Learning to live within a hierarchy of goods
Richard M. Weaver on the ends of education
“It has been said countless times in this country that democracy cannot exist without education. The truth concealed in this observation is that only education can be depended on to bring men to see the hierarchy of values. That is another way of saying what has also been affirmed before, that democracy cannot exist without aristocracy. This aristocracy is a leadership which, if it is to endure, must be constantly recruited from democracy; hence it is equally true that aristocracy cannot exist without democracy. But what we have failed to provide against is the corruption of the system of recruitment by equalitarian dogma and the allurements of materialism. There is no difficulty in securing enough agreement for action on the point that education should serve the needs of the people. But all hinges on the interpretation of needs; if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, then education of the mind and the passions will take precedence over all else. The growth of materialism, however, has made this a consideration remote and even incomprehensible to the majority. Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in the world have won a practically complete victory. Now if it were possible to arrive at a sufficiently philosophical conception of success, there would still remain room for idealistic goals, and attempts have been made to do something like it by defining in philosophical language what constitutes a free man. Yet the prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic values. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires a reverence for the good.
“In other words, it is precisely because we have lost our grasp of the nature of knowledge that we have nothing to educate with for the salvation of our order. Americans certainly cannot be reproached for failing to invest adequately in the hope that education would prove a redemption. They have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.
“The formula of popular education has failed democracy because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and material goods without which there is no training in intellectual discipline. The spoiled-child psychology, of which I shall say something later, has sought a royal road to learning. In this way, when even its institutions of learning serve primarily the ends of gross animal existence, its last recourse to order is destroyed by appetite.
“Every attempt to find a way out of these dilemmas points to a single necessity; some source of authority must be found. The only source of authority whose title is unimpeachable at all times is knowledge. But superiority in knowledge carries prerogative, which implies, of course, distinction and hierarchy. We have seen, too, that the possibility of liberty and the hope of personal improvement rest upon these, for liberty must always work in the name of right reason, which is itself a conception of the scheme of things.”—from Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (University of Chicago Press, 1948)
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