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Is Civic Education Compatible with Liberal Education

On Principle, v5n2

April 1997

by Jeffrey D. Wallin

Historically, the college general education curriculum has included features of both liberal and civic education. But is liberal learning compatible with civic education, or is the one harmful to – perhaps even subversive of – the other? This question arises every time someone questions the need for studying America’s founding documents as part of a liberal arts curriculum. I would suggest that the answer lies in just what sort of civic education one is speaking of.


At first glance, at least, these two types of education appear to aim at the same end – freedom. For we are told that promoting freedom is the purpose of the American polity, while the very word “liberal” implies that freedom is in some sense the end of liberal education. On the other hand, liberal education proceeds by raising questions regarding the worth of assumptions and perspectives both private and public, including the most fundamental assumptions of civic education. Liberal education seeks answers to such questions as: “What is the best way of life?” and “What is the best regime?” Civic education assumes answers to these questions: the best way of life is “our way of life;” the best regime is this regime.


The roots of liberal education can be found in Ancient Greece, specifically in Socrates’ never-ending questioning of commonly accepted opinions. In Plato’s Republic, the subversive nature of this questioning is revealed in the analogy of the “cave.” Here authoritative opinions about justice, the gods, virtue and vice – indeed all else that gives life in the city meaning and definition – are treated as mere shadows against a wall, at best no more than dim reflections of truth. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they should be understood as downright lies, salutary lies to be sure, but lies nonetheless. No wonder Socrates’ philosophic questioning of the ways of the city is considered subversive enough to earn him ridicule and derision at the hands of the city’s finest comic poet and a cup of hemlock at the hands of his fellow citizens.


What about the roots of civic education, or as it is sometimes referred to, the rhetorical tradition of liberal education? One might, of course, turn to Aristotle, whose two-volume work on the subject, the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics, may be said to constitute the intellectual anchor of the rhetorical side of the tradition. But just as one can find the philosophic tradition in Aristotle – the contemplative life, after all, turns out to be the best life even in his work dedicated to encouraging the moral virtues – so can one find support for the rhetorical tradition in Plato.


In Plato’s Laws, the Athenian Stranger defines liberal education as “the education from childhood in virtue, that makes one desire and love to become a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and be ruled with justice” (Laws 643b-644a, Pangle trans.). Liberal education, in this formulation, is education in virtue. But virtue of a specific kind. A virtue whose end is knowing “how to rule and be ruled.” Ruling and being ruled in turn is the classical definition of republicanism. Liberal education, then, is education toward republicanism. And here, perhaps, the two elements of liberal education – the rhetorical and the philosophic – begin to find common ground.


Of all forms of government, republicanism may well be the most open to the kinds of questions that characterize liberal education. By definition, politics in a republic is something public. In most other forms of government it is considered the private interest of a person or class of persons. The business of a republic requires public deliberation. While it might be excessive to claim that this deliberation is equivalent to or even necessarily tolerant of philosophy, it stands to reason that such regimes are likely to be less hostile to the give and take of political discourse than other regimes are. It may not have been an accident that philosophy emerged in democratic Greece.


In the case of America, there may be an even closer connection between republican forms of government and liberal education. However, before proceeding down this path, it is worth remarking that those who stress the “openness” of liberal education may occasionally overstate the case. It is true that liberal education appears to encourage the most radical sort of questioning. But this is not to say that these inquires are necessarily subversive. Questions that are intended to be subversive usually stem from a conviction that one already holds the real truth of the matter. The purpose of inquiry is to learn what one does not know. And in the case under consideration, this means that one must be open to the possibility that the form of government questioned – one’s “own” rather than “the other” – may turn out to be the best form.


Unlike almost all previous governments, our own government was the beneficiary of a specific founding act or set of acts. That is to say, that unlike almost all other forms, its legitimacy rests not upon tradition alone, but upon a specific choice made at a specific time and place. What is remarkable about this is that in claiming to be the best by reason as well as by tradition (if it were by tradition only the American “colonies” would still be ruled by the British), our form of government encourages reflection on the same question originally asked by the founders themselves, namely, “what is the best regime?” In this respect at least, one might almost say that inquiry into “what is the best regime,” which is the public form of the question, “what is the good life,” is the most thoughtful form of civic education in America.


Let me try to illustrate this by a single example. In the ninth Federalist paper, Alexander Hamilton speaks to those who might oppose the creation of a republican form of government on the ground that it promotes neither peace nor stability. Rather than attempt to refute this charge, Hamilton admits it. The ancient republics were kept in a state of “perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy” by their political arrangements, and therefore bequeathed little in the way of principles, actions, or examples to emulate. The solution to the problems exhibited by ancient republics Hamilton contends, is the “new science of politics,” upon which the American form of government – the modern democratic republic – would eventually be founded.


It is hard to read this account and the marvelous papers that follow it, without being persuaded of the superiority of modern to ancient republics. Yet, in pointing his readers back to the ancients, does not the author of the Federalist invite the student of politics to assess the truth of this argument? What comes to mind are men like Caius Marius, Rome’s savior against the Germanic tribes, and, ironically, whose thirst for distinction was partially responsible for the terrible enmity between himself and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an enmity that nearly destroyed the very Rome that he had, on more than one occasion, saved.


The disadvantages of systems designed to produce such leaders are clear. But what about their advantages? Gaius Marius, it has been recounted, left Rome to tour unseen lands as a private citizen following his unprecedented sixth consulship. Alone and far from home – commanding not a single legion or even a cohort, bearing neither official Roman office nor imperium – Marius confronted the eastern despot Mithridates of Pontus, who had recently invaded Cappadocia. Not caring a whit about Mithridates’ known cruelty and capriciousness, Marius threatened him with war unless he kept to his borders; he then continued along his journey, while Mithridates resolved, for a time at least, not to challenge the city that could produce a man of such boldness and confidence.


Is the student of the American founding not struck with what has been lost with the passing of such regimes as well as with what has been gained? Is there not something glorious as well as frightening about such men (one might almost say such human spectacles) and the regimes capable of producing them? We know that Hamilton thought so, in spite of the compelling reasons he provides for rejecting them.


In closing let me suggest that those who claim that American civic education is not “open” enough to the “other,” misunderstand the purpose of liberal education, which is neither to venerate nor to subvert, but rather to inquire about the most important matters, regardless of where answers to them may lead. They also misunderstand the nature of the American founding, which was led by men themselves formed by such an education, and therefore well able to engage us in the most serious issues we face as men and women, and as citizens: What is the best way of life? What is the best regime?

Jeffrey D. Wallin is the President of the American Academy for Liberal Education in Washington, D.C.

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