The Compass Rose: Explorations in Thought

Category: 2018 Issue

The Way to Virtue

By Jin Jin

Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience provide distinct answers to one question: what does it take to become virtuous? From their answers, I find that the two authors have fundamentally different views of human nature. Emerson holds that human nature is independent, harmonious, and free. Therefore, one can find the way to virtue by being self-reliant. On the contrary, Thoreau insinuates that human nature is dependent, chaotic, and slavish. Therefore, virtue relies on being in opposition to external authorities and imperfect conditions.


Emerson argues that self-reliance is a necessary condition for one to become virtuous, so “trust thyself” (50), for the way towards virtue is “wholly strange and new,” original, untaken, and unique to every individual (66). Without self-reliance, one cannot find her or his own path towards virtue, and one’s own path is the only path. To follow a path without

Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson

self-reliance is to imitate or to conform, which is not a way to virtue but “a deliverance which does not deliver” (50). Emerson’s argument could invite two potential misinterpretations, which I find worth debating at length and contrasting with Thoreau’s. One misinterpretation is that self-reliance is an apolitical, anti-social, or isolationist way of life. The other misinterpretation creates a dichotomy between principle and practice. It is a false presumption that if virtue is not relative to individual preferences, then there must be a common practice for everyone to become virtuous when the external conditions are equal.

To be self-reliant means to seek for nothing outside oneself (Emerson 47n1). It requires one to live courageously amidst reality, and to work on the “plot of ground” that providence has given to that person (50). Following this definition, I must say that Emerson’s self-reliant man is not apolitical. He does not exclude himself from the society. He does not misconceive his own or human significance, nor does he isolate himself in absolute solitude, for the self-reliant man lives a life in accordance with his nature, in acceptance of his human condition and his time (50). Thus, a self-reliant person does not measure his significance according to external references; his virtue does not depend on how much he struggles against the external environment that is always imperfect. Such a person is great, for he keeps the “independence of solitude” while living a life “in the midst of the crowd” in harmony (55). By recognizing human capacity and greatness of such harmony, Emerson implies that it is facile to determine whether a man is self-reliant just by looking at external references, such as what he does as a job, how much money he makes, or whether he is persecuted unjustly (cf. Thoreau 135; 151; and 149).

In contrast, Thoreau finds it hard to harmonize the way to virtue with a life in the society, for “there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men” (140). In the absence of that harmony, Thoreau demands “at once a better government” and a better vision shared by the masses (133, emphasis in original). If those are not attainable, then one should choose to live an isolated and apolitical life (146). In Emerson’s terms, those demands do not demonstrate self-reliance, but reliance and “a poor external way of speaking” (67).

Henry David Thoreau

Emerson acknowledges that the society is the natural environment for human beings, which is always imperfect and not always in our control. One cannot live without the society because “no man can violate his nature” (58). When social changes take place, “for every thing that is given, something is taken” (77). Social progress is a moving image, if not human delusion, that does not alter the form of society (79). Thus, one is not being self-reliant by holding on to the wishful thinking that men are capable of perfecting everything in their society, or that people would become virtuous after external conditions are made perfect. If self-reliance is indeed necessary for virtue, then those wishful imaginations, even in good will, cannot lead to virtue.

Regarding the second misinterpretation—the dichotomy between perennial principles and ever-changing practices—I find that virtue is not relative in Emerson’s terms, but the path towards virtue ought to be unique and original for every person in accordance with one’s own condition. In the central paragraph of Self-Reliance, Emerson says that “when good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way” (66). Emerson describes, with caution, that the above statement is the “nearest approach” to put his “thought” in words, given that “the highest truth” “probably cannot be said” (66). It occurs to me that Emerson’s caution is grounded in the classical understanding that virtuous people are apt to choose the mean and avoid the excesses, yet the action towards the mean needs to be taken in relation to each person’s own condition (Aristotle 1107a1). In other words, virtue consists both in theoretical understanding and practical judgement, so it seems to be relative if we only consider what each individual does in order to become virtuous. This classical understanding of virtue helps explain Emerson’s claim that the way to virtue “shall exclude example and experience,” for it is a way “from man, not to man” (66).

Emerson “On Character”

Furthermore, self-reliance makes it possible for one to fulfill the meaning, the work, or the telos of life (50). I interpret the meaning of “work” in this context as the telos, because Emerson says that “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”, and advises us to “accept the place the divine providence has found” for us (50). Those words indicate a providential purpose of human life, which is happiness that comes when one is dedicated to and excels at fulfilling their telos—this is the perennial principle. Overall, Emerson’s Self-Reliance reflects the classical understanding that principles and practices are complementary. Virtue enables human beings to achieve happiness, and happiness is the “highest good” of human life (Aristotle 1094a20). Virtue is not relative, but the way to virtue is relative to one’s own condition.

On the contrary, Thoreau is trapped in the false dichotomy of absolute principles and human practices. I say this because Thoreau’s theory of virtue relies on the society to be imperfect, and one’s way to virtue depends not on oneself but on the degree of external imperfectness (145-146). Thoreau asserts that “government is at best but an expedient” that, in most cases, fails to fix society’s supposed distortions, as “the government itself” is vulnerable to human vices, abuses, and perversions (131). In other words, cure is tainted by what it is designed to cure in the first place. Thoreau’s disobedience is not self-reliant; it denies the possibility of self-reliance. For instance, virtue is, “absolutely speaking,” a dependent variable, “the more money, the less virtue.” Thoreau asserts that it is because virtue is not required to earn money, but money, as an expedient, removes the “moral ground” from a man and makes virtue unnecessary (151). Such an understanding of virtue depends on external conditions.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, away from corrupting society

Cleverness in rhetoric notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Thoreau is happy. As Thoreau divines that virtue cannot sustain itself and is vulnerable in front of material or external conditions, his conception is a chaotic one that loses sight of human telos and lands on dual-excesses of pride and abasement. Following Thoreau’s conception, virtue becomes groundless when a person’s life is expedient or when there is an abundance of “means” for him. The more affluently a person lives, the less willingness he has towards the good (151-152). The presupposed dichotomy between virtue and wealth in Thoreau’s argument implies that he denies the significance of human choice within the realm of human nature. This argument reflects two extremes that are equally problematic. On one hand, “the best thing” that a rich man can do is to realize the “schemes” he had when he was poor (151). Thoreau underestimates human capacity by insinuating that external and material conditions impose hard limits to human choices and ways to virtue. On the other hand, Thoreau’s own choice to escape and be isolated from the society (146; 156), as well as to declare that the “true place for a just man” under an unjust government is but “a prison” (149), betray that he overestimates human significance by claiming that he, and those who live by his teaching, can live a life that (in Emerson’s view, at any rate) violates human nature (cf. Emerson 58). Altogether, Thoreau’s words reflect one who is overly proud of living ‘above’ human nature and abased by human reliance on external conditions at the same time.

Interestingly, Thoreau is fascinated by the thought of self-reliance. He vehemently criticizes “the American” for its “lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance” (141-142). However, this criticism is directed to a collective identity, as if it can be self-reliant like a person. Contrary to Emerson’s “trust thyself” (50), and the call for us to learn self-reliance from the greatest thinkers who “spoke not what men, but what they thought” (49), Thoreau talks about self-reliance in a way that does not sound like his own thought, but a pre-established concept. In other words, Thoreau accuses his contemporary countrymen for lacking self-reliance without being self-reliant.

One can hardly speak of disobedience without targeting an external object that one disobeys. In Ginga Eiyū Densetsu, a Japanese space opera, there is a small band of democratic militants fighting for their independence and defending their last stronghold against Kaiser Reinhard von Lohengramm, the monarch who rules the rest of the cosmos. They chose a battle cry for their cause: ‘To hell, Kaiser!’ An eccentric pilot among them mumbled with disappointment that “we do not have much independence after all, for we cannot even say our cause without using the word Kaiser.” Being self-reliant and independent can be seen as incompatible with disobedience and grievances, for the idea of disobedience itself is dependent upon something other than self.

In addition, a self-reliant reader values the “sentiment” of texts more than “any thought they may contain” (Emerson 49). Sentiment is individual, for it is inseparable from human nature and the awareness of human individuality, before rationality and conformity take over (51). With that being said, I find that the sentiment in Civil Disobedience drifts further from self-reliance than its thought does. Everywhere I look in Thoreau’s text, I see calculations. There are calculations of force (133-134), of votes (140), and of dollars (154-155; 161-162). But most strikingly, there is this ‘miscalculation’ of thought that could be remedied if Thoreau had been faithful to his claim of self-reliance. In Thoreau’s quotation of Confucius:

Confucius said: “If a State is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame” (Thoreau 153).

My knowledge tells me that it is a misquotation, and the sentiment it conveys is un-Confucian. In my view, it betrays Thoreau’s attempt to support his argument that virtue depends on external circumstances, especially on state power and political institutions. Nothing can be further from Confucius’s thought on this:

Riches and honors are what men desire. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If it cannot be avoided in the proper way, they should not be avoided. If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfill the requirements of that name? (Confucius, The Analects: Li Ren, No. 5).

Ironically, Confucius’ words can be taken as a direct criticism of Thoreau’s dually-excessive view of human nature and his overemphasis of external conditions. Confucius recognizes that worldly and material desires are natural to human beings; a great man can have desires while being virtuous and true to himself. The harmony between worldly and virtuous life reflects the self-reliant way to virtue based on human nature, which is what we find throughout Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

In conclusion, a self-reliant person is independent amidst the crowd. He lives naturally as a social being and he has the capacity to become virtuous through practice. This is an orderly view of human nature. On the contrary, chaotic views cannot define human significance without external reference. Human nature so conceived is in need of external order or nurturing, and by which it can be described as slavish. Such a view demonstrates dual-excesses of pride and servitude, which is everything but self-reliant. As for the way to virtue, Emerson teaches us to “take the way from man, not to man” (66); Thoreau’s way is precisely the latter.

Works Cited


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, second edition. Translated by Terence Irwin. Hackett, 1999.


Confucius. The Analects: Li Ren. Translated by James Legge. Chinese Text Project,


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The American Scholar, Self-Reliance, Compensation, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. American Book Company, 1893, pp. 49-81,


Tanaka, Yoshiki. Ginga Eiyū Densetsu. Tokuma Shoten, 1987.


Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Riverside Edition, Vol. X. Houghton Mifflin, 1893, pp. 131-70,

On the Virtues of Realpolitik Over Just War Theory

By Timothy Jaeger

This essay discusses how when states adhere to realpolitik, it usually breeds peace and happiness, while when they adhere to ideas similar to the Just War Theory, the result is usually pain and suffering. Realpolitik, which prioritizes self-interest and practicality, narrows the focus of the state to anything that can better the position of said state, thus increasing the standards of living and general well-being of the people. In opposition to realpolitik is the Just War Theory, which tend to blur the lines between what is morally just and what is pragmatic, leading to policies that only serve to worsen the nation and the people. It is preferable to balance both self-interest and morality, but at the end of the day, self-interest, and thus realpolitik, can ensure a state’s survival.

In a world of competing interests, where a loyal ally today can be a mortal enemy tomorrow, it is of the utmost necessity to ensure that a strong state leads its citizens through the struggles of everyday life. Only through the strength of the state can a people be secure in their everyday lives. Without it, there will be no one to protect the people from their fellow man. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes spoke of this in his famed work Leviathan by saying that, “Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (Hobbes 185). His “war…of every man against every man” is what mankind would find itself in if the power of the state did not sustain civilization. Without a leader capable of effective leadership, then the whole of man would descend in chaos, death, and suffering. With that knowledge, we can see the true necessity of the state, but what of the capabilities of its ruler? How should he rule? How should he use the power that his position bestows upon him? Knowing that if he falters and proves himself weak, his people will revolt and overthrow the government, catapulting man back into a war of man against man, a ruler must exert his authority in a merciless yet calculated manner as to not provoke the anger of his advisors or especially his constituents.

The brilliant father of Realpolitik, Niccoló Machiavelli, made a famous proclamation in his work, The Prince, that, “it is far better to be feared than to be loved if you cannot have both” (Machiavelli 54). Power is maintained through the use of fear. Only very rarely is that ubiquitous rule ever broken. The brief reign of Julius Caesar is the only one that comes to mind. Machiavelli further describes the apparent virtue of fear as opposed to love by stating that “love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men…break when it is to their advantage to do so” (Machiavelli 54) as compared to fear which, “is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (Machiavelli 54). A leader cannot be bothered to deal with morality and love as politics is a loveless profession. Every time a leader caters to pleas of supposed morality, it ends up with the ruin of the leader and thus the state simply because of the inherent fact that promises, especially if they’re based on the principle of love, are absolutely meaningless and, as Machiavelli proclaimed, can be broken at any time that is to their advantage. In this instance, a leader should avoid making promises based on morality, because it only serves to undermine the authority of the leader and empower his enemies, and instead “he must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state” (Machiavelli 51). He need not fear vice because if it is in the name of the safety and security of the state then the citizens will come to thank him later.

When dealing with matters relating to the affairs of foreign governments, the same policy that is used on the home front is to be utilized in the same fashion. As in the case of safeguarding the state, the self-interest of the nation is of the utmost priority. In this same fashion, a leader must not concern himself with morality in dealing with his enemies. A state in the context of international affairs cannot deal with issues of morality that do not directly affect the security and prosperity of the state, especially since multiple actors are involved, all armed with the same goals and agendas. Logically speaking, it is the safe assumption of a state that every other state, if given the opportunity, would erase you from the map. Looking at the world from any other perspective would be both dangerously naïve and foolish since, according to John J. Mearsheimer, looking “from the perspective of any one great power, all other great powers are potential enemies” (Mearsheimer 32). In an anarchic world, as Mearsheimer describes it, it is to the great benefit of the state to act selfishly and be fearful of other states and their intentions. Nevertheless, alliances between two or more states should not be deterred, but in fact be greatly encouraged if it is in the interest of the state to do so but should never be seen as a permanent ordeal. As for any dealings within the realm of international affairs, a sobering dose of realism should precede any and all decisions made, especially with regards with humanitarian issues as, “most states are rarely willing to expend blood and treasure to protect foreign populations from gross abuses, including genocide” (Mearsheimer 47). It would be illogical for a country to involve itself in the affairs of foreign nations if it did not seek to benefit from it somehow, either in physical loot or in international praise.

Within the Just War Theory, Jean Elshtain proclaims “that war may be resorted to in order to preserve or achieve peace” (Elshtain 57) but that alone cannot be the sole motive. The resulting peace must prove itself as a useful advantage to the state, otherwise what would be the point of achieving it? If not, then perhaps the violence is not worth the time and effort of the state for a state’s ambitions and subsequent actions reflect the underlying will to power and domination over all other states. Now, as according to Thomas Hobbes, peace is the ultimate goal of a society since it is in the interests of no one to be dragged back into the state of nature, and so any measure must be taken to be able to adequately support that peace when it comes under attack. Some of the time, that means, war is indeed necessary if that fragile peace that man has constructed is under assault by the forces of evil. However, that does not mean defensive wars are always waged. To assume so would be a sheer ignorance of history. In the past, it was in a state’s nature to expand and a major goal of states was to establish a form of government that was favorable to expansion. As Machiavelli states in his Discourses on Livy, “there is need to think of the more honorable part and to order it so that if indeed necessity brings it to expand, it can conserve what it has seized” (Machiavelli 23). The key word said throughout that passage is necessity. Necessity forces the hand of many great civilizations into decisions they normally would never commit, expansion being a possibility. However, if a state has an opportunity to expand to become an empire, should it? It would most obviously be in its self-interest not only to acquire more areas of influence but also to acquire the means to sustain it. And the ability to wage war in order to hold on to what a state has acquired is such a means. Now what Just War Theorists would possibly say is the following: imperialism such as this would create a system of never ending wars over territory and plunge man back to the state of nature, and this is a valid point. When it is said that states act in their own self-interest, war is not the only solution. Much of the time, peace and mercy is to a state’s advantage, especially in the modern, interconnected world, as it improves their image and reputation abroad which subsequently opens a state to new opportunities as cooperation improves. However, prudence must always be observed when dealing with foreign states. Cooperation may be to one’s benefit in the short-term but it is not within the nature of states to maintain cooperation when it is no longer in their interest.

As with relations with the outside world as well as within a state’s borders, political decisions cannot be excessively plagued, if at all, with issues of morality. This is the foundation to the political philosophy of realpolitik. There is, however as is briefly mentioned earlier, an alternative look at international affairs called the Just War Theory that bases its ideas on moral judgements and righteousness. An early proponent of this theory was the Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas who proposed three prerequisites for a declaration of war. They were: that war is declared by “the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged”, it is declared for “a just cause”, and “the belligerents should have a rightful intention” (Aquinas). While the justifications Aquinas sets before us appear rather straight-forward and rational, their is considerable vagueness regarding exactly what constitutes just causes and rightful intentions. It is with this vagueness that exposes the cracks in his methodology and prompts malevolent interpretations, the most heinous recent example being Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs. It has all of the necessary and “just” requirements to be a “just war” in the definition of Aquinas: Duterte surely had the necessary authority, as his being President should explain. He has a just cause in the fact that he has the notion, with the utmost rigor, that drugs are an evil scourge on his country, and equates all who possess them on the same level Aquinas would think of the most egregious sinner, and thus need to be removed. In addition to the just cause, he has a most just cause: the eradication of a perceived evil in his country that threatens to tear it apart. He does not seek the destruction of his society. Instead he seeks peace in a Philippines that is free of drugs. Yet under his campaign, “More than 12,000 suspected drug users and dealers, mostly from poor families in urban centers across the country, are estimated to have died in the ‘drug war,’ including an estimated 4,000 during operations led by the police and the remainder by ‘unidentified gunmen.’” (Human Rights Watch) Most would consider that abhorrent and repulsive but in the eyes of Aquinas’ requirements for a just war, it touches on every major point. An encouragement of vigilante justice and arbitrary rule of law only seek to destroy the foundations of functioning society because once something like murder is justified in the name of the common good, then theoretically anything can.

Obviously, in this fallen world of ours, we feel a moral need to do good and promote justice wherever the reaches of our nation provide us. However, it is not always practical to achieve or even stride for what most would consider just or moral if the basic needs of the state are not met. If I was in the shoes of a leader, I would do my best to promote and inspire hope and justice but knowing full well that there will be times where I would have to compromise in order to keep the state and society afloat. That does not mean we cannot promote what we would want to be a reality, but we must stay vigilant to what is happening in the world around us because while we may dream of a better world, it does not mean that there aren’t forces out there that exist only to crush it.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica., 2010.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Just War Theory. New York University Press, 2004.

Hobbes, Thomas, and C.B Macpherson. Leviathan. Penguin Group, 1985.

Machiavelli, Niccolo, and Harvey Claflin. Mansfield. Discourses on Livy. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Penguin Classics, 2003.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

“Philippines: Duterte’s ‘Drug War’ Claims 12,000+ Lives.” Human Rights Watch, 18 Jan. 2018,

Understanding in Education

By Thomas Kazakoff

Individuals who attend university are faced with a multitude of varied challenges once they leave the comforts of academia. The function of any university is purportedly to provide persons with the skills to confront these obstacles, and overcome them, resulting in financial success. This rudimentary understanding of universities is promoted in public education, which underestimates the greater potential of a university experience. Rather than merely equipping outgoing students with practical job skills that lead to individual happiness, universities have the potential to serve as a communal beacon for understanding and collective knowledge. This discrepancy in the function of higher education institutions underlines a challenge in understanding the differences between three central forms of education: civic, liberal and political. A civic education instills the virtues of the state into potential citizens, allowing them to become good citizens. A liberal education aims for a holistic understanding of individuals, articulating what it means to be a good human being. A political education enables those with a liberal education to extend their understanding to others, developing a greater body of knowledge with the goal of fostering a prosperous community of motivated individuals with whom to grow and discuss. This expanded notion of universities is often not achieved, and it is threatened by a multitude of factors both internal and external.

Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, recounts his experience in the changing landscape of universities throughout the nineteen sixties as a teacher at Cornell, identifying a central failing in the accommodating trends of universities. Michael Oakeshott observes a failing of universities with respect to the form of political education. Oakeshott explains that the general empirical, positivist rendition of political education presented in universities forgoes a nuanced understanding of political action. This misaligns political education to strictly practical ends, obscuring the larger communal “truth” oriented goals. Kenneth Minogue notes similar concerns in his work, The Concept of a University, expressing doubt about the function of the modern university. He suggests that universities have strayed from the path of “truth”, failing to put the “theory into practice.” This is similar to Bloom’s worries, but differs in content, while reviewing the evolution of the social and practical functions of universities. The three authors demonstrate a passion for all three forms of education, emphasizing the cohesion needed to fulfill the potential of a comprehensive education. This education is functionally administered through discussions and questioning, by and from students as well as educators. The experience of questioning is the modus operandi of fostering education and is primarily useful for political education. A thorough understanding of how best to provide students with engaging questions furthers our understanding of political education, and how it maximizes civic and liberal education to their fullest potential.

Imparting knowledge to students should not be understood as merely providing a checklist of facts to be regurgitated. Rather, one needs to guide intelligent discussion and foster thought provoking insights. This furthers the ultimate goal of building a thriving political community. The process of answering and then providing questions for students to consider is the linchpin in developing this political community as it allows students to develop their own insights. However, the difficulty lies in assessing what students are struggling to understand because their own questioning may not articulate these issues. Free-form discussion provides the best format to assist students in their development, as its naturalistic, conversational tone allows for comfortable reflection. Additionally, it provides the possibility for fun, something students often complain is lacking after trying to engage in a poor lecture. Discussions engage students in every discipline better than any other method except the most excellent of lectures, and it is especially potent for a political education. Asking questions empowers students with a sense of agency and exploration, while an educator’s questions allow for a natural understanding of concepts. This mirrors classical philosophical discourse, while also grounding discussion in personal interaction which is inherent to all forms of politics. Mastering discussion and questioning allows an educator to maximize liberal education. Universities provide an ample environment in which to develop political education; however, if the university is lacking in quality, it will not be able to achieve this. Allan Bloom notes that while modern universities attempt to provide an education to students through a combination of lecture and communal activities, they fail to achieve their goal: “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines… This democracy is really an anarchy… In short there is no vision… The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him, that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.”[1] Bloom explains that universities originated in the classical Greek tradition of the Academy but have since become divorced from their foundations. The university is modeled after Socratic teachings in an effort to actualize the philosophic experience with a community of motivated individuals. However, the university does not succeed in this goal, and it risks losing its essence as a result: “The philosophic life is not the university. Until the nineteenth century most philosophers had nothing to do with universities, and perhaps the greatest abhorred them. One cannot imagine Socrates as a professor… But Socrates is of the essence of the university.”[2] Bloom recounts his understanding of the modern university to call attention to this problem and its larger implication for students entering higher education.

Bloom articulates his perspective on universities by first explaining how the American culture emphasizes individuality to the point of corrupting civic identity. This idea is explained with reference to Alexis de Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America, which explicates and predicts the effects of democracy on American civic education. Bloom explains that the civic education of America promotes the importance of each individual who regards him or herself as equal to all others. This results in a value system in which everyone’s value is relative in worth only to that individual, making the pursuit of an absolute “truth” difficult to comprehend. Bloom identifies the rampant “celebritism” of individuals who can articulate their worth to others: “Though the values, the horizons, the tables of good and evil that originate in the self cannot be said to be true or false, cannot be derived from the common feeling of mankind or justified by the universal standards of reason, they are not equal, contrary to what vulgar teachers of value theory believe… The individual value of one man becomes the polestar for many others whose own experience provides them with no guidance.”[3] Democracy in America, for Bloom, reinforces mediocrity of both students and educators, as each individual’s value system is considered important, thus resulting in an environment of un-challenging tolerance. This is threatening to the goals of a political education, as the occasional discomfort or “hard talk” serves only to advance the collective understanding of the community. Furthermore, this results in further stratification of individuals rather than bringing them together in a communal atmosphere, ironically contradicting the professed noble intentions of equality: “Simply, the university is not distinctive. Equality for us seems to culminate in the unwillingness and incapacity to make claims of superiority, particularly in the domains in which such claims have always been made… What we see happening in general happened here [in Universities] too; the insistent demand for greater community ended in greater isolation.”[4] Bloom provides an intelligent examination of the structure of the modern university, and how best to avoid furthering the downtrend he laments. Oakeshott, in comparison, discusses the impact of empirical evaluation on political education propagated by mainstream educational systems. Political education, when framed within an empirical perspective, loses its essence and is undervalued.

Political education must encompass more than a reductionist or entirely theoretical account of learning. Oakeshott avoids mischaracterizing politics as merely abstract knowledge or education, instead defining politics from a holistic understanding: “We should not, therefore, seek a definition of politics in order to deduce from it the character of political knowledge and education, but rather observe the kind of knowledge of education which is inherent in any understanding of political activity, and use this observation of improving our understanding of politics.”[5] This comprehensive approach identifies the fallacy of assuming that political activity always precedes political ideology, when in fact, the opposite can be true. Political ideology is derived from the understanding of concepts that must be discussed and investigated at length to gain a complete comprehension. Empirically deriving political ideology exclusively from empirical observation negates this cumulative understanding, and misconstrues political activity as being purely ideologically motivated. Analyzing political activity is not without merit or worth; it should be avoided when it is practiced exclusively, as opposed to doing so in conjunction with ideological analysis. Understanding the nature of political activity engages the student in sympathy, a necessary process for those who aspire to effectively demonstrate their political thinking. Oakeshott is concerned about devaluing political activity through empirical investigation, advocating for a balance between qualitative and quantitative investigation. The relationship between political ideology and political activity should be understood holistically, and in education should be communicated as such. Oakeshott elucidates the importance of this relationship, highlighting the necessity of considering viewpoints outside of one’s traditional political thinking: “The fruits of political education will appear in the manner in which we think and speak about politics and perhaps in the manner in which we conduct our political activity… The more profound our understanding of political activity, the less we shall be at the mercy of plausible but mistaken analogy… the more thoroughly we understand our own political tradition, the more readily its whole resources are available to us.”[6] Oakeshott’s essay warns of the danger of limiting one’s understanding of political thought through any one framework, challenging political education to utilize multiple methods.

Minogue develops his understanding of the university by demonstrating the inherent differences between general education, society, and the rise of the notion of the practical worth of a university education. Universities are limited by the societal understanding of their practical worth; university is viewed as merely a stage of life that will prepare the student for the rest of his career. Minogue maintains that this perspective corrupts the quality of universities by shifting their priorities from the understanding of knowledge to societal concerns: “For all views that the university does or ought to serve ‘society,’ that it ought to be the instrument of something external to the academic world, are devices for denying academic independence, and for imposing alien values upon it.” This emphasis on the practical value of a university misconstrues the purpose of academic learning, lessening both the quality of the students engaging in education and the educators fostering it. The educator becomes focused on the quantity of research output, rather than quality, and limits their understanding of knowledge by modeling their lectures on efficiency. The student, therefore, is not given a proper opportunity to engage in the communal understanding of the material because the format of his/her path is limited by the societal goals set for the university. Minogue explains that the student enters the university knowing virtually nothing, necessitating the need for excellent questioning, and excellent answers: “The undergraduate is a Socrates, whose wisdom consists in the fact that he knows nothing. He is therefore a questioner; nor does he stop at a first question, but as an exposition proceeds he must be a continual questioner… even the most corrupt undergraduate… cannot help, by the tasks which his presence involves, going some small way to maintaining academic vitality.”[7] Minogue identifies this problem not to condemn the worth of practical experience, but to highlight its discordance with academic investigation.

He elucidates this through the use of an extended metaphor involving a society contained in a single house. The “House” has many “Rooms” dedicated to the production of food, religious worship, and academia. The “Academic Room” collects objects to retain knowledge from the past, reviews literature, and hosts teaching sessions for the young and interested. This initial group of students are descended from the wise members of the “House” who see the worth in an independent “Room” dedicated to knowledge. Eventually the people who regularly inhabit all of the others “Rooms” of the “House” begin to expect their children to attend the “Academic Room”, in order to attain the associations of intelligence and worth given to those who attend the “Academic Room”. Furthermore, they expect the “Room” that adjudicates polices that govern the whole “House” to begin drafting policy on the “Academic Room”, ensuring it will facilitate these larger societal goals. Minogue’s metaphor demonstrates that the goals of a civic education, when put into practice, change the nature of the liberal education to fit its description, justified through an already corrupt political education possessed by the citizens of the “House” through their understanding of their individual political thinking: “…the Academic Room in the House has become crowded with a new collection of people who do not quite understand what the point of the room is. They are half impressed by what they have found, but a little baffled also… They believe the Room is out of date and in need of a shakeup. If they get their way, they will have made the Academic Room indistinguishable from the rest of the house.”[8] Minogue recognizes the importance of the university as a distinct institution, capable of achieving its goals when unhindered by the interests of the larger societal body. Furthermore, Minogue recognizes that the university must avoid ideological mandates, or risk committing the same errors as the rest of the “House”. The independent liberal education provided in academia is distinct in its pursuit of “truth” and thus must be left unbothered by larger societal concerns.  The university can only hope to guide society through its understanding of knowledge.

It is clear that a delicate balance must be maintained between a civic, liberal and political education. Bloom articulates his understanding of the university to reinforce the importance of challenging students who enter the communal discussion, ensuring a truly diverse political community, and ultimately, superior citizens. Oakeshott notes that a comprehensive understanding of politics in academia results in the best understanding of political thought, as opposed to a strictly empirical or theological perspective. Minogue’s writings demonstrate an understanding of both these works, supporting the need for an independent education system to ensure the best liberal education through the articulation of the best political education. A good civic education naturally follows the proper implementation of liberal and political educations, as citizens are guided by the knowledge of the community of unconstrained academics. The improvement of society is necessarily tied to the development of an understanding of its own nature. Universities must continue to maintain their independent pursuit of knowledge, or face assimilation into the important, but ultimately misaligned, realm of civic education.

[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 337.

[2] Ibid, 272.

[3] Ibid, 200-201.

[4] Ibid. 337-338.

[5] Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in politics and other essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 42.

[6] Ibid, 66.

[7] Kenneth Minogue, The Concept of a University (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1973

[8] Ibid, 102.

“On Liberal Education” by Brock McLeod

Editor’s note: Brock McLeod graduated with a degree in Liberal Studies from VIU (formerly Malaspina University-College) and went on to became a passionate advocate for the kind of learning that we foster here, in which students engage in small seminar discussions, animated by great ideas and guided by beautiful and deep works of literature, philosophy, politics, art and science from the distant past to the present.

Brock McLeod surrounded by the books he loved to read and share.

Brock took this passion for reading great books, learning deeply, and discussing ideas with others back to his community. He began discussion groups in his home town, connected with civic leaders, and enhanced his community through the friendly but serious pursuit of great ideas. He and his wife, Heather, opened and ran an extremely successful organic farm near Duncan, BC. Even while he underwent treatments for cancer, he was active in the life of books, ideas, and conversation. He attended conferences when he could, and sat in on occasional Liberal Studies lectures at VIU. Sadly, Brock passed away in 2017.

The Brock McLeod Liberal Studies Award was established in his honour by Heather in accordance with Brock’s wishes. Proceeds from the fund will be used to generate scholarships for Liberal Studies students who, like Brock, can perceive and articulate the connection between deeper learning and better citizenship in a liberal democracy. Tax deductible donations to the fund are still being accepted by VIU (Note: in the “Designation” field of the online form, click “other” then type or paste “The Brock McLeod Liberal Studies Award” into the new field that opens up). The Department would like to give our thanks to Heather McLeod for establishing the fund, and to all those who have contributed and who continue to contribute. It will ensure Brock’s passion for liberal education continues into the future.

In addition to everything else he did, Brock was preparing chapters for a book about the connection between liberal education and liberal democracy. In the following essay, intended to be the second chapter of the book, Brock eloquently argues for the enduring importance of liberal education anchored in the great books. He sincerely hoped more of h

is fellow citizens would learn to love as much as he did this unique kind of education.

Permission to republish this chapter was graciously granted by Heather McLeod.


“On Liberal Education”

By Brock McLeod

“It’s a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.” – Plato’s Republic (515a).

Neo: “Why do my eyes hurt?” Morpheus: “You’ve never used them before.” – The Matrix

In the 1999 blockbuster hit, The Matrix, humans are kept enslaved by machines that have artificial intelligence. The machines trick humans into believing they are free, when, in reality, they are prisoners whose minds have been hooked up to a virtual reality program to simulate freedom in a modern world. The machines enslave the humans in order to use their bodies as sources of energy. Morpheus, Neo’s liberator, holds up a battery to bring home the point. Later, Neo is referred to as “coppertop,” after the Duracell battery moniker.

The grand political message of The Matrix is that we, today, are enslaved. Corporations and their owners need us to work for them, or provide energy, in order for them to reap profits. Neo, for example, works for a “respectable software company” and when he shows up late, he is lectured by his boss about the needs of the corporation and his role in its success: “This company is one of the top software companies in the world because every single employee understands that they are part of a whole.” In order to keep us serving this system, we are led to believe that the laws and morals of our society are for our own good. They keep us free. In reality, according to The Matrix, they are the fetters of our minds, keeping us in service to someone else’s benefit. CIA agents, and other law enforcement, help to ensure that anyone who starts to work against the system is neutralized.

This idea, that we are serving the interests of the rich and powerful, is not a new one, however. It was expressed most forcefully, perhaps, in 1848 by Marx and Engels, in their Communist Manifesto. It is not a coincidence, I believe, that Marxist and Matrix look so similar. To Marx and Engels, the world had forever been divided into antagonistic classes, the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed. These groups go by different names throughout history according to Marx and Engels, such as “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf,” and finally, in Marx and Engels’ day, “Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” Throughout history, according to Marx and Engels, the rules were set in favour of the rulers, essentially using the people to generate wealth and leisure for themselves.

In order to justify this, they tricked the people. As Marx and Engels put it, exploitation was “veiled by

religious and political illusions.” Religion, in particular, helped dampen people’s desire for change, as it made them accept their suffering, leading Marx to state that religion is “the opium of


the people,” or, more popularly, the opiate of the masses. The name “Morpheus,” from The Matrix, one might note, is the name of the ancient Greek god of dreams. The word ‘morphine’ is derived from the word Morpheus. Morphine is an opiate. The computer-generated “dream world,” as Morpheus describes it, or Matrix, then, is the new opiate of the masses. Are the Wachowski’s suggesting that we now use video games to escape from our reality? Virtual reality, via Minecraft or Call of Duty, as the new opiate of the masses?

In any case, the idea of rulers exploiting the ruled by defining right and wrong in their interests is a recurring one. In fact, it goes back much further than Marx and Engels. In ancient Athens, around 380 BCE, Plato made a similar argument. When discussing, for example, the popular concept of “justice” in his day, “that of doing good to friends and harm to enemies,” Plato points out that the people who promoted that false definition were the rulers and the rich in society. So Plato, too, one could argue, is warning us that the Matrix has us.

Plato, however, used a different image. He said people are like prisoners in a cave with respect to knowing the truth about things, with “their legs and necks in bonds.” Instead of seeing real things in the daylight above the earth, people are only exposed to false images of things, shadows on a wall from a fire burning behind them. When exposed to the world above the cave, their eyes would hurt from the sudden exposure of the sun (truth), because, like Neo, they had never really used their eyes.

Plato’s call to action is also different from that of Marx and the Wachowski brothers. While Marx and Engels called for people to “support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” since they had nothing to lose but their chains, Plato was less revolutionary, in a sense. Even though he, too, envisioned a new social and political order, it was education, or philosophy, that Plato saw as the mechanism for people to lose their chains. That is, if the notions of right and wrong in society are compromised by the self-serving views of the rich and powerful, the goal should be to come to that realization and then seek for the real truth of the matter. What really is “justice,” if it is not what society would have us believe? For Plato, freeing people from the cave of ignorance is the revolution. That these freed people might one day replace the existing rulers was a nice dream, but not his main end.

I also think, to an extent, Plato was less cynical than Marx and the Wachowski’s. For while Plato recognized that some of the notions in society might be self-serving justifications for the powerful, he also recognized that false notions may be serving no one at all, neither rich nor poor, neither ruler nor ruled. That is, they may simply be the products of ignorance or prejudice, or the result of authors or screenwriters needing to make things sound dramatic, accidentally leading to false beliefs based on artistic images. In any case, these false notions get in the way both of people living good lives and of society being well-governed. For Plato, then, it was important that people thought for themselves about these things and came to their own conclusions. He was a champion of education, of helping people shed false notions and get at the truth.

Ultimately, this led to one of his most famous claims – one for which he has been variously ridiculed or condemned, as well as celebrated: “Unless,” I said, “the philosophers rule as kings, or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize… there is no rest from ills for the cities… nor I think for human kind…”. Now, this probably sounds as fanciful, and undemocratic, in our own day as it did in Plato’s, for the reputation of philosophers has not improved much; but I think it helps to understand what he means by “philosophers.” For to Plato, a philosopher was someone who could think clearly and was wise and prudent. So if we substitute these words in place of “philosopher” throughout his quote, and modernize others, we get: “Unless,” I said, “citizens who are wise and prudent, and who can think clearly, rule as prime ministers, or those now called prime ministers and cabinet ministers genuinely and adequately seek wisdom, think clearly and act prudently, there is no rest from ills for nations… nor I think for human kind…”.

Now, I hope this lays to rest the idea that what Plato proposed is fanciful. What Plato proposed is actually much more like common sense. Do we not want to be ruled by people who are smart, knowledgeable, and have shown themselves to be prudent and honourable in their conduct throughout their lives? Or would we rather be ruled by those who are foolish, imprudent and ignorant? Now, of course, there is, perhaps, one other complication that I have glossed over. For I have couched Plato’s quote in democratic terms. But it is not clear that, for Plato, the people should be the one’s to choose their leaders. In fact, he was convinced that the people themselves would never choose the wisest to rule them. This was, in part, why he thought it would take a fluke of history for philosophers to ever rule. It would be more of an accident that a philosopher would come to power than that the people would specifically choose one.

For Plato, and this is again where he sounds undemocratic, thought that the mass of people could never be wise: “Then it’s impossible,” I said, “that a multitude be philosophic.” 494a. If the voters are neither wise, nor prudent, nor can think clearly, what hope is there that they will not be fooled by populists and other candidates who are good at campaigning, leaving the wise and prudent candidate unrequited? Now, for many, this is where the story ends on Plato. They think he is totalitarian (see Karl Popper), or an enemy of democracy. But I think this is misreading Plato. For Plato’s Republic is aspirational. He recognizes that, in his day, it would be impossible to conceive of the people as wise and choosing a ruler well, but we shouldn’t necessarily take it that he thought it would be this way for all time. It might be a good time to note, too, that the democracy of his day voted to put his teacher, philosopher Socrates, to death for raising pesky questions and calling into question the society’s religious beliefs. What faith could we expect Plato to have in his fellows if they voted to murder the wisest man he knew?

So, I think we need to cut Plato some slack. For despite stating that it was near impossible for a philosopher to come to rule society, he still wrote a book which is arguably a manual in bringing about a revolution in education that could, one day, result in enough educated people to make wise decisions about rulers. That is, he hoped that one day, more people would receive a good education, or at least recognize those who did. And, as we know, educational levels in society have risen exponentially since Plato’s day, thanks in part, probably large part, to him and other authors throughout the ages making the case for the value of education. In Canada, for example, around half the working age population now has a university degree or college diploma. Granted, most of those graduating from these programs would not be considered “philosophers” by Plato’s standard, nor any other, but the extent to which people are enchained by false notions of justice, crime, health, economics, history, science and other areas of knowledge has surely been reduced, decimated even. Though this is not to say there isn’t still a lot of work to do, which leads us to our next idea for democratic reform.

What connection does all this talk about The Matrix, The Communist Manifesto and Plato’s Republic have to do with democratic reform? They are all valuable reminders about the connection between the ideas we have in our heads and our ability to lead a happy and free life, both because of their impact on our personal lives as well as on our political lives. That is, if the goal of a democracy is, in part, to leave us free to pursue happy lives, but both our ability to make good choices for ourselves and our ability to make good choices for our society, government, or democracy, is negatively impacted by false ideas of the good, or truth, then it is important that education plays a significant role in society. Sound education is no less important to get right as a society than what kind of voting system we have.

Different types of education, or their absence, lead to different kinds of citizens and different kinds of decisions about how our democracy should operate. If, as a society, we are supporting education for the people, shouldn’t we be concerned about making that education good? Shouldn’t we be concerned with whether the type of education we are supporting is conducive to the continued support and improvement of our society and democratic institutions, or whether it ignores or undermines them? I think we are losing sight of this notion and it is important that we reform things to get back to a more holistic view of education, one that recognizes its importance for democracy.

For instance, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that higher education should not just be about getting good jobs. But in our individualistic and commercial age, most post-secondary students choose their educational path based almost entirely on whether it will help them get a “good” job, and society is increasingly funding degrees based on the same thinking. What has happened to the idea that going to university should help free one from the illusions of the Matrix, or help one escape from the darkness and bondage of Plato’s Cave?

Even if a job is all a particular student wishes to get out of his or her education, however, there are advantages to society from an educated electorate. Society functions better and people are able to make better decisions about how to live their lives if they have ideas in their heads that are consistent with the truth, when their minds are free from false ideas. Take a student of criminology, for instance, who ends up working as a police officer or in the correctional system. They will be able to make better decisions about how to address crime in society, ideally taking measures to help prevent it, but, if not, then figuring out how better to catch criminals and then, perhaps, help them get back to a healthy relationship with society after incarceration. Other degrees have similar effects in other areas of society, from health to history to economics to science. In educating our society, we are not simply helping ensure people get good jobs or helping increase our GDP through innovation, though those are certainly worthy outcomes. We are also creating a more well-run society. A more human, or humane, society.

The Communist Manifesto, The Matrix and Plato’s Republic also help us see the world as a place that is not neutral with respect to ideas. Marx, Engels and the Wachowski’s, in fact, argue that the world is against us. Bad ideas are intentionally cultivated in our minds in order to help those in power maintain their positions or wealth. Plato, on the other hand, also shows us that bad ideas can simply be the byproducts of our culture. We like watching dramatic movies, but these inadvertently produce false images of reality in our minds, as does watching the nightly news. Our brains are wired to think that something is more true if we see it more often. People are often shocked how little crime we actually have in our society when you show them the statistics because it is so different than the picture we get in our minds from watching the nightly news, Criminal Minds and CSI. And, of course, unless you are really cynical, the reason there is so much crime on the news or in T.V. series is not because someone wants to intentionally mislead us about the statistics, but because we find it interesting and entertaining to watch shows about crime.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t ideas out there and people promoting them that are favourable to certain people’s interests. Certain businesses, and some think tanks they fund, are likely to argue that free trade, in general, and free trade agreements, in particular, are good for our society. While, at the same time, unions and other businesses, and the think tanks they fund, are likely to argue against free trade or, at least, particular free trade agreements. What is the truth? And how do we determine where it lies? Without the tools to think for ourselves, and think well, society is at the mercy of those who wish to put ideas in our heads, regardless of the truth, regardless of whether it is good for society.

Another important lesson from The Matrix, The Republic and the Manifesto is that education has to be an active force in society in order to prevail. Neo and Morpheus, for example, have to return to the Matrix in order to free the minds of the others, while Plato’s philosophers need to descend to the Cave in order to unshackle those who remain there. People, the Wachowski’s and Plato are saying, need an intervening force in order to be mentally liberated. Education is that liberating force. If we are not actively struggling, as a society, like Neo, to fight off the ideas that control us, then we are losing to the machines, and the virtual reality they are pulling over our eyes.

People do not wake up of their own accord or, at least, not enough of them. Education is not a natural, self-generating phenomenon. It is an artificial intervention that we make into the minds of others in order to free them of false ideas. Yet, today, we tend to think of it as a personal choice, saying: “If a person feels the return from their investment in a degree is worth it in terms of their future earnings, then they will get an education. If not, then they may as well start their own business or go straight to a job or trade school.” Where is the calculation for democracy?

Let’s sum up. The stories in The Matrix and Plato’s Republic, in particular, help remind us about the link between education, personal liberty and the good society. They remind us that, when discussing education, or educational reform, it is not enough to focus solely on the extent to which an education will help a person get a job. We must also remember that the quality and quantity of educated individuals in society also impacts on our democracy and governance, and our freedom, not to mention one’s personal well-being outside of financial or career considerations. They also help us remember that the ideas that get into our heads are not neutral. Many of the ideas or beliefs we hold are false and are put there either intentionally by self-interested groups in our society or accidentally as a result of a culture that seeks to entertain or amuse us, among other reasons. They also remind us that we need to be actively seeking to replace bad ideas and false notions with good ones and the truth. In the absence of intervention, by society or parents or Churches or others, we generally do not become educated, for we do not self-educate. And, generally speaking, most people throughout adulthood do not systematically analyze the ideas and beliefs they hold, challenge them themselves, read difficult books or take any other steps to further the quality of their thought. Consequently, if we want people or citizens to engage in these types of activities, society needs to intervene.

Today, society is not unaware of this, and generally provides 13 years of free, and mandatory, schooling before people go out into the world. This education is directed at and does a good job of dispelling in people’s minds many of the basic false notions about our world, such as that the sun revolves around the earth. However, it is not enough to emancipate people fully from their false notions, nor does it cultivate habits of the mind that are necessary to remain free and free others. For this, we generally rely on a university education.

Depending on the program of study a person chooses to pursue at university, their false notions will continue to be shed, usually in one narrow subject area, such as geography, economics, history or medicine. In good programs, with good instructors, and especially in the arts, they will also begin to learn the habits of mind of the free person, gaining skills in analyzing whether notions are false or not, rather than relying on others to tell them this information. They may become inspired to become a lifelong learner, continually cleansing the existing ideas in their minds and carefully guarding the new ideas they allow in. But there is one program of study, in particular, which puts an enormous emphasis on these outcomes: liberal education.

By liberal education, I am not speaking of the liberal arts, those degrees in a single subject area, such as history, English, philosophy and others. As I mentioned, these degrees often take students farther than many other degrees in freeing their minds, but still not as far as a liberal education. Rather, I am talking about a degree in which a student engages with the major ideas and works across the spectrum of, typically, Western civilization, from history, English, philosophy and political science to mathematics, art, music and science, among others. Now, sometimes this is called a “general” education, as opposed to a specialized education, but I like to think of liberal education as specializing in something itself. Not in a specific subject, but in a specific outcome. A liberal education specializes in giving a person the knowledge, tools, habits and inspiration to free their minds, keep them free and help them free others. It specializes not only in helping you see the Matrix, but also in giving you the confidence and skills to alter it. It is kung fu for critical thinking. It is martial arts for writing and arguing. It is tai chi for confidence and inspiration. In short, it is the best system humans have ever devised for educating people, or freeing their minds.

I always struggle a bit in explaining liberal education, for it is both similar to other degree programs, particularly the arts, which makes it seem no different from other programs, and substantially unlike them. What may seem like moderate differences to a person looking from the outside are, in fact, quite radical differences. There are two main differences that set liberal education apart from other programs. The first is a wide variety of subject matter rather than one narrow area of study, which I have already mentioned. This I call the content. The second concerns the process, or method. And this is where liberal education really shines.

Delphi By Albert Tournaire

The centre of a liberal education is the student, not the professor. The centre of a liberal education is a small group discussion among students, not a lecture by a professor, though lectures may still be a part. The professor merely acts as a facilitator of the discussion among the students, rather than leading the discussion. This puts the responsibility for the discussion in the students’ laps, which is both empowering and demanding. Students all read the same book or poem or listen to the same musical piece. It is then up to them to discuss and discover what the author or composer is saying. It is up to you to figure out what you think about why Machiavelli suggests rulers should prefer to be feared than loved, or why Hobbes is so adamant about the need for monarchical governments. And it is up to you to try to persuade your peers of your perspective and then modify it in response to the insights of your classmates, and, finally, convince your professor of your perspective in written assignments. These small group discussions in which the students discuss things amongst themselves help motivate students to read very carefully. They give you practice in making the case for your perspective and the confidence that you know what you are talking about, as you have done the thinking yourself, rather than relying on the interpretation of your professor, which you simply try to memorize. This responsibility and freedom is incredibly liberating, exhilarating, and inspiring. The liberal studies seminar is a microcosm of democracy or, rather, democracy as it ought to be.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are some descriptions of people’s experiences in a liberal education program at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia, taken from the alumni website.

“For much of my life I have been a listener. In seminar I found I could hardly stop talking. I wanted to articulate the ideas, intuitions and questions bubbling up inside me. I learned that it was OK to disagree, to propose something I hadn’t thought through fully, not to have the ‘one right answer.’ This experience was so freeing.”

  • Selinde Krayenhoff

“As far as what the program has given me since completion – number one is confidence: confidence in myself; confidence in my ability to communicate in virtually any medium, and to live comfortably and peacefully in a diverse community. I’ve become a much better human being.

  • Jane Larsen

“Whenever I am asked what I studied at post-secondary school, my typical response is to exclaim ‘Liberal Studies!’ with such vigor and passion that people often take a step back. True story. My experiences as a LBST student were deeply profound and life-enriching. As I prepare for my future studies in law, I can say with confidence that my training in the LBST Department at V.I.U. gave me the foundation needed to achieve academic excellence. In my humble opinion, I believe that all citizens should have a Liberal Studies education!”

  • Katie Sutherland

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Liberal Studies program at VIU changed the course of my life. I entered the program filled with doubt about my academic abilities… As I left class that first day, I knew I was hooked… Discussing great ideas with our wonderful cohort kept me coming back week after week. Striving to improve my writing, discussion, and research skills was engaging and challenging. Searching for meaning and coming to understand diverse points of view have been invaluable to me as I have moved forward on my journey.”

  • Sheena Falconer

“I found my experience in the Liberal Studies Program to be liberating. I honed my ability to think critically, to think outside the box and to become more fearless about taking on new ideas. I learned to stand more solidly behind my own inspiration and to take more risks.”

  • Nancy Greene

“…interacting with the great stories and ideas of Western culture has helped me grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially. I cannot overstate the quality of the experience.”

  • Gary Hartford

“If life can be viewed as a long hallway with countless doors leading off to new experiences, I have yet to find one that my Liberal Studies degree hasn’t opened.”

  • Stefan Martin

And, finally, one of my favourites:

“The Liberal Studies program at VIU was life-changing for me. I approached books such as Plato’s Republic or Homer’s Odyssey without mediation from an ‘expert’. I learned that with careful reading and discussion with professors and other students, I could indeed grapple with the very difficult material and understand it for myself. These reading and discussion skills have been invaluable to me, both in my further education and in my professional life. I feel confident that I can read any text, and given enough time and thought can understand the messages within, whether I agree with them or not.

Also, Liberal Studies provided such a safe environment that I was able to really practice my listening and public speaking skills; dialogue with others, especially when we disagree, is essential to understanding and peace. These interpersonal skills have also served me very well in my work and education. I would recommend the Liberal Studies program to anyone, whether they are beginning their schooling or are simply interested in expanding their understanding. I believe that a Liberal Studies education helps to create inquisitive people and better citizens.”

  • Miki Klaver

Need I say more? I should note, too, that these students are regular people, by which I mean they are not all top Ivy League students. These are the experiences of Plato’s multitude, regular people in your community, some of whom were on their way to becoming teachers, others of whom had completed their careers and returned to school in their older age. I mention this to dispel any notion that only the smartest or most philosophic students can benefit from this type of education. This is education suitable for all people, for all citizens. I could go on describing what a liberal education aims at, but I think it would be hard to convey, any better than the personal descriptions above do, what the end of a liberal education is. For these descriptions embody it.

But before we leave our discussion of liberal education, I think it is worthwhile to go back to the other aspect of a liberal education, not its process – the class discussion – but its content. For the content is also uniquely useful to people as citizens of a democracy. As I mentioned previously, the content is not any one subject area, but a diversity of areas. Typically, it consists of the major works, such as books, poems, artworks, scientific and mathematical treatises and other important creations, of human endeavour. If the process of liberal education is class discussion, the content is classical. The classics have somewhat gone out of fashion, particularly as university disciplines increasingly fractured into subdisciplines, making the study of non-specialized areas of knowledge seem even more arcane. But there is good reason not to give up on the ‘classics’.

In order to help make this point, I would like to bring in a quote from G.K. Chesterton, an English essayist, among other things, from the early 1900s. This quote is often paraphrased as “don’t take a fence down unless you know the reason it was put up,” but it is worth going back to the full text:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Chesterton’s paradox is that we must come to understand something’s usefulness before we can consider abandoning it for its uselessness. Chesterton is saying we must know and value the reasons for creating or maintaining laws, institutions and social customs before we can determine whether to get rid of, amend, or preserve them.

We are all, to some degree, Chesterton’s “deformers”. We look around ourselves and see laws, institutions and social customs that seem to be getting in our way rather than helping us along. We may work towards for their removal only to realize after the fact that we have removed a useful check on some harm. We often keep making the same mistakes throughout history. Our temptation is to look at the world and see a bunch of fences getting in the way of our ideal society. Not taking the time to look into the matter, we proceed to lobby for their removal. A few voices protest and we label them backwards-looking and wonder why they stand in the way of progress. But it often turns out when we attempt to move our society ahead, we end up taking it back – back to the problems we had before we put up the fence. That said, when we take the time to understand why the fences were put up, they sometimes do need to come down. If this is the case, then we need a way for citizens to familiarize themselves with the reasons fences were put up and to gauge whether they should remain. This is the content of a liberal education.

For a liberal education can be seen, in part, as a study in why the fences were put up – or torn down. A liberal education consists in thinking about the arguments thoughtful people have made in the past about fences. Throughout history, there have often been great debates about whether to put fences up or tear them down. It’s not always easy for us to grasp the importance of these fences without reading these original conversations. To what degree should we allow freedom of speech in society? What role should religion have in society and what relationship should it have to the state? What is justice? Why should vigilantism or revenge-killing be prohibited? What role does the institution of marriage play in society? What is the good life? How ought I treat others? By reading and discussing these conversations with a small group of people, we not only familiarize ourselves with many of society’s most important fences, but we strengthen our ability to assess and debate the need for other fences, including new ones created in our own day. The content of a liberal education, then, to put it more clearly, is not so much ‘classics,’ as conversations. Conversations, as well as arguments, expressions, and other creations, about what the good life is and what the good society requires.

Unfortunately, however, and ironically, a liberal education itself came to be seen as an unnecessary fence. The requirements of a liberal education were seen as an archaic barrier by educational reformers. With the increasing importance and contribution of science and technology to society, among other changes, a liberal education was viewed as a fence restraining students from getting down to business and getting prepared for jobs, or devoting themselves to the mastery of one specific body of knowledge. Some of this, of course, was warranted. But the pendulum swung too far one way.

Which is why I am arguing that for the sake of democracy, we need to bring liberal education back into better balance with our other educational ends. If, as we discussed previously, education is necessary to combat false notions in order to free us to lead good lives and achieve a just society, it is not responsible to leave decisions about education solely to market forces. Education is a civic, or communal, endeavour, as much or more so than it is a private endeavour. Just because our economy demands a certain type of education from our citizenry, does not mean that it also serves our democracy. So if the pendulum has swung towards education serving economic ends at the expense of democratic ends, we need to actively attempt to re-balance it. But this is difficult.

Liberal education is a hard sell. The benefits to the individual are extraordinary, but it is hard to convince people of this. Partly, this can be blamed on the fact that it is hard to convey the full value of a liberal education in words. It is one of those things that you have to experience to fully appreciate. One of my professors used to say that it is like trying to explain to a virgin what sex feels like. Thankfully, we don’t need to have someone convince us that we should want to have sex, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t explain it. Unfortunately, though, most of us don’t have an innate drive to enroll in a liberal education program. So we have to rely on words. But words can never do it justice. Ultimately, then, what this means is that we should not rely entirely on convincing students that it is good for them, for we will never achieve this fully. Rather, we may have to support liberal education in ways that make it more likely that students will choose it, even if they don’t understand its full benefits. I will discuss some of these ways after discussing the second reason is it will be difficult to re-balance liberal education with other forms.

For not only is it difficult for a student to fully appreciate the value of a liberal education without having received one, but it is also difficult because a good portion of the benefit goes, not to the student, but to society. Let’s imagine the thinking of a prospective student. They may think: “If I take a liberal education, I will be able to lead a much richer, freer, fulfilling life (though they won’t fully appreciate this before they have taken the degree) and I will also be of much greater value to my society. But I don’t get paid to be of value to my society, I get paid to be of value to a company, and what job can I get with this degree? If I had a teaching degree, I could a teaching job. If I had an engineering degree, I could get an engineering job. But what job do I qualify for with a liberal education degree?” As you can see, the traditional calculation many students use to determine their choice of degree does not leave the liberal education degree looking very appealing. But there is a way society can help to address this, which I will discuss further down.

For now, I want to raise the stakes even higher to help drive home the notion that we need to put liberal education back into proper balance in our educational institutions. Liberal education has always been important to the well-being of society and those who received it. But, today, it is even more important. I turn to Joseph Heath and his book Enlightenment 2.0 to help make this point.

In Enlightenment 2.0, Joseph Heath argues that the Enlightenment put too much faith in the individual’s ability to use reason, claiming: “Reason is not natural; it is profoundly unnatural (p.52, emphasis his).” He discusses a plethora of research from the past few decades to make his case, pointing out the many flaws in our brains and how they work. On top of this, he chronicles how the environments in which we use our brains, such as the commercial and political environments, have changed for the worse. Politicians and marketers increasingly try to take advantage of the weaknesses in our reasoning – or avoid it altogether, appealing to emotion or prejudice instead. Grocery stores, for example, have learned to place hard to resist treats near the check-outs, while the proliferation in political news channels and programs has led to political conversations taking place in soundbites on T.V. rather than in debates in legislatures.

This double whammy of imperfect reason and perfected marketing threatens our personal and political lives, according to Heath. We are now living in a world that has been specifically designed to be hostile to reason, or its use, leading Heath to observe: “People in the modern world are simply called upon to exercise far, far greater willpower and foresight than anyone ever had to in the past (p. 180)”.

So what do we do? According to Heath, we need to update the Enlightenment project. We need Enlightenment 2.0. The main idea he presents is that reason is not a stand alone tool. In order to make good use of the power of our brains and reason, we need to support the exercise of reason externally. This sounds odd, but it makes sense when you think about some examples. It also helps to more accurately describe what Heath is getting at. It is not so much reason that is being supported, as Heath would put it, but decision-making.

For example, one of the aids that Heath discusses is putting your alarm clock away from your bed in order to help avoid just hitting the snooze button and falling back asleep. If you place your alarm clock away from the bed, you will have to first get up in order to hit the snooze button. You are much less likely to go back to bed after you are already up than if you could just hit the snooze button lying down. Now, this is not so much a support for reason as it is a support for willpower. But the important thing is, it helps you make the decision that you wanted to make.

Another example Heath uses is the trick we can employ in order to help maintain a healthy weight. In Enlightenment 1.0, we would rely entirely on our willpower to make the decision each time we eat to not take too much food. But in Enlightenment 2.0, we will download that decision-making by first choosing a smaller plate (and getting rid of the large ones from the house). Our brains are happy as long as we fill our plate, so by using a smaller plate, we trick our brain into being satisfied with less food. Again, then, we are supporting our ability to make the decisions that we want.

These tricks and aids we can use to externally support our decision-making are called “kluges”. Heath also uses the term “scaffolding”. There are much larger kluges as well, such as institutions like parliaments and schools.

I mention Heath’s call for a rebooted Enlightenment particularly because of his analysis of a school as a kluge, or scaffolding, for learning. Heath points out: “Because “school” is more than just a curriculum, it is also a social setting (p. 312, emphasis his)”. In the real world, we would never be willing to listen to a friend or acquaintance propound on the theory of comparative advantage, which helps explain the benefits of free trade, or the theory of natural selection, which helps explain evolution, for half an hour or more. We would consider such people boring. Yet in the social setting of school, this is perfectly acceptable according to Heath, though sometimes still boring! In the social setting of a classroom, you have to put your hand up before speaking, which would be considered weird when discussing issues over drinks at the pub or in the bleachers at your kid’s soccer match. And it would be equally weird if your friends or acquaintances gave you a list of books and expected you to read them and then gave you their thoughts on how well you understood it by assigning you a grade afterwards. The social setting of school, according to Heath, is where these things are acceptable, making school a great kluge for learning, as we spend more time reading books, listening to instruction, and studying to make grades than we otherwise would without this institution. In fact, the difference is so stark that for many people, once they are done their formal education, they hardly ever read books again, let alone study the types of books they would have encountered in their university or college programs.

So Heath helps us to see that schools are kluges that help create the conditions for learning. Liberal education, then, can be seen as a kluge that helps create very particular conditions for learning, such as the small, student-led class discussion focused on important conversations about the good life and the good society. This results in very particular outcomes that are as advantageous to society as they are to the individual, including:

  1. significantly increasing people’s ability to read.
  2. significantly increasing people’s ability to write.
  3. creating people who are much more likely to continue reading throughout their lives, including books which are challenging.
  4. significantly increasing people’s listening, discussing and speaking skills.
  5. creating people who are more open to new and unfamiliar ideas, as they are taught to seriously consider ideas which they normally wouldn’t consider at all.
  6. increasing people’s confidence to provide their perspectives on matters, whether through writing letters to editors, books or speaking up at community meetings.
  7. creating people who are more likely to try to understand something before they consider replacing or changing it.
  8. creating people who are ambassadors for the value of education, particularly for liberal education.
  9. creating people who are more likely to recognize that the ideas in their heads may not be good ones and that they have an interest and responsibility to root out the bad ones and carefully guard which new ones they allow in.
  10. creating people who are better able to recognize ideas in their infancy, making them better able to resist bad ideas both in their personal lives and in their communities, much as a master gardener is better equipped to recognize weeds in their garden and deal with them when they are small.
  11. and more.

    Plato’s Symposium

Do we not want a greater number of our citizens, voters, politicians and neighbours at community meetings to have these characteristics? Do these characteristics not seem particularly relevant to the healthy functioning of a democracy, in particular, as opposed to forms of government that don’t require the active participation of their citizens? And if, as I am proposing in this book, we increase the opportunities for citizens to take on a more meaningful role in decision-making in society, wouldn’t we want to have more people with these habits and traits in society?

If so, then we need to figure out ways of increasing the number of liberal education graduates. What kind of kluges can we create in order to increase the likelihood that more people will obtain a liberal education, given the problems I identified above, such as students not seeing a direct connection to a job and not fully understanding its benefits until they experience it?

One way is to reduce the price. Cheaper televisions means that people are able to afford more of them, leading them to put one in the kitchen and another in the bedroom in addition to the one in the living room. But there are a couple of problems with this approach for liberal education. First, it may simply be too expensive to do so. For in order to make liberal education cheaper for students means taxpayers have to pick up more of the tab. To ask society to put even more money into education, particularly education that doesn’t lead directly to jobs, may not be politically feasible, even if it is desirable.

But there may be an even bigger problem on price. People respond to price changes differently depending on the type of product. Economists call it price elasticity. If the price of food goes up in general, people can’t just stop eating in order to reduce their costs. As a result, price increases for food in general don’t have much of an impact on the amount purchased. This is an example of an “inelastic” product, as the amount purchased doesn’t change much in response to price. On the other hand, products that are elastic see larger swings in amounts purchased in response to price changes. For example, when a high American dollar makes it expensive to holiday in the U.S., many Canadians will take vacations in Canada instead, decreasing the amount of trips to Hawaii or Disneyland. Of course, conversely, more Americans vacation in Canada when their dollar is strong, helping our tourism industry. Typically, items are elastic when there are alternatives, or substitutes, for the item which has gone up in price. A Canadian vacation can substitute for an American vacation, but one cannot substitute food with some alternative to food. Within the food category, however, there can be price elasticity on various products, so that when the price of beef rises, people will buy less beef and more chicken instead.

With respect to education, price elasticity is also at play. If education in general gets cheaper, people will buy more of it or, rather, more people will buy education. This is why governments typically want to keep tuition low, in order to encourage more people to get an education. However, within the category of education, price changes may have differing effects, just like with beef and chicken. If you are going to university, but don’t have a strong preference for a program, and would be happy with either anthropology, history or liberal studies, then making liberal studies cheaper would have the effect of increasing enrollment in liberal studies. But if you want to be an engineer, or a teacher or a psychologist, then you will have to take a degree in engineering, education or psychology, respectively. So making liberal education cheaper would have no effect on these students. So while making liberal education cheaper may have an effect on some students, it won’t have an effect on all.

Here are a couple of ways to address these challenges. First, with respect to the students without a strong preference, there are a couple of things universities and society could do. First, a simple nudge would be to make a liberal education the default choice of study for those students who don’t know what to take. Rather than guidance counsellors spending their time trying to find the right program for a person who isn’t sure what they want to study at university, simply make a liberal education the starting place for these students. If they decide to study something else later, their year or two in liberal studies will have given them an excellent foundation for their further studies. This also puts liberal education back in its historic role as the first program that students would take upon entering university before specializing into other areas, such as law. It is an action that is both economical, for if anything it will save administrative costs, as well as relatively easy, as no major changes to the university system are required. You’re simply changing your counselling directives.

In order to strengthen this idea, universities could also give credit for this time in liberal studies towards a subsequent degree. So, for instance, a person who takes liberal studies for two years and then decides to do a four-year history degree could be given one year’s worth of credits towards their history degree, making it a five year education altogether instead of a six-year education. For those unsure about what to take, this would also give them more assurance that they aren’t just “wasting” their time. They will know that this time will count for something (of course, it also counts for a lot else, but the prospective student may not realize this at the outset).

Furthermore, for the undecided students, price elasticity is at play, so making liberal education cheaper is worthwhile here. If taxpayers, through government, are unwilling to take on this added expense, then individuals could play a role by creating scholarships specifically for people pursuing a liberal education. Every scholarship could help convince another person to get a liberal education that otherwise wouldn’t, so it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing initiative. The more people who are convinced of the value of a liberal education and are willing and able to fund a scholarship, the better. I would specifically encourage those who are liberal studies graduates to consider this as an option when considering your charitable giving. Perhaps you could combine efforts with your graduating class to create a scholarship fund in the name of your class. I would also specifically encourage politicians, if they are looking for something to do with that large salary and pension that society gives them, to consider funding liberal education scholarships. What better example to set than to encourage the next generation of active citizens by helping fund an education specifically tailored to the needs of democracy?

Another nudge or kluge that could help increase prospective liberal education students to take the leap comes from an article in the Windsor Star, March 10, 2015, in which University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman is interviewed about the decline of the liberal arts and what to do about it. The article mentions Wildeman’s plan to put the problem to the student body for consideration, which is a nice touch. Before the event even took place, political science student and University of Windsor Students’ Alliance president Ronnie Haidar was already coming up with ideas, suggesting that students of liberal arts programs be given the same opportunities for internships and co-op placements as other programs, such as business and nursing. This is an effective idea, for one of the reasons that people are afraid to commit to liberal studies is their inability to see a link to the job market. By adding the option for co-op placements during their education or institutionalizing links to internships after graduation, people will be more likely to see that liberal education sets people up for good jobs, even if this is not its main purpose or specialty. This connection could be particularly important for wary parents who are funding their children’s education: the business degree looks relatively less pragmatic if the liberal arts degree leads to a similarly engaging, good-paying job in the civil service.

Now, for those who have their minds made up and are pursuing a degree specifically because they need it to get a job, all hope is not lost. However, we move beyond the realm of nudges here and enter policies that will be more contested. I will not discuss the idea of requiring a liberal education, though that is, of course, a policy option. I am more focussed on ideas that are more politically palatable, even if we will soon be bumping up against the boundary of the palatable. One way to affect those who need to get a particular degree in order to qualify for their career, such as an education degree to be a teacher or an engineering degree to be an engineer, is to encourage them to “tack on” a liberal education degree. For wouldn’t it be better to have teachers and lawyers and architects and geneticists who have also studied the moral, political and artistic achievements of our society in addition to the requirements of their particular professions? While it may be unrealistic and, perhaps even undesirable, for every person to have these extra studies, it would certainly help to have more such people.

One way to incentivize this is to make it cheaper or easier for those who are also pursuing a liberal education to access these other degree programs. For example, many of these programs are competitive: how about giving extra admission points for those coming with a liberal education, or even a free pass, assuming grades are acceptable? Or how about making the degree cheaper to those who already have or who are concurrently obtaining a liberal education degree? In order to fund it, you could make the degree more expensive for those not obtaining a liberal education. Consequently, it wouldn’t be government funding the extra liberal education, but those who want to complete their degree quickly, for instance. Of course, if government doesn’t want any part of this then, again, privately funded scholarships could be linked to this double-degree idea. That is, for those considering funding new scholarships, they would be encouraged to fund scholarships for biology or engineering students who are also taking or have taken liberal studies, thereby lowering the costs for those students who would consider such a double-degree route.

Many of these ideas will work well in combination. Imagine a student, Jane, who wants to go to university but is unsure about what program to take. The liberal education default policy leads her to start a liberal studies degree. After her first year, she decides she would also like to get a creative writing degree. She remains in the liberal education program for a second year before starting her creative writing degree, knowing that she will get credit for one year of her creative writing degree anyway, and she takes advantage of the many scholarships for liberal studies students to help fund her second year. Throughout her creative writing degree, she takes advantage of co-op placements for liberal studies students or joint-degree students. These placements help her earn good income to fund her more lengthy degree and she learns that she does not want to make a career of working for the public affairs bureau of government, where she interned in the summer of her fourth year. Upon graduation, however, she is connected with the Art Gallery of Vancouver, who sees value in her creative writing skills and exposure to works of art through her liberal studies degree. Jane is pleased to have an opportunity to work with a creative team of people at the Gallery and has time to pursue her own writing on the side. She goes on to become an award-winning poet and novelist, and doesn’t forget to establish a scholarship for future liberal studies students.

Okay, perhaps I’m getting carried away now, but hopefully you get the picture. While any of these ideas to help encourage liberal studies in society could be implemented alone, and would have value in themselves, a combination of these policies could really make a difference. There are also, no doubt, many other ideas that people could come up with if they put their minds to it. I would encourage those who see value in liberal education to do so.

In conclusion, I would urge us to consider putting back up the fence of a liberal education, even if it is not a solid fence, but simply sections of fence oriented in a way that helps gently channel people towards a degree that is of great benefit to themselves and of equally great benefit to our democracy. On this, let us, as Chesterton advises, go away and think.

“If you discover a life better than ruling for those who are going to rule, it is possible that your well-governed city will come into being. For here alone will the really rich rule, rich not in gold but in those riches required by the happy man, rich in a good and prudent life (p. 199)”.

– Plato’s Republic. trans. Bloom


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