by Sam Buntz
“Rabbi Zusya said, ‘When I die, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I will be asked ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” – Martin Buber
In the contemporary liberal approach to education, the contribution of the past—the statements of Church Fathers and Founding Fathers and the assorted “Dead White Men” who dominated the cultural history of Europe and America—doesn’t particularly matter. The goodness of the individual is, to some degree, assumed—the student just needs a little prodding and molding, helping him or her to get the facts straight. With gentle social engineering—making sure, for instance, that people understand that racism and sexism are wrong (and they are wrong, certainly; that part of the approach is admirable) and de-conditioning them from their acquired habits as consumerists (less possible and less admirable)— you can ultimately live in a world that is very close to a utopia. If you can correct the social code just a little bit (or even quite radically), you can ultimately nudge (or shove) society as whole towards making all the right choices, the assumption being that the well-educated people doing the nudging (or shoving) already know what the right choices are. The liberal uses reason as a tool for planning or re-imagining the shape of society. He or she (in the purity of theory) does not necessarily depend on a comparative analysis of societal or cultural shapes from the past, attempting to use them as models. One ought to generate the model entirely through the application of reason and empirical knowledge, detached from prior institutional or cultural frameworks. Emerson referred to such liberals as comprising “The Party of Hope.”
The conservative approach to education is obviously totally different, almost the inverse. At its worst, it takes the form of mental slavery to one ancient Book of Books or one unchangeable code—but, at its best, it involves an intense attempt to absorb and master the storehouse of acquired wisdom, putting the best that has already been thought and said into action. Rather than vesting their hopes in a better future they can nudge people towards, the conservative puts his or her expectations into shared cultural memory. Like Emerson said, the conservative is a member of “The Party of Memory.” Frequently, however, this does not mean that memory is the key to liberating human beings—using knowledge of our origins to spark us into a fresh awareness of our present condition. Rather, the conservative often means that we should be utterly obedient to tradition. The strictures of a St. Augustine or the most original and verifiable sayings of a Final Prophet (without the tradition’s later refinements and interpretations) end up being the last and unquestioned guides for human conduct.
Of course, for myself, neither of these positions is acceptable. I do agree with the basic, conservative idea that an education should center on an awareness of one’s past and one’s origins—but I don’t view that knowledge, knowledge of “The Tradition”, as something that should be completely (or even rather less completely) binding. The point of knowing the tradition—of understanding the forces that shaped yourself and your society—is not to then slavishly offer one’s self to those forces. Tradition is not something you obey—it’s something with which you match wits. You are to absorb it utterly—to take every bit of wisdom it offers you, and to know its folly and its un-wisdom, as well. While the liberal thinks that a good or truly new idea can only emerge from the present and instantaneous application of reason and empiricism, and the conservative thinks that a good or new idea can only be a resuscitated old idea, the third stance—which I consider a sort of Classical Liberal position—is to believe that a good or truly new idea can (and must) come into existence, but that it can only be fertilized in the soil of time—in the richness left by old ideas and insights, now possibly decayed, but still containing the ingredients needed to incubate a new realization, a new conquest of reality.
If one tries to dispel the specter of the past entirely, one reaches the extreme touched by the Bolsheviks or by Pol Pot, who tried to start the calendar over at Year One. Attempting to use reason, without granting it access to the material of the cultural and political past, they ended up with an utterly monstrous society. Consequently, were someone to attempt to dispense with the entirety of civilized Western or civilized Islamic thought—to live only in a medieval Catholic feudal order, or to live by the fundamentals of the Koran, as the Salafists do, without the aid of the entire history of Islamic jurisprudence to moderate one’s interpretation—one also ends up with something that would, by any humane moral and ethical standard, look pretty monstrous and absurd.
The Past Masters’ understanding and wisdom—from whatever cultural tradition—looms up as an affront to one’s own. You see how much value the Canon has inside of it, and you—if you’re a person who can appreciate Genius and greatness when you see them—feel humbled. But you also feel re-energized—the more you study, the more you notice things that seem off, that seem half-reasoned or discredited. You begin to sense your own competence, your own ability to digest and assimilate these ideas, and develop a viewpoint peculiar to yourself. As Paul Valery said (in a quote cited in another recent blog post—one I wrote on Bob Dylan), “A lion is made from digested sheep.” Ultimately, the student—by which I mean any person questing for understanding, to know the true and the good—deals with the same heady realizations that challenged the Masters and Matrons of the past, the same sense of an inner power rising up, provoked by the apprehension of external greatness, of Genius. In “As I Sat on Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Walt Whitman expressed this in a profound and highly memorable passage:
“I will confront these shows of the day and night,
I will know if I am to be less than they,
I will see if I am not as majestic as they,
I will see if I am not as subtle and real as they,
I will see if I am to be less generous than they,
I will see if I have no meaning, while the houses and ships have meaning,
I will see if the fishes and birds are to be enough for themselves,
and I am not to be enough for myself.
“I match my spirit against yours you orbs, growths, mountains, brutes,
Copious as you are I absorb you all in myself, and become the master
“America isolated yet embodying all, what is it finally except myself?
These States, what are they except myself?
I know now why the earth is gross, tantalizing, wicked—it is for my sake,
I take you specially to be mine, you terrible, rude forms.”