you. In other words, you cannot constructively criticise (which is what it means to innovate), if you do not know what there is to criticise (or if you delude yourself that you are starting with a blank slate). This is as true in our personal and professional lives as it is in public life. No polity can function, let alone remain free, if its citizens lose the ability and appetite to think for themselves, to judge matters directly affecting them.
In free societies each child should take something like Judging 101. This would have to transmit proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as foster familiarity with the natural world of which we are a part, and the forces of events and ideas that have shaped our culture. Vocational or academic specialisation might follow, depending on interest and ability. In most cases an extended elementary school would suffice, alongside a focus on job training and apprenticeships (supervised in situ training of skills, which are examples of instrumental judgment) during one’s teens. The purpose of education is not to hide the unemployment rate.
But for the other 5 to 10 per cent of the population, expected to take up positions of leadership (and therefore in greater need than most to learn to judge well), a traditional liberal education must again be understood to be indispensable. It should offer a map of what we believe to be true, our reasons for thinking so, and training in the tools for critically examining those reasons. That implies studying conceptions of man’s place in the whole, appreciation of distinctions between areas of inquiry, and familiarity with the appropriate ways of examining them. It implies, in short, a renewed trivium and quadrivium. Such a renewal could take varied forms and does not mean the blind adoption of a curriculum from hundreds of years ago. The crucial thing is once again to explicitly combine learning to think (the point of the trivium) and transmission of fundamental knowledge (the point of the quadrivium), thus educating for good judgment.
One way of doing so might be to teach a renewed trivium and quadrivium jointly and on an equal footing, using the same fundamental sources, rather than sequentially. To fulfil its purpose such a curriculum should be tailored to individual needs and abilities and would not have to include Latin and Ancient Greek. Still, with its precision and focus on the true, the beautiful and the good, the classical culture of reasoning is at the core of our tradition and—as Tocqueville notes—a “useful” corrective to democracy’s tendency for haste and superficiality. In restoring education for good judgment, it is deserving of renewed attention.
Melvin Schut is an Anglo-Dutch writer and academic currently teaching in the Netherlands. His main research interests are Tocqueville and Tocqueville-related questions. He contributed “What Britain Might Learn from the Colonies” in the July-August 2015 issue.