A few years ago I wrote at National Review about the idea of “the free-born mind,” as C.S. Lewis presented it in The Abolition of Man. He writes on the repercussions for a culture that has decoupled the civic and moral aspects of its shared identity into separate and competing arenas.

What results? Cultural schizophrenia, where the warden-caretaker becomes the master:

As a result of the theory of sovereignty, [which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act of will] Lewis observed, “Rulers have become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.” As the state offers us less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Despite all the talk of education reform of all varieties and degrees in America, a still surprising amount of the conversation is focused on the tactical rather than strategic. Too much talk about iPads and whiteboards. Too much focus on whether Wikipedia might be a legitimate learning tool.

On the strategic end, I’m suggesting a more sustained conversation on our first principles, on answering questions like:

  • Who do we want our children to grow up understanding themselves to be?
  • What historical narrative and flow can we help them to discover and join?
  • Should we equip students with a love of the Greek tradition and its heroes?
  • Do we any longer care about the idea of our Constitutional history?

These are questions often either laughed at or utterly ignored, so the implied answer seems to be: No, to hell with all that.

Anyway, continuing with Lewis, perhaps my favorite excerpt:

“I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

Wonderfully vivid: a citizen snapping his fingers at ideology and pretense.

Whether the specific “strategic” type questions I posed above really matter or not can be debated. What I’m really trying to get at is answering how a culture (through education) can transmit a coherent a narrative about itself and the world to the young. This is the age-old question.

In November 2011 I did an on-air radio recitation from Joe Paterno’s 1989 autobiography Paterno: By the Book in which he talks about Virgil’s Aeneas and how his reading of it (in Latin) shaped his entire life and approach to coaching college football:

 

“Once a person has experienced a genuine masterpiece,” writes Paterno in reflecting on the Aeneas, “the size and scope of it last as a memory forever.”

Ben Novak joined me on the broadcast, explaining Paterno’s reflection:

That was once the meaning of a college education, to have that experience that lasted forever. Joab Thomas gave a talk to the Board of Trustees [of Penn State] in the early 1990s pointing out that almost every one of our curricula (science and business and so forth) had their maximum value upon graduation to get your first job, and they declined in value every year after that as what they learned became obsolete. Everything was moving so fast in business and science and engineering that almost everything you learned was obsolete five years after you graduated! What Joe was pointing out in the original idea of an education, to experience the masterpieces in college, was that those experiences grow in value with every year of your life.

Cultural masterpieces like the works of the Greeks, or the Constitution and the whole constellation of history and principles that inform it, are sufficiently far removed from the present and sufficiently time-proven that they represent a means to approach reforming a coherent narrative.

They represent excellent things, enriching things that elevate a person beyond his particular milieu and can help him know when the time has come to “snap his fingers” at meddlers and ideologies alike.