Recalling Education

Hugh Mercer Curtler
Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001
181 pp., $24.95 hc

Victoria Cech
Ancient Greek
Rocky Mountain College

A free and autonomous citizenry being necessary for the proper conduct of a democracy, the right of the people to make truly free choices ought not to be infringed. Education, as distinct from training or the transfer of information, is the only road to true individual freedom. Recent trends in education, however, including the jettisoning of any standards for genuine discrimination among ideas, the substitution of indoctrination in misguided principles of social justice and multiculturalism for inquiry and thought, and the pressure to provide career preparation, have robbed higher education of its mission to guide students down that road, and made of it a questionably useful information bazaar.

Curtler supports this argument by drawing a distinction between negative and positive freedom: negative freedom is the license to select without restraint from a vast array of choices, whether it be in a car lot (one of the examples he provides to illustrate his meaning) or more importantly among philosophies, beliefs, or intellectual criteria. Positive freedom, on the other hand, is the ability to make the right choice based on the use of one's intellect. Curtler notes that "positive freedom may reduce all choices to one or very few," (3) and quotes Brand Blanshard's definition of "reasonableness" or autonomy, "...a settled disposition to guide one's belief and conduct by the order one's thought by the relevant facts, to order one's practice in the light of the values involved, to make reflective judgment the compass of one's belief and action" (5).

Curtler places responsibility for the development of positive freedom in individuals with the schools and academies alone (3), (a contention which any parent, particularly any academic parent, reading these words may find alarming), and then makes the case that this responsibility has been abdicated. In his third chapter, Curtler argues that education and indoctrination are fundamentally opposite aims, and implies that American academics are veering toward the latter. Education enables students to think for themselves, become autonomous, and therefore be possessed of positive freedom--the ability to make the right choices. Indoctrination convinces students of a particular world view propounded by the faculty member and supported by texts written with a specific social, political, or other agenda in mind.

However, Curtler also notes that guidance is needed in the pursuit of autonomy: "it will not do to simply throw them [students] into an elective system without direction, even if that's what they think they want. As Locke astutely warned, it is a serious mistake to 'turn [a person] loose to an unrestrained liberty before he has reason to guide him'" (42). Therefore, the solution seems to be that one guides or pushes the students, even, as he notes, against what the students think they want, toward freedom--and Curtler references Rousseau's recommendation that some must be forced to be free (though surely not "indoctrinated" concerning freedom?). Curtler perceives the thin line his argument treads here, for he notes that "Clearly, paternalism looms large at this point, and many are justifiably alarmed by this prospect. But a person who is ignorant requires the guidance of someone else who knows, or is in a better position to know, if he is to avoid the risk of making a serious mistake" (43).

As Curtler points out elsewhere, there is really no reason to attend college--or for that matter a workshop on gourmet cooking--if one does not believe the professors or instructors involved have a superior grasp of the material to be assimilated and a sense of the most effective ways to present it. However, it seems to me that Curtler, throughout this work, has not fully faced a contradiction inherent in his argument.

Random sampling of electives is an educational evil, or at least educationally ineffective. So, too, is indoctrination. When Curtler (rightly) protests against indoctrination as an educational method, he has in mind what he calls "militant multiculturalism," a movement made up, as he says, of "zealots who seek to control the movement and encircle it with high walls of intolerance; they would turn cultural difference into an idol and create a parareligious orthodoxy whose critics are condemned to Dante's eighth circle of Hell" (95). This, as he notes, does nothing to "liberate the autonomous human agent within us" (96).

Curtler argues that autonomy, or positive freedom, enabling a human to act as a just and responsible citizen, requires perception not of narrow areas of privilege or repression, but a vision of the common good based on enlightened self-interest, as opposed to the narrow protection of political or social turf, which is short-term selfishness.

The evils Curtler perceives as most pernicious both to the ideal of education, and also to the good of global society, are career-driven training and random sampling of feel-good electives, coupled with a vigorous program of cultural propaganda and indoctrination. Come now--it surely cannot be both simultaneously? And similarly, while I agree him about the intrinsic worth of the liberal arts properly understood, and concur that, if pursued rigorously, they might lead us back to a more civil and enlightened society, I cannot make myself accept the claim that this is not an ideological position, and that it is not based on certain defining assumptions about what is good and what is not, what is great art and what is not, and how the world ought to be ordered. As Tacitus remarked of the British savages who were enculturated--excuse me, enlightened--by the Roman occupation, "the simple savages gave the name of 'culture' to this aspect of their enslavement." Were they better for it? I would argue "yes." Does that make it any less paternalistic and, in some senses, repressive? I must admit, I do not think so.

Curtler maintains, for the most part, an admirable restraint in making his case without either the hysteria or the name-calling that sadly characterizes both sides of this debate, despite occasional outbursts, such as the "zealot" passage quoted above, where he substitutes fervor for argument. He has identified the weaknesses besetting much of contemporary higher education, and has made a compelling case for the need for citizens of this society to be educated and autonomous participants in the polis. He has not, however, succeeded in persuading this reader that this objective is not in and of itself a "political" and "enculturated" one. He has convinced me that the Western tradition of governance and intellectual discourse, grounded in the skills taught by the liberal arts, is preferable to narrow traditions and curricula focused solely on privilege and victimization, but I came to this work a believer. Those who reject the basic cultural assumptions on which this tradition is founded are unlikely to assent.

In my opinion it is critical, in the year of our Common Era 2001, that we address these disputes head-on. We must not delude ourselves: we believe in a certain type of culture, involving debate, civil disagreement about ideas, democracy, religious freedom and discussion, and vigorous political participation. We think we're right. Some don't. We cannot walk around this issue by trying to claim our system is not an ideology. A place must be made within this culture for all the people who wish to participate in it. Those who do not, those who believe that we must advance only one perspective or privilege only one group, will continue to protest.

Curtler has advanced a spirited defense of the Western cultural and educational ideology, but in this reviewer's opinion he cannot resolve the tensions within that defense until he admits the true nature of what he defends.

Contents | Home