Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Not Impressed

Res Publica

August 2012

by Joseph Griffith

A few months ago, a professor offered praise for a paper that I had written for his class, and I sent the document to my uncle. Since he had studied philosophy at Harvard University and received his Masters in Business Administration at Yale, I was eager to hear particular critiques on the structure of the paper or my writing style. He was not impressed. He wrote that my paper merely demonstrated an “ability to summarize textual information using correct grammar.” According to him, I needed to “critique views presented by writers from historical, anthropological, social, economic, psychological, political, legal, administrative, philosophical, theological” perspectives or at least put forward my own opinions. In short, he stated that my education was “a wasted opportunity” if he ever saw one.

For as long as I can remember, I have believed that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to learn how to think. As early as grade school, students are taught to think for themselves, to create thought. In fact, I remember writing response papers to prompts  that specifically asked us to provide our own analysis. While such assignments may stem from teachers’ honest attempts to engage students in the conversation or motivate them to take pride in their work, many students subscribe to a different line of reasoning, that their opinions are the most important part of the dialogue. Students misinterpret teachers’ sincere efforts, and instead of loving learning, they love to hear the sound of their own voice.

Moreover, teachers often use textbooks that critique the writings of famous men and women by analyzing their psychological, philosophical, or anthropological backgrounds. When students come to original documents with questions, the answers they receive are filtered through a complex web of modern sensibilities. “Obviously,” these textbooks claim, “Socrates could have never adequately answered these questions because of his impoverished economic standing, low social class, and religious background.” These modern commentaries effectively dismiss the thought of the great thinkers by limiting the importance of the texts to what is relevant to the contemporary mind.

My short paper attempted to do something very different. I endeavored to facilitate a conversation between John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and James Otis, an 18th century lawyer. Their dialogue sought to examine how one’s understanding of the purpose of government affects the role of liberty in that society. Winthrop held that the end of government was to ensure the glorification of God’s name by the corporate sanctification of the community. Therefore, he established a government that sought to enable and enforce a moral liberty – one that would not provoke the wrath of God. In contrast, Otis argued that government’s purpose was to ensure the liberties that nature had given to man. Thus, he maintained that government ought to secure “the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.”

It is important to note that inquiries about political regimes, liberty, and virtue are not small ones, nor are they new. For thousands of years, men have wrestled with these fundamental questions, and many have given their lives in pursuit of answers. How shameful it would be if I, at the ripe age of 20 years, were to interrupt either of these thinkers with my own grossly uninformed opinions about the proper end of government before I had given them the opportunity to explain their arguments. It would be inappropriate for me to run roughshod over their dialogue by announcing what I think “the end of government is in a utopia, dystopia, or real state,” as my uncle advised. Put plainly, disregarding others’ ideas without carefully considering them is arrogant. Disregarding others’ opinions because one is too caught up in one’s own thought is even worse.

Furthermore, while filtering the exchange of ideas in an original document may inflate one’s ego, it does not enhance one’s education. It would be completely nonsensical for me to ask these great thinkers such important questions and then dismiss their answers because I put limitations on them. Such sterilization is wholly unproductive. My uncle advises me to “get something out of [my] education,” but I firmly believe that restricting the meaning of these great texts by imposing my own semantics would produce the opposite result.

This does not mean that a true scholar is a simple, passive recipient of information. Naturally, he thinks about the world from his own point of view, for our ideas shape how we see things, and this is not unreasonable. Instead of being consumed with his own opinions, though, the scholar approaches the thought of great thinkers with humility. He understands that men have searched for the best regime long before he arrived on the scene and that the search will not end when he leaves the conversation. Therefore, he comes to the table with questions and gives the authors the opportunity to answer. Instead of dismissing their ideas, he boldly converses with them, and tries to understand them as they understood themselves.

Such a view of education appears to be wildly different than that of my uncle’s. While his low opinion of my education did not stem from ill desire, he was exceedingly critical of my work. While I have in no way mastered it, I can safely say that true scholarship is much more difficult than it sounds. It requires time, dedication, labor, and a willingness to admit that one does not know everything. My uncle was not “impressed” by my thoughts. I am not either. I hope that I never am.

Joseph Griffith is a sophomore from Medina, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.

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