By John von Heyking, July 26, 2010 in What is Education?
(See Part 1)
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.
Brann adds two key observations to show the distinctiveness education in the American republic to that of the ancient republic.
First, the “public thing” of the modern republic is instrumental. It promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the republic does not dictate the meaning of happiness to citizens, at least not directly. The “public thing” is instrumental to the good of the individual. This instrumentalization of the “public thing” might be seen as what happens to republicanism when squeezed through the press of Christianity, where individuals owe ultimate allegiance to God, not to their republic. This instrumentalization might be seen in the fact that the American revolution agrees with the liberté and égalité slogans of the more “religious” French Revolution, but omits fraternité.
However, and this leads to the second point, the omission of fraternité as one of the defining components of the regime is only apparent, as the founders thought it needs to be transmitted through back channels, namely, through education. Thus, the Founders of the republic considered the education of the young (including higher education) one of the key features of republican statecraft.
Joel Barlow, the “poet of the Revolution,” points out the relationship of friendship to republican education: “The liberal sciences are in their nature republican; they delight in reciprocal communication; they cherish fraternal feelings, and lead to a freedom of intercourse, combined with the restraint of society, which contribute together to our improvement” (quoted on p. 48).
For his (central) part, Thomas Jefferson wished to inculcate “universal philanthropy” and understood virtue to consist of being useful to others (53). Brann notes that the early republican writers were advocates of a state and even national system of higher education: “they expected such centralization to make for more intellectually powerful, selectively accessible, nationally unifying institutions of learning, but they were oddly blithe about the dangers of domination such institutions exercise at their best and the mediocrity they spread at their worst” (50).
In regarding education as the backdoor in which to import fraternité, the republican writers then represent one pole of the dual nature of citizen in the modern republic – that of a member or part of society. The burgeoning of private colleges after the Revolution represents the other pole – that of the citizen who is a person whose dignity transcends the “public thing.” The dual nature of the res publica implies education receives governmental direction, but it must also be initiated and maintained in civil society. The tension between good human being and good citizen depends on keeping the balance between these two modes of education vital.
In my subsequent posts, I shall consider three central paradoxes Brann discusses that arise from the interplay between education and republic: the utility of education (can and should liberal education be useful?); tradition (how does a modern republic, born of revolution, relate itself to a civilizational inheritance?); and rationality (is the republican mode of thinking friendly to liberal education?).