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More me thinking about the state of education in America through the historical and theoretical sources of our present discontent:

The central object of Lockean education, the rational control of nature, begins with the defective natural constitution that originally plagues all children, “their natural wrong inclinations.” So while Locke seems to follow the Aristotelian view that education requires the inculcation of proper habits of action, he denies that this is a perfection of their natural potential; we certainly are guided by “Principles of Action” but they “are so far from being innate Moral Principles, that if they were left to their full swing, they would carry men over to the overturning of all Morality”.  The advantage of any child’s natural disposition is that it pines for liberty, but too easily that craving is overtaken by a concomitant desire for “dominion,” the “first original of most vicious habits.” The natural disorder of children expresses itself in the tyrannical will to power over others, and the conventional response of parents is to subdue this desire with the discipline of the traditional virtues.

However, Locke counsels avoiding feckless appeals to duty, sacrifice, or God, instead suggesting that the only sure route is an appeal to desire—more specifically, an appeal to reward and punishment or pleasure and pain, the only objects that naturally arouse fear. In place of the classical teaching that emphasized the disciplined flourishing of our natural potential, the Lockean approach attempts to contravene nature, to overcome our natural infirmity through natural aversion. The “most powerful incentives,” the only ones that count as the “true restraint belonging to virtue,” are “esteem and disgrace.” The natural desire to dominate others can be sublimated into a desire for honor or prestige, transforming the anti-sociability of natural tyranny into the sociable desire for reputation. Moreover, children can be taught to want to be esteemed for their reasonableness above all things, although at a young age they actually have very limited rational powers. Thus, the Lockean educational program honors children for their reasonableness long before they really are reasonable: children “love to be treated as rational creatures sooner than is imagined” and sooner than is warranted. The ultimate fruition of a pupil’s schooling generates a paradox: he learns the gregarious desire to be honored for his rational self-sufficiency.

Even more iconoclastic than Locke’s view of the family is his virtual elimination of religious instruction. Locke was deeply worried about the impact a “promiscuous reading of the Scripture” would have on impressionable minds, favoring its replacement by a catalogue of “moral rules” and a “good history of the Bible.” The problem of traditional Biblical study, according to Locke, is threefold: First, it replaces a rigorous rational scrutiny of all things with a credulous acceptance of miraculous and supernatural events. Second, it engenders a passive submission to paternalistic authority as our natural condition, rather than the natural freedom and equality of all rational beings. Finally, it preaches that a bountiful nature is the providential bequest of a personal and loving God, as opposed to the provider of “almost worthless materials” that only obtain value from the human labor that transforms them into something useful. The comprehensive human liberation Locke aims for requires the decisive repudiation of the Biblical description of the human condition. The authority of God, once taught, is much harder to unseat than the authority of a human father, whose imperfections diminish the respect he can demand, and whose flattery fans the flames of independence. The eternity of God creates a specter of authority recalcitrant to revision. We outgrow the necessary and gentle tyranny of our fathers to become fathers ourselves, but God is a constant reminder of our insuperable limitations.

Locke’s precipitous dismissal of religion anticipates its gradual expulsion from the modern university as little more than ancient and benighted prejudice. Furthermore, Locke’s obsession with rational productivity is a clear precursor to the careerist turn the university would eventually take, becoming something more like a credentialing center than a place of higher learning; Locke disdained belletristic study long before it was fashionable to do so. The ultimate goal of education, for Locke, is the generation of businessmen and scientists. He says very little directly about civic or political virtues, since the real advancements in a free society are made by private citizens rather than public representatives. In fact, he says almost nothing about philosophic education. The passive and noble contemplation of eternity is exchanged for the active and productive transformation of the here-and-now world.

Still, Locke is keenly aware that rational autonomy is not an unproblematic goal, and his enthusiasm for it is somewhat tempered by a recognition of the obstacles in its way. . Locke begins with the family in part because it proves to be such an inveterate article of nature, the original stage for our impressionable experience of dependence, limitation, and legitimate authority. He sees education as the stark introduction to our natural given for the sake of its eventual conquest—he essentially wants children to be taught to pine for their father’s station.  The university today is far too homogenous and institutionalized for Locke to approve of it, and far more Platonic in that it sees its role as replacing the education of the parent and even remedying its ill effects. The American university aims at a kind of rational autonomy and sees an education in reason as identical to an education in morality; however, it no longer draws upon the reflections of those Enlightenment thinkers on the great tension between moral authority and rational self-sufficiency. Locke promoted the facile harmony between rational independence and moral dependence with so much success that modern higher education does not fathom that there ever was a tension in the first place, that reason and morality aren’t simply identical, that rational freedom does not exhaust the whole of virtue. We are far more Lockean than even Locke was and far more confident that, with the university’s expert assistance, we can happily complete the process of educative self-construction.

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