Saturday, August 27, 2016

Liberty and Learning by Larry P. Arnn

Tim and I attended a Hillsdale Lecture by Dr. Larry Arnn in Orange County. We had heard of these, but had never gone, expecting them to be a massive fundraiser. We were wrong! They never once asked for money, but used the opportunity to introduce people to Hillsdale and the challenges faced by our country. When it was over, everyone received a free copy of Dr. Arnn’s book Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education. I tucked the book away for future reference, but because I read so many library books, those take precedence. Well in my continuing saga of educating myself classically, I ran across a recommendation to read this book. Delighted that I already owned it, and that it is short, (75 pages) I jumped in. 

It was a great book highlighting the function of education and Hillsdale’s endeavors in the effort. His purpose in writing the book is to understand the relations between colleges, government, and the educational system. Arnn states, “… the stakes are therefore high. They involve our understanding of the purpose of man, the nature of his rights, and the way he is to be governed.” (p. xv)

According to the Northwest Ordinance, “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall ever be encouraged.” (p. 5) The purpose of schools are clearly for the good of mankind with an eye towards morality and religion. And while the Federal government got involved in education through land grants contained in the Northwest Ordinance, Federalist #45 makes it clear that education was the province of the states. “The Founders did not seek administrative control of education because the nature of man is, in their view, best able to flourish under a regime of limited government.” (p. 12) Arnn further states, “One might say that it is because the Founders possessed a liberal education that they knew better than to make education an administrative fiefdom of a central power. It is the loss of that equation among powerful people today that works to deny it to others.” (p. 17) How did we get so far from the ideal set up in the beginning?

Arnn discusses the founding of Hillsdale College in 1844. Certainly closer to the Founders in time and thought than we are today. They were committed to a classical liberal education with a focus on the history and institutions of the United States. The school would cultivate character and mind, knowing that “ignorance is a prerequisite to slavery.” (p. 24) 

But at the time of the founding of the college, a Prussian educational influence would begin to make inroads in the nation’s educational establishment. “Behind it looms the notion that the infinite improvement of the human being — his evolution to a higher state of perfection — is the first object both of government and of human life. Under this conception we are no longer equal souls, entitled to our rights by nature, rightly governed only by our consent. Rather we become the object of an experiment.” (p. 35) This view of man as perfectible ran directly counter the liberal worldview of the Founders who saw man as fallen. Each individual had to fight their own nature, and a liberal education should provide the tools necessary for self-reflection and self-improvement. Our educational system has been profoundly influenced by the Prussian view that social engineering is a good and should be conducted by the elites and experts and put into practice by our schools. 

When Dr. Arnn arrived at Hillsdale in 2000, the school was under attack from the state of Michigan for failing to adhere to the prevailing dogma. Their first sin was to teach Western Civilization and not multiculturalism. Their second sin was not counting students by skin color. Arnn defends these positions saying that Western Civilization is the result of the combined philosophies from Jerusalem and Athens. “The confluence of universal monotheism and universal philosophy is very valuable. It may be uniquely valuable. It may be superior to anything found in the East. … multiculturalism is thin gruel for the mind. It begins with the promise that all cultures, whatever their differences, are equally worthy.” (p. 54) Concerning the counting of people by race, Arnn states, “Neither from the point of view of the nature of the human being, nor from the point of view of the highest goal of education, does it make the slightest difference what color someone is. Any other view destroys the possibility of knowledge in the human being, because it reduces the human being to accidental and material characteristics.” (p. 57) Hillsdale is committed to fighting back against these attacks on its mission.

Arnn points to his study of Aristotle’s Ethics under Harry Jaffa as an example of what education is meant to be. “We began our inquiry not in doubt, but in belief and wonder. We did not set out to discover our own thoughts, still less our feelings. We set out to find something quite outside ourselves that could help us know the meaning of ourselves and of everything else.” (p. 64) 

Dr. Arnn’s experience with government meddling has caused him to conclude, “The Founders of our nation did not intend to establish mandarins. That is why they taught that responsibility and authority ought to go together. That is why they did not give the federal government power to manage education. It was too important for that. For the sake of education, and for the sake of freedom, the federal government should get out of it.” (p. 74)

This compact, easy-to-read book is perfect for someone wishing to know a bit about the history of Hillsdale and its mission. Dr. Arnn makes a strong case for education the way the Founders both experienced it and expected it to continue in their new nation. 

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