If the facts relied on in a lawsuit brought by a mother and son in Nevada against a public charter school are true – that a teacher failed a biracial student for refusing to follow the Identity Politics catechism reciting what jeopardizes his graduation – they have a clear case West Virginia State Board of Education against Barnette’s protection from forced language. It is worth noting that they have an equally strong argument against disrupting education.
According to the lawsuit, William Clark, a senior at a Democracy Prep charter school in Las Vegas, failed a course called “Sociology of Change” after refusing to participate in a project called “Change the World” where he intersected had to disclose identities in a number of areas, including sexuality and race, and explain the privileges and oppression associated with them.
The case clearly shows the dangers of politicized education. But it shows more than that. It shows what happens when the purpose of education is deformed.
Liberal vs. Servile Art
In leisure time: The basis of culture, Josef Pieper explains the distinction between liberal and servile arts. Pieper’s particular concern was the Marxist preoccupation with training workers to serve centralized economic plans. But the worry continues.
Pieper quotes Aquinas as the difference: “Only those arts are described as liberal or free that deal with knowledge. However, those who deal with utilitarian goals achieved through activity are called servile. “The terms, according to Pieper, are out of date. The question is not: “Is there an area of human activity, one could even say of human existence, that does not have to be justified by inclusion in a five-year plan and its technical organization? Is there such a thing or not? “
Democracy Prep states that one of its goals is to close the “citizen achievement gap” by “preparing scientists to become active citizens and leaders of our democracy. Through citizen initiatives, community engagement, speeches and debates, and authentic advocacy for students and families for more school choice, our scientists acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes to change the world. “
In other words, one purpose of education is to “change the world”. There is a lot in this formulation. One of its premises is that the world must be permanently changed and never preserved. Another reason is that our concern is “the world”, an abstraction that is in explicit contradiction to a concern with the concrete institutions and relationships in front of us. Tocqueville linked this with democracy: “In democratic centuries, on the other hand, when the duties of each individual towards the species are much clearer, devotion to a man becomes rarer: the bond of human affection is widened and loosened.”
But the word that deserves the most attention is “preparation”. It suggests that knowledge exists for something else, the essence of a servile and not a liberal art. This is different from “education,” a term that is more appropriate for liberal education. The preparation suggests technē, an educational process in which people are taught citizenship, just as they are taught in carpentry or medicine, or any number of aspirations. Education says on the other hand: The result of this type of education is a citizen in the truest sense of the word.
The key, however, is that education accomplishes this precisely because it doesn’t take it too literally. Students should learn the mechanisms of government. Schoolhouse Rock serves an indispensable purpose. But citizens emerge from grappling with enduring issues like the nature of justice or beauty. True Citizenship Education teaches civic mechanics, but also philosophy, literature, history, and a number of other avenues of inquiry. This is true because the essential political virtue is cleverness, a skill that was not acquired through technical instruction but through prolonged encounters with the chaotic complexities of social life.
We are political animals even deeper, as Aristotle teaches, precisely because authentic politics consists of conversations about the good. Such a conversation is based on the fact that we both disagree and help clarify, challenge and expand each other’s perspectives. An individual who thinks about the good alone on a lonely island is not politically active. Nor is it the subject of a regime in which the answers to political questions are dictated from above. Both are rather apolitical. That is the real result of activism disguised as education.
Because liberal education deals with questions about the good for its own sake, it educates whole people. And because citizenship – engagement both publicly and in particular – is essential to the human experience, fully educated people are also better citizens.
Any project that educates students to become citizens will inevitably lead to abuse, as William Clark claims. It begins with desiccation – citizenship is limited to knowing how a law becomes law, where to vote, or how to write elected officials – but it cannot escape the question of what purposes those skills are used for can be used. If a surgeon is trained to make an incision or a mechanic is trained to change a head gasket, the end is implicit: a working body or a working car. The training does not have to answer why a working body or car is good, but it does have to be able to tell what it is.
In other words, the telos needs to be defined. There is a way to constructively define a citizen’s telos. The end of citizenship is participation in the common good. However, a project aimed at educating citizens, rather than educating people who are citizens, involves the temptation to define and enforce the content of the common good as well, and not just to promote concern for and commitment to it.
Michael Oakeshott understood the danger: The telocratic regime that was developing towards the end feels justified in trampling the William Clarks of the world underfoot on their way. In contrast, a nomocratic regime respects freedom because it understands that what is good is controversial and therefore lays down basic rules for its pursuit.
The education of the whole person to strive for the true, the good and the beautiful presupposes that he sees these things differently. This does not mean that all views are interchangeable or correct. This means that striving is best served by politics in the noblest sense: a discussion with one another about the deepest and most lasting questions.
The nomocratic regime also understands that the nature of political life is not just about the common good, it is also about conversations about it. If the common good is objectively defined, the task of education on boards handed down from above is not politics. It is also not a request. It’s conformity. Even supporters of charter schools, perhaps especially supporters of charter schools, should note that Democracy Prep’s mission specifically includes the training of students who advocate for charter schools. Sometimes activism and selfishness collide – or more precisely, cultural and economic Marxism.
Philosophers and welders, citizens and activists
In 2015, Senator Marco Rubio, then presidential candidate, mocked liberal education by stating that America needed fewer philosophers and more welders. There was a profound condescension in this frivolous attempt at populism: the premise that welders cannot and must not think philosophically. WEB Dubois had the better case: “The goal of all true education,” he wrote, “is not to turn men into carpenters, but to turn carpenters into men.” Good carpenters needed “sufficient intelligence and technical skills”; Educating people required “generously trained teachers and leaders to teach him and his family what life is”.
Education-with-activism is just the politicized version of education-with-job training. Secondary schools should definitely ensure that their graduates are able to work meaningfully and productively. But they drop students out if they either assume that the students are unable to lead meaningful lives or if no education is required for that purpose.
It is true that liberal education teaches all kinds of skills, including habits of careful thinking and clear expression. However, these results occur precisely because they are not part of the project. Students learn not to write by becoming familiar with a formulaic understanding of how many sentences make up a paragraph, or which of them indicates a topic and which a thesis. They learn to write because the process of shaping them as whole people exposes them to the best of what has been written. You learn to read not from study tips, but from reading great books.
Modern education is inextricably linked with professional preparation, and it is of great value to combine professional education with liberal studies. That is compatible with striving for truth for its own sake and must not overshadow it. Whole people trained for this pursuit are better welders. They also lead more fulfilling lives.
Search for true diversity
The situation of the student trained as an activist is indistinguishable from that of the student trained as a carpenter. There is a correct way to use a handsaw and claw hammer. The activist educator also tends to believe that there is a right way to use voting. In the lumber shop, a student is punished for misusing a tool. In the political business, a William Clark is punished for misusing propaganda. Here, too, there is a clear contrast: When working with wood, the craftsman has to exercise judgment; Activism of this kind simply requires that the student obey authority. Both are trained. They should be educated instead.
So the problem with the Sociology of Change course is not that it is ideologically unbalanced. It is. The real problem, however, is that it is primarily ideological. But it had to be that the essential Rubicon for replacing education with training was exceeded. This is inextricably linked with the derailment of liberal education in general. Liberal education should include Pieper’s free time, a withdrawal from the moment to focus on the lasting.
A nominal purpose of the Sociology of Change course is to teach respect for diversity. However, the education, not the training, is rooted in what is really diverse. The education of the whole person to strive for the true, the good and the beautiful presupposes that he sees these things differently. This does not mean that all views are interchangeable or correct. This means that striving is best served by politics in the noblest sense: a discussion with one another about the deepest and most lasting questions. When activism becomes a skill, it doesn’t ask us to do that. It’s just about what was asked of William Clark: conformity. Whether this will lead to social “change” is an open question, as is whether this change will be directed towards the good. But whatever that type of education is, it’s not political.