Palladium Archive: Liberal Education Is Applied History
Our approach to education is reproducing society’s worst neuroses. The alternative isn’t institutional reform, but a different consciousness.
As college students across the United States return home for Thanksgiving, the question of what—and maybe even if —they are learning is on everybody’s mind. The post-pandemic student cohort entering the university system has been plagued by a low level of preparedness. While it’s easy to ascribe it to a lack of personal initiative, the failures are mostly institutional and cannot be solely ascribed to the pandemic. After all, test scores have been falling for years.
A pertinent Palladium article by Stephen Pimentel and managing editor Ash Milton comes to mind. The reason that we are failing our young is because we have forgotten the intent behind the structures meant to educate them. Education today does not cultivate students eager to learn, become self-sufficient, or improve the society around them.
To understand what went wrong and why, we have to examine the actual origin of our education system, which has its roots in the medieval university. While its multidisciplinary ethos encouraged the development of a young person, rigorous cultivation was meant to begin much earlier. For example, in colonial America Thomas Jefferson was tasked with the education of his nephew after the boy’s father died. From their letters we can see an educational standard almost impossible to find today in universities, let alone self or “remote”-instruction:
Jefferson’s first criterion for Carr was that he should “encourage all [his] virtuous dispositions…and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise as a limb of the body does.” He advised Carr to begin his studies with ancient Greece and Rome, “reading everything in the original and not in translations.” Carr’s studies were then to move on to Greek, Latin, and English poetry. In philosophy, the young man was to read Plato and Cicero. Jefferson also encouraged him to master Spanish and French: Spanish, for its practical value in the Americas, and French, because later studies in mathematics, natural science, and modern history were all to be conducted in that tongue.
In addition to bookwork, Carr was to exercise for two hours each day, not by playing ball games, “which stamp no character on the mind,” but in a more practical manner: “I advise the gun,” wrote Jefferson. Young Carr was to make his gun “the constant companion of [his] walks” while building up a high level of fitness through walking. Muskets in the 1780s generally weighed about ten pounds.
Jefferson’s ideas for the proper education of a rising elite were normal for the era. The curriculum he proposed to his nephew had its roots in the studia humanitatis, or “study of humanity,” launched by the scholar and poet Petrarch and his humanist contemporaries during the Italian Renaissance. Working in early-fourteenth century Italy and France amid decadent universities and turbulent regimes, Petrarch pursued his famous revival of classical Greco-Roman letters in culture and education both through his own writing and by creating a network of collaborators across Europe. He wanted to create a fellowship of learned men with interests spanning philosophy, literature, and politics, along with influential patrons who could fund and promote his work. Over the next century, this network connected dozens of ruling courts and universities, first in Italy, then all of Europe.
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A holistic vision of education does not begin with achieving standardized benchmarks. Instead, it is the attainment of a virtuous disposition that justifies one’s privileged status. University education was a method of cultivating a sense of elite responsibility, and until that high moral expectation returns we should only expect subpar academic results.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
Why We Need the Center for Strategic Translation by Tanner Greer. The American Governance Foundation is launching a new institution to help American decision makers understand China.
What Everyone Got Wrong on the Brazilian Elections by Avetis Muradyan. Brazil’s 2022 election pitted the pro-Lula Northeast against the Bolsonarist South. The conflict between regions goes back centuries. Brazil’s political future depends on resolving it.
The Mirage of European Sovereignty by Miquel Vila. Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi dreamed of a united Europe led by a new spiritual aristocracy. Known today as the EU’s grandfather, his dream is largely forgotten.
I Don’t Want to Be an Internet Person by Ginevra Davis. I went to a rave hosted by the Milady NFT project and met its enigmatic creator. I came away from it fearing the human cost of our internet-obsessed culture.
Institutional Reforms Built the British Empire by Davis Kedrosky. At the dawn of the early modern period, elite-driven transformations in law and political economy primed Britain to become one of the most powerful, industrialized empires ever known.
That’s all for now.