Walter Scott, and Jim Kalb, on Education

Reading and courtship combined

The citizens of Western societies are more educated than they have ever been before, if education can be measured by things like time spent in school and number of higher degrees awarded. But what is the result of all this education? If the goal of higher education is to inculcate in young people the knowledge, mental skills, and virtue of character needed to act as leaders of society, we are being led by what is probably the worst-educated group of people in our entire history. We have experts in finance who are unaware that you can’t spend money that you don’t have; experts on gender who can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman; and experts on religion who don’t understand that Islam is the religion of jihad. And so we stumble along, blind to the dangers looming up ahead, absorbed in the particular tasks of our profession that seem oddly disconnected from the big picture. 

What has gone wrong with education in the West? 

Jim Kalb has written very perceptively on the present-day understanding of higher education as being not about the search for knowledge or the pursuit of virtue, but rather about learning how to be a skillful social administrator in a world devoid of higher truths and a common public interest. Observing a commencement ceremony at a “prestigious Northeastern liberal arts college,” Kalb takes the underlying meaning of the college president’s speech to be the following: 

…what distinguishes every graduate of the institution is that he has the qualities of a supremely skilled and disinterested administrator. In every situation he understands the relevant considerations and the viewpoints of all those involved and correctly sorts them into primary and secondary, so that he is able to come to a superior conclusion readily recognizable as such because it only makes manifest the internal logic of the situation and the goals and needs of those involved. That ability means people need and accept him as a leader and he should never fail to act as such. Such a conclusion will apply even more strongly to next year’s class since next year there will be even more knowledge available for them to apply to problems. 

Regarding the nature of knowledge and the way that educated people should make use of knowledge, the message at the ceremony was: 

The unity of the talks had an obvious ethical and metaphysical basis in a common theory of the world everyone took for granted. In that theory the world is composed of lots and lots of things, each different from all the others. In the ignorant and unjust past order of a sort was achieved through concepts of identity that subordinated one thing to another and so enabled people to say what things are and do something about them. Such concepts are arbitrary, though, since they do not give each separate thing its due and are a matter of popular prejudice or the advantage of the powerful rather than careful investigation. Therefore all inherited concepts of identity must be dissolved and replaced by rationally-designed structures based on human ingenuity and the most general principles and not at all on anything that’s been done before. Naturally, there have to be people to promote the dissolution and to design and enforce the structures, and that’s where the college and its graduates come in.

And indeed this is the gist of what is said in many commencement speeches today. Consider a few excerpts from a speech given at Texas Lutheran University in December 2007: 

…[L]ife is not simple. For as much as we attempt to simplify life’s hard issues into black and white – the reality is life is filled with numerous shades of gray. Every day lawyers argue to me the nuances of words written in a statute or the multiple meanings of certain acts or omissions made by some party. 

…[T]his grey will appear in all walks of your life. Your generation will shape a whole host of business, legal, social and cultural issues. Intellectual property and patent issues await this generation and its ease with technology. The business world awaits your arrival and fresh set of lens with which to view and audit the corporate boardrooms. Your generation will herald a change in the composition of the legal and medical profession – professions that will reflect more women and minority practitioners than ever before.

Your generation will also tackle the issues of immigration, gay rights, school prayer, free speech, gun control, abortion, flag burning, review of petitions for habeas, privacy issues, the war on terrorism and capital punishment. The debate regarding these issues, if you can characterize it as a debate, has hardly been civil. There is always a danger that in defining a clear line to separate black and white and not recognizing the grey, one fosters an exclusive, divisive and potentially cruel orthodoxy.

Well I have focused almost exclusively on imploring you to engage in continuous study so that you appreciate the nuances of gray and understand the ramifications of what color gradation you have selected. 

There you have it. Our leaders in all walks of society have been taught the importance of hairsplitting, nuanced, neutral discourse. They’ve probably had a smidgen of non-Western culture or gender studies thrown in to remind them that their own world view has no particular validity outside of their personal lives. 

They have not learned to see the big picture. They have been taught, indeed that there is no big picture. 

Sir Walter Scott had a different idea of higher education. It was not for the many, but for the few, those blessed both with the background and the natural ability qualifying them to be gentlemen.  In Scott’s novel Waverley (1814), he discusses the education of young Edward Waverley, who is being raised as the likely heir to his uncle’s estate. Edward is extremely gifted, and has what we would consider a phenomenal education in classical and modern foreign languages and in the literature of various countries: 

In English literature he was master of Shakespeare and Milton, of our earlier dramatic authors, of many picturesque and interesting passages from our old historical chronicles, and was particularly well acquainted with Spenser, Drayton, and other poets who have exercised themselves on romantic fiction, of all themes the most fascinating to a youthful imagination, before the passions have roused themselves and demand poetry of a more sentimental description. In this respect his acquaintance with Italian opened him yet a wider range…. In classical literature, Waverley had made the usual progress, and read the usual authors…. The Spanish had contributed to his stock of chivalrous and romantic lore. The earlier literature of the northern nations did not escape the study of one who read rather to awaken the imagination than to benefit the understanding. 

And yet, in Scott’s mind, Waverley’s education is inadequate, and sets the stage for great mishaps in later life. Why is it inadequate? As the passages above indicate, Waverly’s reading inculcates in him fanciful, romantic ideas not appropriate for mature men. But there is also a defect in the character of his education itself. His tutor introduces him to the sciences and to the various languages, but does not instill in his charge the ability to study in a disciplined manner. He therefore reads for pleasure and puts away anything that no longer captures his imagination. 

His powers of apprehension were so uncommonly quick as almost to resemble intuition, and the chief care of his preceptor was to prevent him, as a sportsman would phrase it, from over-running his game ….[T]he instructor had to combat another propensity too often united with brilliancy of fancy and vivacity of talent — that indolence, namely, of disposition, which can only be stirred by some strong motive of gratification, and which renounces study as soon as curiosity is gratified, the pleasure of conquering the first difficulties exhausted, and the novelty of pursuit at an end. Edward would throw himself with spirit upon any classical author of which his preceptor proposed the perusal, make himself master of the style so far as to understand the story, and, if that pleased or interested him, he finished the volume. But it was in vain to attempt fixing his attention on critical distinctions of philology, upon the difference of idiom, the beauty of felicitous expression, or the artificial combinations of syntax. ‘I can read and understand a Latin author,’ said young Edward, with the self-confidence and rash reasoning of fifteen, ‘and Scaliger or Bentley could not do much more.’

Impressive indeed! But Scott does not see it this way: 

Alas! while he was thus permitted to read only for the gratification of his amusement, he foresaw not that he was losing for ever the opportunity of acquiring habits of firm and assiduous application, of gaining the art of controlling, directing, and concentrating the powers of his mind for earnest investigation — an art far more essential than even that intimate acquaintance with classical learning which is the primary object of study.

Scott objects to the idea, apparently current in 1814, that learning necessarily be made pleasurable: 

The history of England is now reduced to a game at cards, the problems of mathematics to puzzles and riddles, and the doctrines of arithmetic may, we are assured, be sufficiently acquired by spending a few hours a week at a new and complicated edition of the Royal Game of the Goose [a board game]. There wants but one step further, and the Creed and Ten Commandments may be taught in the same manner, without the necessity of the grave face, deliberate tone of recital, and devout attention, hitherto exacted from the well-governed childhood of this realm. 

And as a result Edward was unprepared for the challenges he would meet as a young man of position in a period of social turmoil and civil rebellion. 

[Despite] knowing much that is known but to few, Edward Waverley might justly be considered as ignorant, since he knew little of what adds dignity to man, and qualifies him to support and adorn an elevated situation in society.

I think, linking these passages with Kalb’s observations on the educational philosophy currently reigning at our universities (and at every other level), that in Scott’s time education was about developing the character to be a good citizen and leader, and about learning about the history and culture of the West so as to be qualified to be a custodian of one’s society and people. Such education was not for the multitude, but for the privileged few, who were not only privileged but burdened with the responsibility of their position. It included, for men, not only the arts and sciences but also military training, and the fundamentals of one’s education were completed by age 15 or so. Further education was largely a matter of self-study, unless one pursued a profession like medicine or the clergy. 

In our liberal society committees and boards of directors constantly meet to make vital decisions affecting the entire society. In most cases, they meet in rooms filled not with cigar smoke but with the intoxicating vapors of political correctness, meaning that essential realities underlying the pressing issues – war, immigration, education, finance, medicine – are hardly spoken of, often not even perceived. 

I am sure many of my readers have witnessed this. 

While the democratization of our educational system has brought about many good things, Scott’s notion of the education of a gentleman is pertinent today. Our leaders should be able to make fine distinctions, yes, but they should also be able to see the big picture, starting with knowing what nation they belong to, who they represent, and what it is that they are supposed to protect. And they need to be trained in public virtue as well as in knowledge management techniques. Let us be frank: our present society is led mainly by people who are either oblivious to or in denial of where things are heading, and who are focused on their careers rather than the interests of their nation and people. Those of us who see this have much work to do in educating ourselves and informing others. While it is not clear what we can do at this stage, an old-fashioned sense of honor, at least, should compel us to keep trying.


7 Responses to Walter Scott, and Jim Kalb, on Education

  1. Terry Morris says:

    The “grey” should serve to inform us that there is black and white, for without either of them there could be no grey, nor any shade thereof. To concentrate one’s focus on the grey, which is to say denying the importance of black and white, is, to borrow from the speaker, to foster exclusive, divisive, and cruel orthodoxy.

    Nice post!

  2. I am sure that many of my readers have witnessed this.

    Perhaps, but not in such depth as you describe.

    You do not hesitate to treat the big themes, do you? I agree with Terry: nice post!

  3. stephenhopewell says:

    Terry, thank you. And nicely put. When Scott talks about “critical distinctions of philology … difference of idiom, the beauty of felicitous expression, or the artificial combinations of syntax,” he is talking about seeing nuances as they pertain to larger truths. Exactly the opposite of the endless “shades of grey”!

    Howard, thank you. I’m enjoying your site as well. I’d like to add it to my blogroll, if that’s OK with you.

  4. Terry Morris says:

    Stephen, yes, I’ve used this and similar analogies before, but to put it in geographical terms, for instance, to say that the earth is tilted at an angle of 23 1/2 degrees is really meaningless without reference to the bigger picture. The earth is tilted relative to something, and that something is the plane of its orbit around the sun. Likewise, if we were studying a piece of art, say a Rembrandt, we wouldn’t focus on the nuances of the painting — the various shadings, the individual brush strokes, and so forth — without reference to the whole piece of art, and that in reference to the whole life of Rembrandt, etc. A text out of context is a pretext, as they say. And to instruct children to see the world in which they live as consisting in “the grey” is a pretext for making them nihilists. I’m not saying that the teachers and professors who engage this practice necessarily realize what they’re doing (they too were more or less educated under this philosophy), but it is what it is. Worldview is everything!

  5. Terry Morris says:


    I’ve been reading “The Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury” by Maury’s daughter, Diana Fontaine Corbit. Maury, as you’re probably aware, was the first superintendent of the National Observatory in Washington. He discovered and developed the science of Oceanography, and wrote a book on the subect entitled “The Physical Geography of the Sea, and its Meteorology.” He is known affectionately as “The Pathfinder of the Seas.”

    Anyway, in his daughter’s biography she explains the educational method of her father by relating a couple of stories involving she and her siblings. It seems that Maury’s children were not allowed to read Novels. However, when a friend of the family offered to loan Diana and one of her sisters a novel that she had in her possession, the girls decided, given this woman’s high standing with their father, that his rule could be bent in this case. When Maury discovered that his daughters had broken his rule he took the book from them, led them to the living room in their home, and forced them to witness the reducing of the book to mere ashes as he held it over the fire in the fireplace. According to Diana, many tears were shed by the girls as they witnessed this “book burning,” and both of them had much rather taken a whipping than to watch this borrowed book burn. But the consequences of their disobedience could not have been more effectively seared into their memories than by this event. Can you imagine the reaction of modern Americans at hearing of a parent exercising such psychologically damaging disciplinary methods today?! I mean, it doesn’t matter what they’re reading or for what purpose, as long as they’re reading, right? ;-)

  6. I’m enjoying your site, as well. I’d like to add it to my blogroll, if that’s OK with you.

    You do me honor. Please add it.

  7. stephenhopewell says:

    Terry, thank you for sharing the episode. I didn’t know about Maury, but there are several interesting-looking titles by and about him on Amazon. My gosh, how we neglect the 19th century!

    So, he considered Novels decadent/immoral/a waste of time? It is interesting how certain art forms and genres progress from disreputable/vulgar to classic/high-class. And sometimes it goes the opposite way too.

    Howard, will do, thanks. SH

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