Michael Oakeshott’s The Voice Of Liberal Learning

It has become fashionable nowadays to speak of the “crisis in higher education,” evident in exploding costs, over-leveraged students and a job market that can seldom justify the high number of graduates with specialties in increasingly esoteric fields. These are the most remarked upon but hardly the oldest or most important problems facing our universities. At the heart of the matter is a much more dire threat to the traditional mission of universities, and that is a confusion of purpose: there was once a broad consensus that universities existed to discover and disseminate The Truth, and to put students into contact with an intellectual tradition that made that pursuit not only enjoyable but life-giving; today that consensus has been shattered, replaced, in the sciences, by a crude utilitarian calculus seeking to maximize future earnings, and in the humanities with a priest-like devotion to the causes of “social justice,” which takes for granted that all of the relevant truths have already been discovered, and what remains is only to proselytize on their behalf. In The Voice Of Liberal Learning, Michael Oakeshott, one of the most esteemed 20th century political thinkers, traces out a third way, an ideal path, that neither stultifies itself by ignoring the present nor chases every modern fad at the expense of an exposure to our priceless intellectual inheritance.

It should be said, at the outset, that this volume is a collection of essays written over a period of decades, and collected at the request of Oakeshott’s colleagues and friends, who correctly supposed that his writings might add something valuable to the debate over the direction of higher education that has been taking place, almost continuously, since the post-war era. Oakeshott was himself a teacher, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, and his esteem for that profession and its importance to civil society is evident in every essay, every paragraph. Indeed, in Oakeshott’s conception, education isn’t just an adornment to life or a means to an end, but a condition of our very humanity:

What distinguishes a human being, indeed what constitutes a human being, is not merely his having to think, but his thoughts, his beliefs, doubts, understandings, his awareness of his own ignorance, his wants, preferences, choices, sentiments, emotions, purposes and his expression of them in utterances or actions which have meanings; and the necessary condition of all or any of this is that he must have learned it.

The necessary consequence of such a position is that any undermining of our education system, whether deliberate or not, “portends the abolition of man.” By way of example, consider how Oakeshott views the simple act of learning to read; it is not, for him, merely a matter of understanding the written language, of being able to make sense or follow directions or even interpret what has been written down. Rather, it is a form of deep intellectual and philosophical engagement, a meeting of minds only made possible by a special sensitivity on the part of the reader:

[…] learning to read or to listen is a slow and exacting engagement, having little or nothing to do with acquiring information. It is learning to follow, to understand and to rethink deliberate expressions of rational consciousness; it is learning to recognize fine shades of meaning without overbalancing into the lunacy of “decoding”; it is allowing another’s thoughts to reenact themselves in one’s own mind; it is learning in acts of constantly surprised attention to submit to, to understand and to respond to what (in this response) becomes a part of our understanding of ourselves; and one may learn to read only by reading with care, and only from writings which stand well off from our immediate concerns: it is almost impossible to learn to read from contemporary writing.

One can learn to read without learning this special sensitivity, without acquiring the ability to allow “another’s thoughts to reenact themselves in one’s own mind” or allowing what is read to “become a part of our understanding of ourselves.” A deep literary engagement, in Oakeshott’s telling, conditions us, elevating us beyond our normal concerns – those pesky contemporary problems – by inaugurating us into a philosophical heritage as old as man.

What Oakeshott is ultimately defending in these essays is a certain vision of the universities, not as mere training schools for future careerists, and still less as factories run by social engineers obsessed with the question, “What sort of a ‘human being’ do we want and how may he best be manufactured?” It is, instead, a reprieve from the concerns of everyday life, and an initiation into the life of the mind that, he hopes, will provoke a lifelong pursuit, never satisfied but always satisfying. Here, for example, is his description of “what it felt like to be an undergraduate on that first October morning”:

Almost overnight, a world of ungracious fact had melted into infinite possibility; we who belonged to no “leisure class” had been freed for a moment from the curse of Adam, the burdensome distinction between work and play. What opened before us was not a road but a boundless sea; it was enough to stretch one’s sails to the wind. The distracting urgency of an immediate destination was absent, duty no longer oppressed, boredom and disappointment were words without meaning; death was unthinkable. […] Here is an opportunity to put aside the hot allegiances of youth without the necessity of at once acquiring new loyalties to take their place. Here is a break in the tyrannical course of irreparable events; a period in which to look round upon the world and upon oneself without the sense of an enemy at one’s back or the insistent pressure to make up one’s mind; a moment in which to taste the mystery without the necessity of at once seeking a solution.

Here, no doubt, is more ideal than reality, but it is an ideal that we could at least endeavour to achieve. If some concessions must be made to future careers or faddish educational movements, so be it; but the freedom to “taste the mystery” cannot be abolished without also abolishing the very idea of education.

In “A Place of Learning,” written in 1975, Oakeshott describes the demands made by the modern culture on the minds of young people, in terms that must apply exponentially more to today’s youth:

The world in which many children now grow up is crowded, not necessarily with occupants and not at all with memorable experiences, but with happenings; it is a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation. A child quickly becomes aware that he cannot too soon plunge into this flow or immerse himself in it too quickly; to pause is to be swept with the chilling fear of never having lived at all. There is little chance that his perceptions, his emotions, his admirations and his ready indignations might become learned responses or be even innocent fancies of his own; they come to him prefabricated, generalized and uniform. He lurches from one modish conformity to the next, or from one fashionable guru to his successor, seeking to lose himself in a solidarity composed of exact replicas of himself.

This, I remind you, was written long before the internet or social media – in other words, before the digital world eradicated all distinction between the public and private self. Today’s students, even the brightest among them, are often exactly as Oakeshott here describes: swept away by the fast-running currents of the culture, too busy conforming to the latest intellectual trends to ever pause and reflect on them, and seldom choosing the lonely path of individuality over the self-eradicating comfort of conformity. Oakeshott’s essays on education are simultaneously a sad reminder of what we have lost, an indictment of those who brought us here, and a potentially useful guide moving forward.