The Soul of a Nation: educating in America

In light of the widespread agitation on college and university campuses, I thought it worthwhile to share these few lines from The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, (Pickwick, 2015).

Our campuses were once – and not too long ago – the crown of our American civilization: we believed that they were not places merely for the privileged few, even as we recognized that living a part of one’s young adulthood in living the intellectual life – in pursuit of the beautiful, the true, and the good – was a great privilege, indeed.

We understood that, even if university is not “for” everyone, the kind of society we wanted to be could not long survive without a major national commitment to keeping spaces open for and dedicated to the unfettered and undistracted exploration of the arts and sciences, in which cogency of argument was the only coin, all thought was free, and every idea fair game – and we acted on our understanding.


Thus conceived and dedicated, our campuses were not only the crown of our civilization: they were the envy of the free world.

We live in fraught and fearful times, but they are neither more fraught, nor more fearful than others that have faced us, over which we have conquered. I know that if we heed Edward R. Murrow’s advice, and dig deep in our doctrine, we shall find we are not descended from fearful men:

If undistracted thinking about problems that commonly occur to human beings may be taken as the end (or one of the ends, at least) of higher education, then the founding of such an institution or institutions may be understood to have been taken with a view to precisely this end. The decision of a given political community to found a college or university, will therefore at least arguably tell us something about the kind of people they understand themselves, or aspire, to be. in his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, John adams discusses the early Massachusetts settlers’ decision to found a college:

“They were convinced, by their knowledge of human nature, derived from history and their own experience, that nothing could preserve their posterity from the encroachments of. . .tyranny. . . but knowledge diffused generally through the whole body of the people. Their civil and religious principles, therefore, conspired to prompt them to use every measure and take every precaution in their power to propagate and perpetuate knowledge. for this purpose they laid very early the foundations of colleges, and invested them with ample privileges and emoluments.”

It is true that Adams conceives the tyrannical threat to be concretely located in the systems of canon and feudal law. While this cannot be irrelevant to any argument, such as the present one, which would place adams in precisely the tradition of inquiry that produced those two systems, neither does it defeat the thesis. for reasons that will become clear as the work progresses, discussion of how and why the fact itself does not foreclose the argument, must nevertheless wait until the fourth chapter.

Presently at stake is the political import—the theoretical significance—of colonists’ decision to found colleges. The importance of this is further attested in the following lines from his Dissertation:

“We have a right to [liberty], derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood. And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, had given them understanding, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees, for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys, and trustees.”

With regard to Cavell’s search for a tradition of thinking in America, we can say, in light of this passage, that it was quite literally present at the creation, say, at the foundation, of those political societies, which came to call themselves American. We can further see how the conceptual space called America characteristically has this dedication to undistracted thinking about questions of order.

Said shortly, education, and especially higher education, was in America education in citizenship. American citizenship was citizenship in a free society, so that education in America was education in and for freedom. This commitment has remained a characteristic of higher education in America until very recently, and remains an idea with considerable purchase, even in the present day, when much of what passes for higher education seems to be little more than rote job training and skill-acquisition exercise. If we accept, for the sake of argument, that this is the case, and that higher education as workforce preparation is the genuine present of the educational project in America, then the question arises as to whether—and if so, then how and to what extent—that project is still related to its american original, or whether there has been a break. – Soul of a Nation, 62-63

Perhaps I ought to have added there that, in addition to education as training – indeed, before education as training – education has in many places become essentially indoctrination. I do not mean this in to be a complaint – not in the usual sense of the term, anyway – but as a statement of fact: there is and always has been and likely always will be a “campus orthodoxy”; only until recently, it was there to be challenged (along with the risks inherent in and attendant upon every challenge of every established orthodoxy).

The difference, it seems to me, is in the mode and manner in which such challenge is brought: when the orthodoxy is not established by consensus with argument behind it, but by mere assertion predicated on prohibition of inquiry, the only challenge possible is an active and a positive one; when the purpose of the orthodoxy is not to establish a framework within which investigation of truth can take place, but to proscribe opinion and prohibit inquiry (as happens on the “secular” campus with regard to certain areas of contention and on the Catholic campus with regard to certain others), the activist posture and comportment of students will be a measure of the success of the program of indoctrination.

What we want is a student with a an infant’s unguardedness before the world, a toddler’s tenacity in questioning, a child’s spirit of wonder, an adolescent’s willingness to take risks, and a man’s willingness to stand and be pummelled for a worthy cause.

Such creatures are rare, indeed, and are almost always more the product of art than mere nature: they are costly to make, but the want of them is more dear, still.

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