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The Restoration of a Thinking Polis Has but One Solution: Classical Education, Part One

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes a stinging critique of the modern mind. The academic elites or, as Lewis calls them, ‘the conditioners,’ produce habits of living and learning derived from seemingly settled philosophical and theological conclusions. Of course, many of the conditioners’ settled conclusions are, in fact, quite unsettled and painfully unsettling upon further scrutiny. Their premises are laid out: there is no objective human nature because there is no such thing as universal humanness, only subjective particulars which are given the name “human.” All linguistic expressions of objectivity are simply “nomine,” or names given to particulars which thinkers like Plato assume share some essence. The conditioners reject any such universal essence shared by mankind. Man, instead, is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, able to be molded and formed into any desired product. The optimal desired product is defined by the consensus of the conditioners. The conditioners declare that all experience of human existence has a direct material cause and is ultimately aimed towards subjective happiness because there is no longer an objective path towards human happiness given that the conditioners condition out of society the idea of a universal human essence and, thus, a universal telos to human life. Society, then, elevates the freedom of choice with the noble savage as exemplar. People are to be free; free to do, be, think, and feel anything that makes them happy.

The conditioners decided what was best for humanity and promoted innovators from their academic enclaves who would bring about the Utopia for which we are conditioned. The innovators said, “let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such.” With no universal source of objective value, the innovators went ever on, innovating man so efficiently that they innovated man out of existence.

The real irony of this past century of innovation is that the modern innovators are perplexed by the outcome which they themselves conditioned. The global pandemic has exposed the irony. COVID is surging and the conditioners cannot understand why people will not simply listen to the experts. Of course, they have ignored the simple question: which experts ought we to listen and why ought we to listen? You cannot derive an ought from an is. The entire foundation of their worldview is instinct, and they have built an entire ethic upon it. However, instincts are the “is” and they desperately want for us to derive from instinct their desired “ought.” Their answer to the question, why, is the paternalistic response, “because I said so.”

We decry the rise of QAnon and wonder aloud why people can no longer think critically. The conditioners built a system which rendered useless the very critical thinking for which they now plead. If there is no universal objective value, then by what measure do we think critically? We have access to endless facts and no mind with which to critique them. How can a student solve a math problem if conditioned to believe that 2+2 has no solution which is transcendent of and objectively discoverable by the pupil’s mind? Universal subjectivity of all truth has no limiting principle. In Lewis’ day, the conditioners came for language. The deconstructionists finished in the 70’s the work begun by Lewis’ contemporaries decades before. Now, the conditioners have come for everything. Subjectivity in biology. Subjectivity in mathematics. Each man is to follow his instincts. Each man has become his own epistemological center. Perception is reality.

Lewis foresaw this inevitability nearly 80 years ago. Now, in the midst of political polarization, rampant conspiracy theorizing, a global pandemic, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty, our conditioners make demands of the polis which they themselves have made impossible. “Follow the science!” “Trust the election officials!” “Do not fall prey to conspiracy theories circulating on social media!” C.S. Lewis provides the response to such demands, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

In our conditioned world, each perceived choice by an individual is actually made from the innovator’s conclusions. As any student of logic knows, poor premises lead to poor conclusions. We think we are making choices, but we have been robbed of the ability to reason from objectivity by the innovators’ conclusion that objectivity is an allusion. So, we are left to reason from subjective feelings. Some on both the political left and right operate with the ingrained assumption that what we need is a better technique or an innovation to make subjective individuals happy. Lewis writes, “for the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern man, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.” The free pursuit of the “self-interest utility maximizing” of Ayn Rand and the free pursuit of one’s own truth are but two sides of one coin.

Freedom did not always mean what we now believe. As Patrick Deneen notes in Why Liberalism Failed, “To be free, above all, was to be free from enslavement to one’s own basest desires, which could never be fulfilled, and the pursuit of which could only foster ceaseless craving and discontent.” The American Polis is a collection of self-interest utility maximizers and hyper-individualized desirers with ceaseless cravings and endless discontentment. There is but one solution to this problem and it is the opposite of an innovation: a return to permanence, a fixedness on objective reality, and the formation of citizens who seek to conform their souls to that objective reality. The solution is classical education.

Young people need to be educated and molded to pursue true freedom; the freedom to know and love that which is true, good, and beautiful. They will see that God designed them for a life of virtue and moral character. If they embrace objective reality, they will be wise, just, courageous, and temperate. Broad classical education will produce a polis prepared to act wisely, pursue justice, walk in courage, and to be tempered by moderation. As we call for justice in racial inequity, for wise decisions on economic policy, communicable disease response, and environmental degradation, for temperance amidst a global pandemic, and for courageous leaders to guide us in each, let us begin to produce young men and women with the virtuous character necessary to be such leaders. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” True intelligence is an intimate knowledge of objective truth, and that knowledge produces character. If we have no objective value, then there can be no moral character because moral character assumes a universal. If I am told to be kind to others, I must first understand the term ‘kind’ and its objective function in real interpersonal interactions. If I lack an objective standard, I am left to act on a subjective definition. My subjective standard will come into conflict with another’s subjective standard and will make it impossible to be kind in the real world. Every instance will be subjectively interpreted.

We should ignore the conditioners and the innovators because we can objectively say they were wrong. They led us astray. We went down the wrong road, which converged at a fork long ago. We ought to turn around, return to the fork, and take the proper path. If there is a classical school in your area, send your children there. If not, start one. If you are able, classically homeschool. Pursue School Choice and enable working class and poor families to gain meaningful access to classical schools. We do not need a new innovation to solve these complex problems. We simply need to, like the Prodigal Son, turn around and head home.

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