By John von Heyking, July 19, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
A few weeks back I suggested that Eva Brann’s Paradoxes of Education in a Republic is one of the top five books on liberal education written in the past 35 years. In this and the next few posts, I shall revisit this marvelous book to consider how well it speaks to the current situation in higher education. Brann is tutor and former dean of St. John’s College, the great-texts college in Annapolis, Maryland.
She first published her book in 1979, before the political correctness of the 1980s hit hard in American universities, and before the “research ideal” (1) drove up the costs of higher education and (2) created a system of incentives that require scholars to become so specialized to render them ill-equipped to think seriously about the nature of liberal education (to say nothing of teaching in this mode). By returning to Brann’s concise book, one gains clarity on why these recent (and related) developments in the academy are permutations of paradoxes found within the very nature of education in a modern republic.
One of the virtues of Brann’s book is the extent to which she ties together the nature of education with the nature of the republic. To modify her argument concerning the college that “education should be temporally cosmopolitan and spatially parochial,” her book considers the tension between the cultivation of the good citizen and of the good human being, and reflects upon the paradoxes of this tension as it takes place within the American republic.
The meaning of republic itself is paradoxical because the “public thing” (the literal meaning of res publica) assigns a dual position to a citizen as one who, qua member of society, is a part of that society, and qua person, is a dignity that transcends it. So far, this formulation suggests a close affinity between education in a modern republic with that of Aristotle, who provided the classic statement that the good citizen is not the same as the good human being.