Reflections on Eva Brann's Paradoxes of Education in a Republic--Tradition's Paradoxes
By John von Heyking, August 9, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

Educators today are frequently slaves to the new, either by slavishly embracing every innovation in educational theory and technique, or by groaning under the burden of unwanted innovations imposed upon them by administrators who absurdly regard themselves as channeling the zeitgeist.

Eva Brann reminds us that innovation is the very meaning of modernity, taken from the Latin, “modo.”  No one needs reminding of how much our culture embraces “change.”

Yet, change is paradoxical.  Does it mean a complete abandonment of the old?  Or is the new merely a refashioning and rearranging of the old?  Consider the innovators themselves:  all the founders of the U.S. republic were classically trained, and all of them, by varying degrees, sought to liberate their generation from the classical tradition.  For them, and for modern philosophers from whom they learned, the “tradition” had become a pile of accreted words that bore little relevance to the things to which these same modern thinkers turned their attention.  Thus, the modern preference for studying things instead of words.

Yet, this modern turn produces a problem for modern thought and for the republic that was inspired by modern thought.  It is not only slightly hypocritical that the education that made Madison and Jefferson so great will now be denied to subsequent generations who benefit from their liberation.  One thinks here of the claim Francis Fukuyama made of Lenin and his revolution – that it took Tsarist Russia to breed Lenin, and the revolution he led was meant to prevent future Lenins from arising. 

But the problem of innovation runs deeper.  Brann observes that this spirit of innovation and liberation, which views the old as obsolete, ends up obscuring the meaning of the founding of the republic itself.  This happens all the time in the sciences, where the originating thoughts that transformed the meaning of science (i.e., Galileo, Bacon, etc.) get ignored.  For scientists, this does not become such a big problem until scientists start making unwarranted claims for scientific knowledge (a common phenomenon, especially in the last 50 years or so).  However, the ignorance of originating thoughts is perhaps a problem more acute for political ideas, especially those that constituted the republic.


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John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.