Ignorant armies

It was a quiet evening celebration and the conversation was compelling until someone made the statement: “Frankly, I think this business about an education for its own sake is really the bunk; this idea that you can actually learn about the world by sitting in your study, or the library, just does not seem right — you need some firm relationship with the workplace.”

Someone else chimed in: “I am not sure all this business about studying classics is such a good thing, too. In fact, it might be a good idea to limit the number of requirements regarding the so-called ‘great books’ approach.”

Interestingly, in the 150 years since Charles Dickens invented then criticized Mr. Gradgrind, with his “facts, facts, facts,” perhaps such hard times are back for Ontario universities?

No more conjugating Latin irregular verbs, no more cultivating “elitist skills” including the study of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid in their original languages. No need to understand the nuances of Plato or Aristotle or read the legal and political writings of Marcus Aurelius. What a loss!

Poet and critic Matthew Arnold published one of the great works of the 19th Century, “Culture and Anarchy,” where he dealt with questions vexing our educational systems today, namely how to get a largely uneducated population ready to play an expanding role in an expanding democracy.

In the introduction he wrote that the entire scope of his essay: “Is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said.” Arnold placed at the start of his work: “Estote ergo vos perfecti.” Loosely translated meaning, “Therefore, perfect yourselves.”

For Arnold, the essential quality that a more civilized and humane people needed was a general education.  And even if perfection remains unattainable, it could be approached most effectively through a greater understanding of all that had happened in the world of other lands and civilizations and many ways of thought. Matthew Arnold railed against utilitarianism and extended John Ruskin’s notion that before the electorate can properly use political power, it must be educated — in the broadest sense.

Matthew Arnold referred to the propagation of education, the extension of “sweetness and light.” And while such terms might sound flippant, they do convey the warmth and brightness of civilization, what Winston Churchill described as the counterpoint to Adolf Hitler’s chill darkness: “those broad, sunlit uplands.”

For many of us “sweetness and light” or learning for learning’s sake has as one of its goals, as Montesquieu puts it: “To render an intelligent being yet more intelligent.” In other words, the purpose of culture is to enable people to question their “stock notions and habits.”  Once this is done, “the moral, social and beneficent character of culture becomes manifest.”

Like Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind, many feel that learning is all about utility.  And even worse than his blinkered emphases once people have their basic education and the skills allowing them to survive in the world of leisure or work, they often have no further intellectual interests. They are without a sustaining curiosity.

As a result, our age is darker than it need be; people of our day have been made vulnerable to cynical manipulation. They have been duped into thinking that the superficial extension of liberties is a substitute for the real power that comes with knowledge and understanding.

Only through greater knowledge and understanding can we be true to ourselves and to others — all the while Matthew Arnold’s “ignorant armies clash on that darkling plain.”

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