As we enter 2009, higher education is twenty years downstream from the publication of Michael Oakeshott’s perceptive and crisp collection of essays The Voice of Liberal Education (1989). This year, as Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 dissertation on Oakeshott is finally published (Intimations Pursued, Imprint-Academic 2008), Oakeshott has slowly emerged from the bucolic cottage of British philosophy to become recognized as one of the 20th Century’s more significant thinkers.
When Sullivan studied Oakeshott’s work in the late 1980s, only two dissertations had ever been written about him. Today there is an Oakeshott Studies series of books (of which Sullivan’s is the tenth) and his name, if not exactly shouted in the corridors of social philosophy, is at least whispered in the shrubbery and mumbled by the water cooler. A superb look at Oakeshott’s educational thought, Kevin Williams’s Education and the Voice of Michael Oakeshott, appeared in 2007 as Volume 8 in the series. Anyone interested in either Oakeshott or the philosophy of education should consider this excellent treatment as required reading.
Although most of his writing was about social and political philosophy, with an interesting lintel of religion over some passages, he did write significant works on education. Put briefly, his view was that liberal education is “… ‘liberal’ because it is liberated from the distracting business of satisfying contingent wants.” This is a distinctive view that is deserving of more attention. The other key feature of his thinking about education has to do with the way he thought about work. He thought that work ought to be fun, or to put it another way, that work, properly conceived, is fun, a form of pleasure common to the philosopher, baker and tradesman alike.
But isn’t Oakeshott that disreputable ur-beast from pre-modern times, a Conservative? Yes and no. Anyone who conceives of Oakeshott as a conservative in the sense that an American would use the term today might well ponder his comments on the connection of the university to the more mercantile aspects of society:
“[Such things as advanced training]…belong to a world of power and utility, of exploitation, of social and individual egoism, and of activity, whose meaning lies outside itself in some trivial result or achievement—and this is not the world to which a university belongs; it is not the world to which education in the true sense belongs. It is a very powerful world; it is wealthy, interfering and well-meaning. But it is not remarkably self-critical; it is apt to mistake itself for the whole world, and with amiable carelessness it assumes that whatever does not contribute to its own purposes is somehow errant. A university needs to beware of the patronage of this world, or it will find that it has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage…”
Well. If that’s conservative, I’ll have a platter, thank you.
What does this somewhat obscure thinker have to tell us about the state of higher education today? First, it is instructive to see that Oakeshott, whose views of education are certainly traditional if not conservative-American, does not attempt to throw away technical and “workforce” education as some education theorists have done. On the contrary, Oakeshott acknowledges quite clearly the value of technical training and its essential role in society—he just doesn’t call it education, a word for which he reserves a specific meaning. We, on the other hand, use the word “education” to mean almost anything, and we always crown it with a certain sunrise halo: if it is education, it is not only good but it is beyond criticism.
If his views have a certain Bloomian familiarity, they are also set forth with an admirable lack of sulfur: there is no fuming here, just a statement of condition. One might be listening to a prominent dentist taking note of the difference between molars and canines: there is a difference and it is important, but there is no core moral failing by one and ascendance of the other.
If we assume, as I do, that what Michael Oakeshott classified as education continues to have value, how should it be provided to those who want it and who can benefit from it?
There is a very basic question here, and it is the question of want versus need. Over the past hundred years, our society has moved away from building social institutions and norms around what people need (often determined by an elite) and has re-centered them on what people want. This is perhaps a natural consequence of free markets and their underlying philosophy and certainly reflects one core value of the American character: people like to make their own decisions and don’t like to be told what to do, even if it is supposedly good for them.
The question of education’s value to the individual versus that value to society as a whole is one we hear and see all the time, and I need not ride that horse for long. However, it must be saddled briefly in order to look at what Oakeshott viewed as a core purpose of education as he conceived it. That is, whether there is a loosely related set of ways of thought that people should know in order to be considered educated.
The Oakeshottian view is to some extent the opposite of the E.D. Hirsch approach: there are few facts to be learned to be considered an educated person in the universe of Oakeshott’s education. What Oakeshott really wanted, and what he considered education, was the development of critical thinking. Not just its development, but a recognition that critical thinking was the distinction, or at least the most important one, between an educated and uneducated person, and that calm, measured thought was a goal and outcome of education, especially what we would call “higher education,” a term he disliked.
It may seem strange, then, that Oakeshott was no great friend to science, classifying it as in effect a natural extension of technical fields that existed on the edge of the world of real education. He conceded that science, at least in some of its aspects, might earn a cranny or two along the edge of the plateau of real education, but in his heart science always had the word “applied” cemented to its backside, and mere application was simply mechanics in action. At whatever level, science was simply moving objects from one place to another, in theory if not in practice. Although it might require the use of critical thinking grounded in traditional learning, it had no place in the development of that thinking, and therefore was but an ancillary to education.
If liberal education is decoupled from “satisfying contingent wants,” let us look further at the question of needs versus wants. If we classify critical thinking as a good thing or even a core principle of higher education today (and there is significant evidence that we do not), how do we get the medicine into the patient? Careful thinking requires time as well as attitude, an attention span that is not programmed into the iPods I have known. Traditional-age students don’t have much interest in critical thinking. They want jobs—sort of—which means taking enough classes vaguely related to their interests in order to get a degree that leads to employment vaguely related to what they think they like.
How, today, should a young person become knowledgeable about the world and what it contains? How should young adults develop judgment? In Oakeshott’s words,
“The world in which many children now grow up is crowded, not necessarily with occupants and not at all with memorable experiences, but with happenings; it is a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation.”
This, included in the 1989 collection, was written in 1975, the year I graduated from high school, before personal computers, laptops, cell phones, i-anythings, bluetooth or blueray, before much more than three or four TV stations were available in most places. That it is exponentially applicable today makes clear the prescient observance of Oakeshott, the basic trend in society and one of the most important issues facing education now as then: can people who do not want to learn—to whom learning and measured thinking seem to come from a foreign country—be made to learn anyway, and with what result? Does it truly serve the interests of students or society to revise courses to resemble not just sound-bites, but thought-nibbles? Where is critical thinking as a natural, cultivated habit in our current students?
If students today want to go to graduate school in the professions, they have an icy focus on grades and competitive placement. If they want to pursue an academic career, critical thinking may be part of the larger picture, but it is not a major factor in success. What matters most is fitting into the rather mechanical process through which a graduate faculty cranks an elderly pasta-press to make more people like themselves. How many faculty genuinely welcome active disagreement from their graduate students? Some do, but many don’t. How many graduate students are willing to swim upstream to their goal when swimming downstream will work? Some, not most.
I suspect that Michael Oakeshott would be as concerned about today’s faculty as about today’s students. The students he would recognize immediately as a product of their times, and he would know that the times are unlikely to produce many 18-year-olds who are truly interested in learning for its own sake. How could there be such students in bulk? There never have been. They are circumscribed by certain ecological limits, if you will; if not exactly societal carrying capacity, at least a recognizable fact-pattern, one which I will call Oakeshott’s Law, using his own words: “the possibility of being wise entails the possibility of being stupid.” In short, we will always have knuckledraggers, and society needs to decide what to do with them. Engaged in critical thinking they ain’t.
Our society, particularly in the U.S., has never come to terms with the fact that it contains, indeed constantly produces, people who are essentially uneducable, who cannot make a useful, compensable contribution to their communities and must grudgingly be maintained through alternate means, as our cultural norms quite properly require that they not be simply dumped in the river. They are no more capable of learning in the Oakeshottian sense or any other sense used in higher education than is my neighbor’s cat. Yet because Americans believe that everyone can “succeed” if given a chance, we give acre-feet of chances, yet many boats fail to float.
If millions of learners genuinely interested in learning for its own sake existed, what would we do with them? What skills would they offer in exchange for food? It may be that the Oakeshottian world of learners was made up entirely of people who had a private income and need not work. I doubt it, in part owing to his particular view of the meaning of work. Yet I think he could adjust to modern students—after all, he knew them in his heart thirty years ago. It is the faculty that would make him wonder. So many, now, teaching to the job market or the test. They are plumbers, Joes and Janes, teaching a skilled trade. They don’t need or want their students to exercise critical thinking, they want to produce students who can perform tasks and get jobs. This is of value to society, or at least to employers, but is it education?
Not in the Oakeshott world. As Andrew Sullivan pointed out, “Education, itself, if reduced to the purpose of ‘training’ or ‘socializing’ citizens for a particular end or ‘common good’ is anathema both to human autonomy and to the correct understanding of education itself….”
Education in the Oakeshottian mold is today largely a private matter. If it happens at all, it happens in private homes and small circles of people with similar interests. I see it occasionally in the stupefyingly precise discussions that some teenage birders have with each other over such subjects as sandpiper molt cycles. It can be seen here and there in public universities, somewhat more often in private colleges, in spots at community colleges and essentially never in for-profit colleges.
For the most part, though, it is accidental, because it has been decoupled from the curriculum in most colleges and operates only as a function of personality: only certain faculty are interested and make any effort to advance the ideas that Oakeshott would recognize as educational. Indeed, many faculty, hired to haul on the fourth starboard oar of the pasta-press, have neither the time or inclination to engage in “education,” for they are paid to train. Then again, only a few students are capable of linking with the best faculty to produce the superreaction that we would all recognize as the Socratic ideal transmuted into 21st-Century minds.
Sadly, the students and faculty who really want to have education, disconnected from contingent want, are spread around the higher education universe and do not often meet. The ideal norm of an Oakeshottian college, in which most of the inhabitants are capable of this kind of interaction and performance, requires that people who want it gather in community, and this is a rare animal in the wildlife park of colleges today.
Does that mean that it is never sighted in the wild? Well, I think it is alive, mainly at small, unusual colleges. It is detectable, you know, an immanent smell as of a very good dinner being cooked no great way off. It is at Deep Springs in California, I’m pretty sure. Gutenberg in Oregon, Berea in Kentucky, St. Johns. There are variants in many smaller liberal-arts colleges, but it is these same places that will have trouble surviving the next twenty years because they don’t produce worker-bees on purpose. What does the future offer for St. Johns, Evergreen State and the oasis-squares of smaller colleges, big-names and no-names, dotted across the upper Midwest?
I am increasingly persuaded that only through a policy of complete independence from governments can higher education, a term Oakeshott disliked, flourish in a way that he would recognize. We atheistic liberals scoff at the wingnut bluster of Hillsdale College bunker-hunkered in its Michigan grouse-park, barking in the general direction of Washington, D.C. and scorning government money. Yet it is the model toward which we must work, without the religio-capitalist undertow.
The notion that students can ever again work their way through college at public colleges is entirely unmoored from the facts. At Oregon public universities, with which I am familiar, a student who could earn a year’s tuition by working 20 hours a week in 1965 would have to work 46 hours a week all year today to cover tuition. How, exactly, can students who spend all their time working or worrying about how and where to borrow more money be expected to focus on learning?
Yet there will be no more state subsidies sufficient to reduce the cost of public colleges. That era has been fading for fifteen years; in another fifteen it will be of interest only to academic historians. It is not that our elected officials lack good will: here in Oregon good will, and good decisions by elected officials, are easy to come by, even exemplary in recent years. Resources, however, are not easy to come by, and never will be again. The parents of today’s students are shocked at the cost of college, but the children of today’s students will live with it from birth and their parents, in school today, will have no illusions whatsoever.
We need more colleges of quality that are committed to offer their programs for very low fees, with an endowment that is designed to allow this forever and trustees who are committed to build and maintain such an endowment to that end. We need to recognize that government financial aid in meaningful amounts is over, as an effective large-scale policy. Governments are not going to have the money. That means that students will have to borrow increasingly onerous amounts or not go to college. Student loans in the amounts now required are not financial aid, they are financial oppression.
We do not need more endowed business and professional schools. We have scores of them and most are simply monuments to ego. We surely do not need more endowed athletic programs, which are simply tycoon-toys licensing school names from their parent universities. What we need are endowed undergraduate colleges and programs.
If Oakeshott’s view is a conservative one, as if often assserted, then we should expect conservatives to recognize that students distracted by huge debt loads and excessive expectations of paid work while enrolled cannot be expect to focus on learning. Such conservatives should therefore be taking steps to endow small colleges around the country, and perhaps honors programs within large colleges, so that students attending them can study free of constraint. That would be education worthy of the name.
Michael Oakeshott viewed “…school as a transaction between generations, a way of passing on from one generation to the next an inheritance of the distilled cumulation of human understanding.” If we are to reclaim that goal, as we should, we need to get started.