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Oct 26, 2021

The Egalitarian Objection to Liberal Education

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Thomas Hibbs

​Thomas Hibbs is currently J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, where he is also dean emeritus.

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The Egalitarian Objection to Liberal Education

And Why the Liberal Arts Are Indispensable to Equality

Coëtivy Master Henri De Vulcop French Active About 1450  1485  Philosophy Presenting The Seven Liberal Arts To Boethius  Google Art Project

Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, Coëtivy Master, ca. 1460–1470

In the opening of her book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen describes her experience as a professor at the University of Chicago teaching the same texts—great books from Plato to Toni Morrison—to two quite different groups of students: by day, some of the nation’s most elite undergraduate students, and by night, adult students struggling to balance work and education.1 Despite marked disparities in academic preparation and economic and social class, the result was the same in both groups. “Through reading [the words of the Declaration] slowly we came into our inheritance: an understanding of freedom and equality and the value of finding the right words.”2 Indeed, Allen, a classicist and political scientist, makes a case for liberal education as indispensable to equality. She writes, “The achievement of political equality requires, among other things, the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”3  

The argument put forth by Allen, who has spoken and written eloquently on issues of race and education, is intriguing because it turns on its head the standard egalitarian objection to liberal education: that it is elitist and aristocratic. The familiar response is often defensive and negative, arguing that liberal education need not be elitist. Allen, by contrast, makes a compelling case for a certain kind of liberal education making a direct contribution to equality. She focuses on the role of liberal education in supplying a vocabulary adequate to one’s experience and to the capacity of each individual to make a case for a vision of what constitutes a just life together. Her argument calls to mind Frederick Douglass’s great statement about the connection between education and equality in his Narrative of a Life.  

In that book, Douglass describes being moved, as a slave, from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Baltimore, where he lives with a family. The wife, whom Douglass depicts as initially exhibiting toward him the “kindest heart and finest feelings,” begins teaching him how to read. The lessons are cut short by the husband, who insists that a slave “should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning… would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable…. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”4 Douglass discovers, in the reasoning behind the prohibition, a liberating insight, a “special revelation” as he terms it, concerning the “white man’s power to enslave the black man.” The reason for the cancellation of his lessons reveals to him the incompatibility of “education and slavery.”5 Slavery is so contrary to nature that

to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.6

Douglass, in due course, finds ways to circumvent the prohibition. During his free time, he plays in the streets of Baltimore with better-educated white youth, whom he challenges to spelling contests, writing with stones on the pavement. As his competitors spell words unfamiliar to him, he expands his vocabulary and thus his capacity to read.   

Douglass’s capacity to learn proves to him the falsity of the belief that the slaveholders desperately want to instill in him, in other slaves, and in the white population—namely, that blacks are inferior, not fully human. Elsewhere in his Narrative, Douglass describes a Sabbath school, in which fellow slaves study scripture together. The warmth and the elevated tone with which he portrays this group give evidence that Douglass sees the shared reading and discussion of important books as a basis for friendship of the highest sort. He writes: “I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages…. They were great days to my soul. The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.”7 The use of the word scholars indicates Douglass’s exalted assessment of the capacity and seriousness of the students in his midst. Their natural hunger to learn and to discuss with others the most important matters of human life is not just a communal counterexample to the slaveholders’ claim about the intellectual inferiority of the slaves; it is also testimony to the universal desire for knowledge and conversation. He describes the “society of fellow slaves” as “noble, brave souls.” “We were,” he writes, “linked and interlinked with each other.” It would be difficult to find a better illustration of a community of teachers and learners, of souls pursuing a liberating education for its own sake. Douglass affirms Allen’s insight that political equality requires “the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”8  

The proper use of language is to communicate with others about what matters most, about how we understand ourselves and others. Language is the vehicle for deliberation about better and worse ways of living together. The expansion of our vocabulary, through the sharing and reading of stories and the weighing of better and worse arguments, enables us to discern virtuous uses of our freedom from vicious ones. Douglass notes that slaveholders did not forbid all kinds of freedom and interaction among the slaves. In fact, they were perfectly willing to allow, indeed encourage, the notion of freedom as debased license. He describes how, on holidays, slaves are permitted to engage in all sorts of unrestrained activity, including alcohol, sex, and violence. The hangover from the immersion in such intemperate activities has the effect of making slaves want to return to the apparent order of obedience to the slaveholders. It also affirms the notion in the slaves’ own minds that they are not “intellectual, moral, and accountable.” Douglass detects a cynical strategy: “The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery…. When the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty.”9

Podcast: Is a Great Books Education for Everyone? with Thomas Hibbs

1920Px Frederick Douglass Circa 1879

Frederick Douglass

Allen’s experience in the classroom echoes in some respects Douglass’s description of his Bible school. In her classes, Allen notes, “we were making worlds: naming life’s constitutive events, clarifying our principles, and testing against one another’s wits our accounts of what was happening around us.”10 Allen suggests that this sort of education can improve “our own powers of reading” and “strengthen our writing.” 

“It would nourish everyone’s capacity for moral reflection,” she writes. “It would prepare us all for citizenship. Together we would learn the democratic arts.”11

Studying the composition of the Declaration reveals the complicated social construction of the document. Far from being a drawback, the messiness of the text serves as an invitation for us to take it up in our own time and make it our own. The art of democratic writing entails understanding how to contribute to the collective mind to produce the shared vocabulary that we citizens will use to live together.12 The point needs to be generalized. We are never mere passive recipients of the texts or ideas of the past.  

Allen notes that the document provides an account of the ground or foundation of natural, human rights. At a time when talk of rights floats free of anything but the flimsiest assertions of human dignity, her attention to this point is salutary. Now, Allen does not suggest that we need to have a shared, fully worked out conception of human nature to affirm the claims of the Declaration. But she does suggest that the question of the grounding of assertions of rights is unavoidable. As the historian Bill McClay argues, human nature comes into play typically by negation, usually when we find that a certain political or social order neglects or denies features of our humanity. Documents such as the Declaration arise from the recognition that some “essential element of our humanity is being neglected or debased or misunderstood.”13  

Allen holds that the Declaration allows us to understand the source of rights as either coming from nature or coming from God. The most obvious reading of the Declaration, she notes, points to a grounding of rights in God’s will and decree. But she is quick to add that “you do not need to be a theist to accept the argument of the Declaration. You do, however, require an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves… to hold sacred the flourishing of others.”14  

Allen seems to give two different nature-based accounts of rights, one of which looks like straightforward utilitarianism: it is grounded in the universal desire to survive. Such desires are “forces of nature” that merit our respect because, “if we try to fight them, we will generally do ourselves more harm than good,” as we may bring “war on ourselves and so jeopardize our own projects of survival.”15 But this appeal to long-term self-interest can be tenuous; it is certainly problematic for what Allen insists we need, which she calls a “maximally strong commitment” to the rights of other people. In fact, Allen frequently deploys a nontheistic argument that transcends the ethics of utilitarianism. She argues that the ongoing engagement with a document such as the Declaration “presupposes in readers a moral sense.” For the Declaration, she writes, “we are all equal in having the capacity to judge…. Indeed, the art of democratic writing demands of its practitioners the aspiration to any and all, for any and all. It is a philanthropic art: it requires affection for humanity.”16

Perhaps prudently, Allen makes two kinds of nontheistic defenses—one minimal and negative, the other maximal and positive. The former rests on the claim that “each of us is capable of participating directly in politics because each of us is the best judge of her own happiness.”17 The latter involves not just a recognition that we should not exclude others but the hope that we might find, in our mutual capacity for participating in politics, a basis for civic friendship and generosity—what Allen calls a “philanthropic art.” A remarkably noble version of that sentiment is embedded in the Declaration itself, in the authors’ willingness to pledge “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”18 

Allen’s discussion of the different grounds, motives, and manners of affirming the Declaration calls to mind Douglass’s own suggestion that education enables us to reflect on various uses of freedom. For Allen, not only does the Declaration serve as the great political statement of human equality with which democratic citizens should be familiar, but the reading of such a text in common, as a core activity of liberal education, forms the basis for flourishing democratic citizenship. The universal capacity to judge, which Allen rightly sees as the basis of equality, entails our ability to pose questions, especially questions rooted in wonder, in the pondering of the meaning and purpose of human life—what W. E. B. DuBois, echoing Socrates, calls the “riddle of existence.”

Allen ends with a plea for a renewal, and an expanded understanding, of civics education. She finds it “astonishing that reading of the Declaration is so infrequent,” and puts forth a “modest proposal” that such an assignment be incorporated into every high school curriculum. That in itself will not cure all that ails our public life but there are, she concedes, “no silver bullets for the problem of civility in our political life” and “no panaceas for educational reform.”19 Allen’s approach to civics differs in an important way from the traditional names-and-dates approach: for her, the reading in common of a seminal text is crucial. Put simply, it is a matter of civics as part of liberal education.   

Allen directly confronts the blatant contradiction between the words of the Declaration and its authors’ own behavior, especially the owning of slaves and the condoning of the practice of slavery. The hypocritical tension between words and actions, she argues, does not undermine the moral power of the text; indeed, the Confederates took the text at face value and thought it needed correcting. She also introduces the notion of a “script” that enables political agents to realize ideals. A script responds to the question “How do we bring this goal, which we affirm, into being in our actual political lives?” In some cases, conditions make it difficult if not impossible for an ideal to be fully enacted.

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Classroom at the A.M.E. Zion school in Charleston S.C., among the first schools for the children of freed slaves. Sketch: Alfred A. Waud, 1866

Allen’s view of the hypocrisy and moral culpability of the founders—and later generations of Americans—is certainly compatible with the scathing assessment of America found in Douglass’s famous address “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?,” delivered in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. Douglass begins and ends on notes of hope and praises America’s defining document, the Declaration of Independence, albeit with a blunt assessment about the gap between vision and reality: “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” Douglass brings down an Old Testament judgment on a nation that has failed to live up to its ideals of righteousness and—what is worse—remains in danger of settling into a self-congratulatory complacency.  

Douglass’s own education and his mastery of the arts of language provide him with the capacity to read and to see, to judge, and to speak. That curricular readings of the Declaration, as of other seminal texts, can generate an indeterminate number and type of interpretations underscores the “unpredictable impact of traditional liberal education.” To whatever degree many on the right and the left might be wedded to the notion, the reading, interpretation of, and response to a set of texts are not a “political drug with predictable effects.”20

Both Douglass and Allen connect education to the arts of language, without which we cannot have access to the stories that have shaped our lives. Douglass includes among the great injustices of slavery that it deprives slaves of their own backstories—including, in many cases, knowing the identity of their parents or the date and location of their own birth. Hannah Arendt, one of the twentieth century’s great analysts and critics of totalitarianism, traces the crisis of education to an erosion of stories. Without a story, she notes, there can be no proper political life.21 Being without the telling of stories means being without tradition, “which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is.” Without this, “there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it.”22 The result is oblivion, a collective failure of memory in which no story provides the “willed continuity.”23

Hannah Arendt 1933

Hannah Arendt

Arendt detects a paradox regarding equality in the arena of education. In the world of politics, we act among adults as equals, but education presupposes a certain inequality between the teachers and those who are taught.24 For the child, Arendt writes, the teacher “assumes responsibility for the world” and serves as “a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.”25 Yet the tendency in a democracy is to “equalize all things and persons and thus to erase the difference between young and old,… particularly between pupils and teachers.”26 For Arendt, this becomes a misplaced and dangerous application of the teaching of the Declaration regarding natural equality. To better understand this notion we need to see a bit more clearly what Arendt means by education. “Education,” she writes, 

is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.27

This passage packs a lot, not the least of which is Arendt’s disdain for the pedagogical policy that seems like liberation to some—namely, leaving children on their own and unequipped to discern for themselves the difference between the enduring and the evanescent. Instead of allowing students to envision and create something new, it leaves them void of resources on which to build their lives and on which to base a shared public life. Leaving youth to their own resources assumes that they do not really need education, that they do not need to be led forth into freedom, as the etymology of education indicates. It presupposes a consumerist model of education in which students choose from a panoply of options, akin to choosing clothes or phones. It essentially deprives them of the aspiration for anything higher than material comfort and contemporary conceptions of success. That may be a form of equality but is one that permits only a shallow conception of human aspiration and a truncated vision of human dignity. Moreover, it occludes from view the possibility that education, which certainly inculcates pragmatic skills, can liberate the human soul in the pursuit of human flourishing. As Frederick Douglass eloquently puts it, “To properly teach is to induce man’s potential and latent greatness, to discover and develop the noblest, highest, and best that is in him,” and to unfold and strengthen “the powers of the human soul.”28

Of course, there are many ways for adults to hand down what is worthy of study from the past; there is no single, perpetually fixed canon. Denying students an encounter with the past deprives them of the rich vocabulary they need to understand and articulate contemporary narratives—about themselves and about others.


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