The Aims of Education

Yesterday I finished the chapter titled, “The Aims for Education” in The Conservative Sensibility by George Will.  I believe he has some good insights.  I spend time thinking about education often in relation to our three boys.

Here are some highlights from Will’s chapter on education:

  • “The American regime is founded on the principle that human beings are rights-bearing creatures.  But if that is all they are, we had better batten down the hatches.  Individuals bristling with rights, but with a weak understanding of the manners and morals of community are going to produce an irritable and unneighborly community.” (p.361)
  • “A rights-centered society, must, however, take seriously the fact that duties are not natural.  They must be taught.  Self-interest is common and steady; virtue is rare and unpredictable.  A society devoted to guaranteeing a broad scope for self-interested behavior must be leavened by virtue.  So measures must be taken to make virtue less rare and more predictable.  Among those measures, Americans have always considered education crucial.” (p.362)
  • “Today there is a potentially fatal idea in circulation.  It is the idea that this pluralistic society should not want to have, should not be allowed to have, any core culture passed on from generation to generation.” (p.370)
  • “It is condescending and deeply anti-democratic when intellectuals consign blacks, or women, or ethnics, or the working class, or whomever to confining categories, asserting that they can be fully understood as mere “reflections” of their race, gender, or class, and that members of those groups should be presumed to have the “consciousness” supposedly characteristic of those groups.  The root of such mischief is the assertion that everything is “political”. (p.371)
  • “Education is an apprenticeship in those civilized – and civilizing – things, and not all texts are equal as teachers.” (p.372)
  • “But multiculturalism as a policy is not primarily a response to this fact.  Rather, it is an ideology, the core tenet of which is this: Because all standards for judging cultures are themselves culture-bound, it is wrong to “privilege” Western culture and right to tailor university curricula to rectify the failure to extend proper “recognition” and “validation” to other cultures.  Multiculturalism attacks individualism by defining people as mere manifestations of groups (racial, ethnic, sexual) rather than as self-defining participants in a free society. (p.372)
  • “The proper legacy of Western thought is a mind capable of comprehending and valuing other cultures while avoiding the nihilism that says all cultures are in commensurable and hence of equal merit.” (p.373)

The Thinker Rodin

  • “We are witnessing, on campuses and throughout society, the displacement of learning – a culture of reason and persuasion – by a politics of a peculiar and unwholesome kind, “identity politics.”  Its premise is that the individual is decisively shaped, and irrevocably defined, not by conscious choices but by accidents; that people are defined not by convictions arrived at by reasoning and persuasion, but by accidents of birth and socialization.” (p. 378)
  • “If the premise of identity politics is true, then there is no meaningful sense a universal human nature, and there are no general standards of intellectual discourse, and no ethic of ennobling disputation, no process of civil persuasion toward friendly consent, no source of legitimacy other than power, and we all live immersed in our tribes, warily watching other tribes across the chasms of our “differences.” (p. 379)
  • “The proper purpose of education in American democracy is not to serve as a values cafeteria, where young people are invited, and therefore encouraged, to pick whatever strikes their fancies.  Rather, the purpose of education, and especially higher education, for young citizens of a democracy is to help them identify a rarity excellence – in various realms, and to study what virtues bring it about and make it excellent.” (p.381)
  • “Ours is an age in which children are taught not to discover the good but to manufacture “values”, not so they can lead noble lives but so they can devise pleasant “lifestyles.”  It is an age in which the aim of life is not autonomy in the sense of a life regulated by exacting standards but rather “authenticity” in following strong feelings.” (p. 382)
  • “In today’s therapeutic culture, which seems designed to validate every opinion and feeling, there will rarely be disagreement without anger between thin-skinned people who cannot distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from
    “you’re stupid.”” (p. 387)Cambridge University
  • “Everyone with a smartphone has in his or her pocket, Nichols says, more information “than ever existed in the entire Library of Alexandria.”  This can, however, produce a deluding veneer of erudition and a sense of cheap success.  It would help if people would put their electronic devices away from the center of their existences and pick up a book.” (p.388)

book image

  • “Two converging and reinforcing intellectual tendencies have had demoralizing and de-moralizing effects on the way we understand history.  The first tendency has blurred the picture of human beings as responsible, consequential actors in history.  The second tendency involves painting mankind’s story without the bright primary colors of personal greatness.” (p.396)
  • “And there is something awfully small about someone who cannot admit that anyone else was exceptionally large.” (p. 397)


  • “Nothing is inevitable but change, and the permutations of possible disagreeable outcomes are infinite.  So, prudence calls for auxiliary precautions, the beginning of which should be the restoration of education as a process of learning to praise, and to excavate from history knowledge of the praiseworthy, and of the cautionary, in the human story.” (p.403)

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