Does the state destroy true education?

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was one of the leading conservative intellectuals in the English-speaking world during the post-war period. Born into a Fabian socialist milieu, his own conservatism seems to have arisen from the political crucible of the 1930s, in reaction to the dual horrors of Nazism and communism. According to Oakeshott `modern governments are not interested in education, they are concerned to impose `socialization' of one kind or another upon the surviving fragments of a once considerable educational engagement."

He saw the job of the state as simply to stay afloat, rather than heading off in some idealistic and utopian direction; and of education, to engage the young, and not so young, in a conversation with our heritage, and a conversation between certain different modes of thinking and being that would give them a life of freedom and even of adventure:

"men sail a boundless and bottomless sea, there is neither
harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting­place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy;
and the seamanship consists in using the traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion".[1]

The different ways of looking at life as envisaged by Oakeshott correspond roughly to an expanded version of the Quadrivium as it was envisaged by the ancients and by the medieval founders of our university system; that is to say, a system intended to form minds and perpetuate culture, rather than to train young workers.

What Oakeshott is seeking to defend is essentially what has become known as a liberal education. He claims that governments, and others, have attempted to substitute their own ignoble changeling for the liberal arts tradition that has been at the heart of our culture for nearly three thousand years. And Oakeshott is more than merely worried. He bleakly suggests that we have reached the point of no return:

"The design to substitute 'socialization' for education has gone far enough to be recognized as the most momentous occurrence of this century, the greatest of the adversities to have overtaken our culture, the beginning of a dark age devoted to barbaric influence."[2]

In this investigation, the origins of the classical European educational tradition will be explored, with particular attention given to demonstrating its organic nature. Attempts by states to impose their own ideology on the organic whole are found both at the beginning and at the end of a story spanning three millennia; a story whose moral, if there must be one, would seem to be that good education makes for good government, rather than the other way around.
State interference in education goes back a long way, even to the roots of the educational system that Oakeshott so obviously honours. In Ancient Greece the first attempts at organized education had the clear aim of producing young men who would honour their State by their courage, strength, probity, ingenuity and (an especially Greek preoccupation) their beauty.

In the city of Sparta its men were its walls (the real walls had been demolished by Lycurgus, a sort of Hitler or Mao of the 6th Century BC). The Spartan men represented the city's defence both from outside attackers and from internal dissension, particularly from the hard-done-by helots, or surfs, who did all the hard work for their Spartan masters. Before the quasi-historical Lycurgus's reforms, Sparta was probably a more artistic and literary culture, but in its heyday it was a military state whose education system was geared to serve that identity. The comparison with Hitlerism holds on a number of levels: a strong civic/national identity, the quasi-religious cult of asceticism, the barbarous treatment of `undesirables', and a total state monopoly of education from 7 to 30. On the other hand, it was Sparta's military strength that saved Greece from domination by the Persians, and many aspects of her distinctive culture were subsequently adopted by the rest of the Hellenic world. We know that Sparta had a rich culture of dance and the oral transmission of song and poetry. However, because of the policy of Spartan secrecy, little survives. Most of the extant material about Spartan education was written by her enemies, so that may need to be treated with skepticism.

There was an important tension between the Spartan tradition and the Athenian, but Sparta inspired as much admiration as it did disgust in the heart of Athenians. There were even defections, such as that of Xenophon, who defected to Sparta and fought against his native Athens. He also had his children schooled in the Spartan tradition. He gives us a rare glimpse of Spartan education and is unstinting in his praise of the role of the state. [3]

The more prevalent system of education in Greek culture (such as may well have existed in Sparta before Lycurgus) was more family-based. The most famous example of this more flexible model of education was the state of Athens, famed more for its culture than its military prowess, and whose apologia for its war-making was to keep the tyrannical Sparta at bay. And yet, the involvement of the state for the purposes of socialization and military training was still the common element for all male citizens of Athens and places like it.

In Athens aristocratic parents (of boys) had a fair amount of freedom up to the end of adolescence. Education was conducted by slaves called pedagogues, or by private tutors, with the pedagogue escorting the children to classes in the different tutors' homes. A great emphasis was placed on music and singing, as well as on what we would now call the three Rs. At the end of his adolescence a boy would be absorbed by compulsory military training as an ephebe. This training might last several years and would act, to employ Oakeshott's terms, as `socialization', binding the youth to his polis, by a sort of team spirit, forged in adversity, which linked him to his brother ephebes and to the older warriors who had trained him. For wealthy Athenians there were also opportunities for higher studies, ancient pre­cursors of the modern university. Like the private tutors of children, these higher tutors of philosophy, music and other disciplines, charged for the courses they taught.

The Spartan system, heavily weighted towards military training, was brutal and brutalizing. It became increasingly elitist and anachronistic, so that by the time of Christ, there were only a few hundred Spartan citizens left.

The Athenian system left room for introspection, for reflection, and because of this was a system intrinsically open to change and reform. This led to a military decline, but to an intellectual flourishing of such import that its continuing influence was ensured even after military defeat by the Macedonians and then by the Romans. It is worth reiterating that many of Athens' leading intellectuals were hankering after a system like that of Sparta, because they felt that democracy led to weak government and hence to civic and moral decline.

In the melting pot that formed Hellenic culture it is possible to observe, with sufficient hindsight, that all the tendencies in Greece shared similar views on education, even if they differed on politics. Education was about perpetuating the culture, inculcating virtue and nobility, and forming loyal and patriotic citizens. Both in individualistic Athens and in communalistic Sparta education was deliberately humane, even in the midst of its barbaric elements; it was even peculiarly child-centred, with the individual loving relationship between a man (the lover) and a boy (the listener) playing a key role throughout Greece. (This particular kind of discipleship was geared almost exclusively to socialization, as the boy would have had specialized tutors for his academic subjects as well.[4]) So at the time of the eclipse of Greece there was substantial agreement among the Greeks on what education ought to comprise - an aesthetic education in the fullest sense, leading to an instinctive desire for the Good, the True and the Beautiful[5] - yet no clear vision of whose responsibility it was. The Spartan experiment of total state control of education had been abandoned.

The rise of Rome

By the mid fourth century BC small schools called ludi were springing up in Roman society and were probably not completely dissimilar to modern primary schools, even, if their name is anything to go by, in their openness to learning through play. But learning what, exactly? It seems likely that the mission of these schools, aimed at young children, was to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic. They were informal and did not involve the state in any way.
As the Roman civilization came to predominance in the centuries preceding Christ, it sought to integrate some of the Greek educational heritage into its own schooling system. It largely rejected music (except for that part of mousike that dealt with literature and language, which were seen as important for aspiring politicians and diplomats). The Romans had no time either for athletics, at least not as an end in themselves or as part of the cult of beauty.

By the second century BC the ludi had become more organized and formal. There were professional schoolmasters now and a clearer idea of curriculum. It was essentially the Trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric, with the basics of mathematics. Romans were now developing a literature of their own, but boys from wealthier families would also be expected to master Greek and be familiar with Homer. In fact, many teachers in Rome were Greeks, but learning, for learning's sake was not prized as it had been in Greece. Some Romans did pursue higher studies (for example in Athens or at Alexandria) but the ruling classes were essentially
composed of those who had specialized in rhetoric or soldiery, or both. Military training became more specialized and the army became one career among many rather a school of citizenship for all.

So this, then, was the state of education at the time when Christianity burst upon Europe: the learning of the Greeks was admired but somehow associated with weak statesmanship. The Romans were in the ascendant and cared more for technical training. The active participation of the state in the education of children was now to be generally abandoned in the continent of Europe for almost the next two millennia.


The main reason why European society managed to develop an enduring educational tradition at the high level it did was that at precisely that moment when states retreated from education, a new international institution, powerful and yet separate from the state, was born. That institution was the Catholic Church. Aside from the arguments that one might have about the claims of the Catholic Church, the arrival in history of this new force at the heart of the European cultural tradition was miraculous, perhaps, fortuitous without a doubt.

Classical Europe until now had been living in an extraordinary cultural continuum in which a deep and innate conservatism had somehow managed to provide cultural continuity and development in the midst of the rise and fall of three great cultures: the Mycenaean, the Greek and Roman. One of the arguments for a classical education is that by unfolding millennia of history and experience to us such an education makes wiser, more mature, partakers in the story of humanity. To be bereft of this is, in the phrase of Matthew Arnold is to be a `stranger to the human condition'. How much more universally valid and more powerful this cultural patrimony became will be seen from what occurred in the centuries that followed. For in the marriage of the Graeco-Roman world with the older Semitic world, the whole story of the peoples around the fertile crescent[6] became a greater, wiser and more formidable story than the world have ever heard before; one that was thought worth telling to children for generations to come.[7]

A Christian classical education, such as later led to the creation of the late medieval/renaissance universities was first seen in Alexandria, at the heart of the meeting of East and West, in about 190AD. Here St Clement, very much of a disciple both of Jesus and of Socrates (via Plato), established what could probably be called the first Christian academy, educating boys and men, mainly, but not exclusively, for the priesthood. They studied the Trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric, followed by the Quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, leading to studies in philosophy and theology. We also know that Clement attached great importance to sport and dance. These had been central in the Greek education of boys: gymnastics for the body, music for the soul. The imagery of the hymn which may have been sung by the boys at the school is strongly suggestive of a circle dance:

Bridle-bit of the gentle foal,
Wing of the homing bird,
Firm Helm of the ship set on its course,
Shepherd of the royal lambs; Gather your scholars all around To utter holy praise
And with those lips that speak no wrong To chant in guileless song
For Christ, the guide of youth.
Holy shepherd of the flock divine,
king of unspoilt youth,
Lead the way!
The footsteps of Christ
Are the track to Heaven.
Word who always was and is and ever shall be, Life immeasurable,
Unfailing light,
Compassion's very source!
Craftsman forging virtue For the holy lives
Of all who sing to God.
Christ Jesus,
Heavenly milk pressed from your Bride's sweet breasts
To nourish tender mouths of sucklings with grace and wisdom: the guileless take their fill with reason's milk,
the dew of your Spirit.
All together dance and sing
Our simple praise and heartfelt song
For the Christ the King.
So may we pay our holy fees
For schooling in the way of life.
Dancing in the ring of peace
We are the simple escort of the young Pantocrator.*
Race sprung from Christ,
Wisdom's own people
All praise together the God of our peace.
* Creator of all things. [8]

This text, to me, breathes a warm gust of Christian Hellenism across the centuries: many of the enduring educational themes of the ancients are there (wisdom, reason, the purity of youth, progress in virtue, discipleship with a master who humbles himself to be close to his charges, the dance .) but with a new freshness and clarity of purpose. Where scholars have us believe that the image of Christ grew steadily more imperious and terrible under the influence of the Alexandrians[9], here we have the beardless shepherd Christ of the early Christians[10]; Christ the teacher; and the great Pantocrator of Constantinian iconography: all three blended together harmoniously. The second of these two titles of Christ (as teacher) is a key to understanding the central role of the Church in education as it developed over the rest of the next two millennia.

This truly classical education within a Christian context was expounded in great depth in Clement's work The Pedagogue, a masterful synthesis and history of education from the viewpoint of Hellenic Christians, and the first real Christian handbook for teachers. It was not, however, a tremendous success; at least not in the intense and thorough form envisaged by Clement. The stress of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of Islam in large parts of the Empire in the East, the destruction of libraries, the mistrust of classical civilisation by some Christian clerics, general political instability in the vacuum created by the collapse of imperial Rome; all of these things contributed to the classical tradition's being somewhat sidelined for a time. In outposts of the Roman empire, such as in much of Britain, people suddenly abandoned the cities as they had done when Mycenaean civilization collapsed in Greece towards the end of the second millennium BC.

And yet, before imperial Rome sank another great man arose to ensure that the ideals of a classical and Christian humanism would not be forgotten. Augustine, a Roman of the fourth century, was a professor of classical rhetoric who became a Christian and then Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In Augustine's day, scholars speculated about whether Virgil had read Isaiah[11], and this itself is an interesting indicator of how many in the Graeco-Roman world were already looking to the Jews and to their sacred literature with an air of expectancy. We know, however, that Augustine had read Isaiah and Virgil, and in his Confessions, and in the City of God, the two worlds meet completely and a fruitful synthesis is attempted. St Paul, with his obvious familiarity with Greek philosophy[12] and worship (seen as pointing to Christ) and even a positive reference to athletics[13] had shown long before the supposed Platonist hijack of the second century that a continuity was achievable, and that is why he converted so many Greeks.

Now Augustine, with all the weight of his spell-binding rhetoric and learning, like Homer had done at an earlier stage, set a seal on the direction of our "considerable educational engagement" for at least the next thousand years.

The cultural achievements of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and of the modern age are many, but none of them is as significant as that momentous and humble openness of the Early Church to the weight of human experience and learning that preceded what they saw as God's total self-revelation to man in Christ. It was an attitude quite remote from the prophetic traditions of the Old Testament. Perhaps it was precisely the belief in the Incarnation, and the optimistic view of human nature propounded by Paul that made it possible for Christians to hold fast to so much of 'the best that known and thought in the world' [14] and to add to that store. Perhaps more remarkable still was the openness of the whole area around the Mediterranean, subdued by the Roman empire, to this new chapter of man's history. For despite the persecutions of Domitian, Nero and others, a new idea and culture - for the first time in human history - took control of man's destiny not with armies but with argument.[15]

Later reforms within this Christian tradition[16] can all be seen as efforts, more or less efficacious or reasonable in themselves, to restore the freshness and vigor of Christianity as it was at this time of triumph. The scholastics revived the classics and gave a new impetus to the study of Aristotle and Plato (under the aegis of a now long dead Muslim philosophical school), the excesses of Renaissance neo-paganism were corrected by the Reformers and their excesses, in turn, tempered by the Counter-Reformers.

At the beginning of the modern age, then, we see a western Christendom where Christian humanism[17] is the norm of education on both sides of the Reformation divide, so that the Ignatian Paideia of continental Europe[18] and the grammar schools and public schools of England, all train young men in roughly the same disciplines and essentially with the same view of man and his history[19]. More importantly, both sides generally believed that education was for the betterment of the human spirit, not merely to prepare men for war, or trade. True enough, many received more training than they did education, but the distinction between the two was clear.

Sister Miriam Joseph CSC, a leading Catholic educationalist in 1940s America, explains: "The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant - of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business - and to earn a living. The liberal arts [that is, the Trivium and the Quadrivium], in contrast, teach us how to live; they train a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth." [20]
That is a description of education that no serious western writer or thinker would have disputed from the time of Constantine until the eighteenth century. But they speak in a very different language to that of most educationalists ever since.

The impact of Rousseau, writing in the eighteenth century is still felt today in pedagogical circles. He promoted the hugely successful (however erroneous) idea that we have nothing of objective value to teach our children[21]. They will, he suggested, teach themselves, given a little encouragement. His Confessions[22] paint a picture of a young man motivated by a profound egotism and self­righteousness often attributed to religious people, and yet he was in fact someone who had left religion behind; the first in a long line of modern `victims' of the seminary system who proceed to make a living out of burning what they once adored. He consigned his own illegitimate children to an orphanage and took no interest in their education whatsoever.
His influence, and that of the other philosophical thinkers of the siècle des lumières had an important part to play in the thinking behind the French Revolution, followed by Communism and Nazism in the twentieth century. They all tended to a view of man that rejected completely the Christian chapter in man's story.

There had been previous attempts to short-circuit back to Antiquity, by-passing Christianity, but these modern attempts were especially thorough. In this climate of wholesale rejection of the continuum of the classical tradition as it had been mediated by the Church, it was no surprise that all the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century promoted the role of the state as educator. And with the benefit of hindsight, they all have their similarities with ancient Sparta, described by Hitler as the first National Socialist state.

Man needs a god. And if the last two hundred years have taught us nothing else, they have taught us one important thing: that when man has killed God, he will soon make another one, and more often than not, the state will seek to take on that role.

In nineteenth century Britain, as Terence Kealey has shown, the state sought to impose its own vision of education on the churches[23], even resorting to misrepresentation of the facts in order to do so. The motivation there was to create a strong, militaristic youth who would contribute to the growth of the empire.

In modern Britain, the pressure from the State continues, and the underlying assumption is still that the State is the only true mater et magistra. No one in his right mind, and certainly no one with anything like a classical education, would seek to deny the importance of thinking skills, one of the current mantras in British government education circles. And yet, thinking is only possible when one has language and data. The language and data form the way we think and what we chose to think about. By robbing future generations of `the best that has been thought and known' and instead filling their minds - shrunk by lack of language - with ephemeral information, our leaders are raising a generation fit for nothing but dictatorship and television. For democracy to work, as the Athenians taught, one needs to educate one's citizens to think and to be wise. By this is meant the kind of wisdom won by the lessons of history.

The dangers to education in Britain, and the consequent dangers for our whole political settlement, have not gone unnoticed across the Atlantic:

"In Britain a few years ago, the member of the opposition who had been designated minister of education in a Labour government [they are now in government .] denounced Oxford and Cambridge as `cancers' .

Recently we have heard similar voices in the graduate schools of Harvard. Why discriminate against indolence and stupidity? .

Why were universities established, and what remain their more valuable functions? To discipline the mind; to give men and women long views, to instill in them the virtue of prudence; to present a coherent body of knowledge for its own sake; to help the rising generation to make its way towards wisdom and virtue. The university is an instrument to teach that truth is better than falsehood, and wisdom better than ignorance.

A higher schooling merely technological and skill-oriented . can neither impart wisdom to the person nor supply intellectual and moral leadership to the republic." [24]

Cardinal Newman was active at a time when it was widely thought among the educated classes in England that the pursuit of a classical education was an end more important than religion. Newman was not of that party, but he did feel, and know from his own experience, that the intellectual opening of horizons that comes from being able to tell the story of our people from within, is part of what makes us fully human, fully mature. The aim of education for Newman was to develop in us "the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us," which are the fruits of the careful training and noble influences that a sound education affords.[25]

The attempts of various governments over the last two centuries to deprive the younger generation of such an education, or anything approaching it, always have the same
effect of damaging the organic transmission of the culture; and making of the children involved, in Arnold's phrase, strangers to the human condition, incapable of real progress or happiness, doomed either to relive all the mistakes of history, or to seek release from the hopelessness of their existence in drugs, sex and superstition.

In Book VII of Plato's Republic there is the famous story of the Cave. The men inside (the Athenians of Socrates' time) sit in a dark cave, fascinated by dancing images on the cave's wall, projected by others from the light of a small fire. They all believe the shadows to be real life. One day a man gets up and notices what is going on, and so, inspired, he decides to leave the cave, and thereby discovers the glorious light of the sun. In our day, men make the same mistake, staring at a flickering screen rather than stepping out into the warmth and light of reality and truth. Governments would keep men in the cave, obsessed with trivia, wonderfully socialized and no trouble to anyone. Should Oakeshott, or anyone else worry about this tendency? If to worry means to lobby our rulers for a political solution, then I think not. Politicans will not offer a way out of the cave for the children of the twenty-first century. We need to lead them all out ourselves, one by one.


[1] Oakeshott, M. (1984) "Political education" In M. Sandel (Ed.), Liberalism and its critics. New York: New York University Press. (p. 232)
[2] Oakeshott, M. (1991) "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.
[3] "When we turn to Lycurgos, instead of leaving it to each member of the state privately to appoint a slave to be his son's tutor [the practice in Athens and the other city states], he set over the young Spartans a public guardian-­the paidonomos---with complete authority over them. This guardian was elected from those who filled the highest magistracies. He had authority to hold musters of the boys, and as their guardian, in case of any misbehavior, to chastise severely. Lycurgos further provided the guardian with a body of youths in the prime of life and bearing whips to inflict punishment when necessary, with this happy result: that in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either." Xenophon's `The Polity of the Spartans', c. 375 BC in Fred Fling, ed., A Source Book of Greek History, (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1907), pp. 66­75.
[4] Although these relationships seem disordered to the Christian mind, it is all too easy (for scholars of all types) to fall into anachronism when thinking about them. It seems that they were certainly romantic, but almost always chaste.
[5] Expressed most epigrammatically by Plato, in the mouth of Socrates: "And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the
friend with whom his education has made him long familiar." The Republic, 401d - 402a.
[6] Fertile, that is, not just in grain, but in ideas.
[7] The Hebrew and the Hellenic were seen as naturally balancing influences by Matthew Arnold.
[8] Translated from the Greek by the late Canon John Mooney and published privately. For Greek text and French translation, see Clément d'Alexandrie, Le Pédagogue, Livre III pp. 192 ff. (in Sources Chrétiennes, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1970.)
[9] For example, Talia Zajac, `Ecce Homo: Changing portrayals of the Likeness of Christ in Late Antiquity' in Saeculum Journal, Iss. 2, no. 1. Toronto, 2006.
[10] I refer here to the interesting image of the young Pantocrator; the puer aeternus, echoing Apollo.
[11] Referring particularly to similarities between Isaiah's prophecy of an era of peace ushered in by the Messiah, and Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, predicting the birth of a child who would bring peace.
[12] Acts, Ch. 17.
[13] 1 Corinthians. Ch 9, v 24 ff.
[14] Matthew Arnold, 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time', in Essays in Criticism, p. 38.
[15] Even if armies later emerged to defend the place of Christianity and to settle its internal disputes.
[16] With the possible exception of Calvinism.
[17] Represented even during the Reformation, with Luther on the one hand and Erasmus and More on the other.
[18] The school system begun by St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. His pedagogy was modeled on the classical Trivium and was given a deliberately classical flavour even in its terminology.
[19] Periodic assaults on the classical curriculum in schools such as Eton came from the Calvinistic tendency, but did not carry the day.
[20] Sister Miriam Joseph CSC, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric, Ed. Marguerite McGlinn, Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2002. (p. 5).
[21] In Émile ou de l'éducation, 1762
[22] Les Confessions, 1770, published 1782
[23] In an article in Prospect, no. 127, October 2006, and elsewhere.
[24] Russell Kirk, `Humane learning in the age of the computer" in Redeeming the Time, ISI, Delaware, 1996, (p. 117).
[25] From the preface of The Idea of a University


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