Used to think the greatest value of a St. John’s Great Books education lay in reading all those old guys and thus being saved from chronological snobbery. Now, however, it’s clear that the greatest value is having the experience of carrying on serious, sometimes heated but almost always civil conversations with people who vehemently disagree with you. This seems to be a lost art. At St. John’s, one would daily exchange criticisms and witticisms with people who truly loved Plato and Aristotle, the Bible and Euclid – and people who hated those same things. There were real, live Marxists and Freudians – and people who despised everything Marx and Freud stood for. And so on, down the reading list. And day after day, for four years, those were the people you were in class with, eating lunch with, dancing with – and trying to figure out grown-up books with (often – hey, we read Marx) grown-up ideas in them.
The students, even back in 1976 when I started, were almost entirely of the unconscious herd. Few had any idea what we were assuming about the world, and so many political and cultural issues were just so *obvious* to us that challenges were more baffling than threatening. Except that I had been raised Catholic, and thus was familiar with the idea that decent people could be completely wrong, I was no different.
Students then and now, and probably always, are to a large extent sheep. Me included. There were also, however, professors, called tutors. Their job description is to be the best student in the class. That meant they didn’t get to lecture, taught by example how to carry on a respectful argument, and, very occasionally, jumped in when things were getting out of hand. Many – most, even – truly seemed to believe that a right conclusion reached through poor thinking was not an entirely good thing, and that a wrong conclusion reached with honesty and vigor was to be respected, and the holder of such a well thought out yet wrong opinion held in esteem, even.
By senior year, almost all of the students completely got the whole art of serious discussion of serious ideas, and could act as tutors in the St. John’s sense. That was the almost the whole point of the education, it now seems to me.
Now, at St. John’s, respect and esteem were expressed most perfectly in going after the holder of well-thought-out-yet-wrong ideas hammer and tong. Have at it! That was the whole point! One or both of you might change your minds, and, at the very least, gain some clarity – a very good thing.
Thus, two of the tutors I loved and respected the most were holders of some terrible ideas, a state more evident now to my currently aged mind than I was aware of at the time. But they were good guys, willing to go at it, and treated us 18 year old air-headed naifs as if our ideas were worth listening to- a thing not at all easy .
Don’t know if this state of respectful intellectual warfare was ever the norm in academia here in America, but it seems one must attend one of a few tiny, fringe schools to get it today. This is a major tragedy, with major repercussions. The infantile assumption, almost universally made, is that one’s political opponents are gullible rubes if not out-and-out evil, and that their failure to see things my way, even after I explain it to them, is incomprehensible without the assumption that they are either hopelessly stupid and evil.
If unchecked, these attitudes lead with the inexorable force of gravity to gulags and death camps. St. Louis’s perhaps apocryphal rule for dealing with barbarians – you either reason with them, or run them through with the sword – should, properly understood, strongly incline us to reason with them, if for no other reason than that they are unlikely for long to let us run them through with the sword without spirited resistance. We must learn to argue with anyone who is willing to argue, which is, sadly, a small and dwindling crowd.
We wrap this up with a couple quotations:
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
And one of my favorite John Taylor Gatto quotations, wherein he recounts his experience having a Jesuit (back in the 1930s, when most Jesuits were still giants) teach his third-grade class about manipulation:
At the age of eight, while public school children were reading stories about talking animals, we had been escorted to the eggshell-thin foundation upon which authoritarian vanity rests and asked to inspect it.There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool human intelligence.