‘From the earliest days of his emergence, the Rationalist has taken an ominous interest in education. He has a respect for ‘brains,’ a great belief in training them, and is determined that cleverness shall be encouraged and shall receive its reward of power. But what is this education in which the Rationalist believes? It is certainly not an initiation into the moral and intellectual habits and achievements of his society, an entry into the partnership between present and past, a sharing of concrete knowledge; for the Rationalist, all this would be an education in nescience, both valueless and mischievous. It is a training in technique, a training, that is, in the half of knowledge which can be learnt from books when they are used as cribs. And the Rationalists’s affected interest in education escapes the suspicion of being a mere subterfuge for imposing himself more firmly upon society, only because it is clear that he is as deluded as his pupils. He sincerely believes that a training in technical knowledge is the only education worth while, because he is moved by the faith that there is now knowledge. He believes that a training in ‘public administration’ is the surest defence against the flattery of a demagogue and the lies of a dictator.’
Oakeshott, Michael. “Rationalism In Politics“. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. (Pg 38).
From The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy’s entry on Oakeshott:
‘The Rationalist, unaware of the local origins of the universal principles he thinks he has identified, disparages knowledge gained through experience and rejects it in favor of something called reason. Whether deductive or computational, this abstract reason is thought to guarantee a degree of certainty that experience and judgment cannot provide. The fallacy of Rationalism, in other words, is that the knowledge it identifies as rational is itself the product of experience and judgment. It consists of rules, methods, or techniques abstracted from practice, tools that, far from being substitutes for experience and judgment, cannot be effectively used in the absence of experience and judgment.’
We all have experiences and form judgments based upon them. Each of us, no matter how talented, can get only so far on technical manuals and textbooks alone. Deduction from principles and allegiance to those principles doesn’t necessarily guarantee any particular knowledge of politics, let alone the abstract category of ‘politics’ so commonly claimed by many in the modern world.
Maybe this applies to economics as well, dear reader:
I wonder if this can’t be applied to those who, in claiming loyalty to a particular set of ideas or political doctrines, claim not only the legitimacy of their feelings under such doctrines, but ‘feelings’ in general.
No one has ever felt before me!
Such claims usually travel under ideas of liberation (from tradition, from marriage, from existing relationships, from whatever ‘oppression’ was to be found internally or externally, personally or politically).
The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement
Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress—to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself )
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,—who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;—they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more wild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;—
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
Robert Conquest reminds of what can happen in institutions as conventions harden, mediocrity and rule-following abounds, and where incentives matter:
“Those teach who can’t do” runs the dictum,
But for some even that’s out of reach:
They can’t even teach—so they’ve picked ’em
To teach other people to teach.
Then alas for the next generation,
For the pots fairly crackle with thorn.
Where psychology meets education
A terrible bullshit is born.’
Link sent in by a reader. What about the humanities, and cleaning up the postmodern mess (and where political doctrines fill the void)?
Interesting paper presented by Erika Kiss, beginning about minute 32:00 (the whole conference is likely worth your time for more knowledge on Oakeshott).
According to Kiss, Oakeshott’s non-teleological, non-purposive view of education is potentially a response to Friedrich Hayek, Martha Nussbaum, and Allan Bloom, in the sense that all of these thinkers posit some useful purpose or outcome in getting a liberal education.
Hayek’s profound epistemological attack on rationalist thought is still a system itself, and attaches learning to market-based processes which eventually drive freedom and new thinking in universities. The two are mutually dependent to some extent.
Nussbaum attaches liberal learning to ends such as making us ‘Aristotelian citizens of the world’, or better citizens in a democracy, which has struck me as incomplete at best.
Allan Bloom is profoundly influenced by Straussian neo-classicism, and wants love, classical learning, honor and duty to perhaps be those reasons why a young man or woman should read the classics. This, instead of crass commercialism, the influences of popular music, deconstructionism and logical positivism.
On this site, see: Mark Pennington Via Vimeo: ‘Democracy And The Deliberative Conceit’
A taste of her Nussbaum here. Also, see: From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’
Via C-SPAN-The Historical Context Of Allan Bloom
…Timothy Fuller At The New Criterion: ‘The Compensations Of Michael Oakeshott’John Gray At The Literary Review Takes A Look At A New Book On Michael Oakeshott: ‘Last Of The Idealists’
Is there anybody whom you trust to decide what you should and shouldn’t read?
Parents? Great authors? Public intellectuals? Professors? God? Laws and lawmakers? Religious leaders? A school-board? A democratic majority? People who think like you? A Council of Cultural Marxists?
The Department of Institutionalized Idiocy?
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