A revised, refined, and improved version of this post has been published in Reason Papers. You can read it here.
Comments on my previous post reporting Mill’s comments on the American Civil War led to some discussion of education. I’ve been teaching for ten years, and so I’ve given a good amount of thought to education, but much of that thought has been about the peculiarities of the subjects I teach: classical languages, literature, and philosophy, with a bit of writing and rhetoric thrown in. I’ve thought less, though still quite a bit, about broader questions in education. Probably the most politically divisive issue in education concerns public education: should we have it, what is it for, how should it be done, and how should we regard various alternatives to it? As often, mainstream political opinion seems to split into two rival camps, neither of which strikes me as satisfying. Though people disagree about details, there’s a discernible trend: progressives tend to be fans of public education and want to increase its funding massively, conservatives tend to be severe critics of public education and prefer some sort of alternative. Rather, many and perhaps most people don’t have strong views about this topic, but when someone does, the severe critics tend to be conservative and the fierce supporters tend to be progressives. As usual, I do not have a firm, settled view on these matters. But insofar as I have any views on the matter, they tend somewhat in the conservative direction in one respect and in the progressive direction in another: we ought to have a much greater variety of schools to choose from, with much greater local autonomy on the part of the schools (the ‘conservative’ part), and we ought to have a lot more funding of a far more equitable sort (the ‘progressive’ part).
I don’t find anything odd about this combination, but it seems to be an unpopular one. Support for ‘school choice’ in general and for charter schools in particular tends to be seen as a right-wing view, while support for vastly increasing public spending on education tends to be seen as a left-wing view. Of course, there’s a reason for this: conservatives hate taxes, while the mantra of ‘school choice’ stands not only for an increase in the diversity and autonomy of schools, but for efforts to have taxpayers fund fully private and religious schools. Debates about charter schools are also complicated by differences among charter schools and the kind of oversight to which they’re subjected in different states; while the best charter schools are non-profit organizations that seek to admit students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, some prominent charter schools are in reality for-profit businesses that effectively price out lower-income families through fees and related expenses. So, as so often, the issues here are complex, but our political discourse tends to reduce them to two bad package deals. On the level of general principle, though, I wonder just what is wrong with John Stuart Mill’s take in On Liberty (I promise that the Mill posts will stop soon!):
In nearly four decades of life as an American, I’ve heard a whole lot of conflicting things about the Civil War. Probably the most contentious point is about what slavery had to do with it. My own elementary education made clear that the principal issue in the war was slavery, but that this issue was mixed up with more general disputes about states’ rights and federal authority. That same education made it clear that the North fought the war primarily in order to end slavery, but also to “preserve the Union.” It was only in early adulthood that I learned that this is apparently not how the Civil War is presented to many young Americans and that there is a lot of disagreement about it. Evidently many, maybe most, kids are taught that the war was primarily about states’ rights and that slavery was a secondary issue. People — including historians who actually have some claim to know what they’re talking about — disagree about exactly what combination of factors motivated the North to fight. But a fair number of people I’ve encountered, mainly people without any historical credentials but a few with some, have barked at me about how the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery at all, but was entirely about economics; slaves mattered for that reason, but for that reason only.
I’m not about to enter into this dispute. I do, however, find it worth noting what J.S. Mill — yep, him again — thought about the war and his report of English opinion about it. No doubt historical causation is complicated, but it is interesting that, to an outside observer at least, this war was very definitely about slavery, and immensely important.
Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.
Politics and religion sometimes make people say stupid things. They even sometimes make otherwise quite intelligent people say stupid things. Perhaps it’s naive, but it does seem natural enough to expect that unusually intelligent people would have intelligent things to say about things in general, and that they wouldn’t suddenly start sounding like people of merely average or lower intelligence when the conversation turns to religion or politics. This expectation seems to be satisfied insofar as the people who most often have intelligent things to say about politics and religion are, well, otherwise pretty intelligent. But it continues to astound me how often really smart people seem to lose hold of their intellects when they think there might be something at stake. I suspect that anyone with a Facebook account has encountered this phenomenon. I have encountered it enough times today that I feel compelled to write about it.
Today’s most egregious offense appeared in a Facebook post complaining about the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools. In case you’ve been living under a rock, ‘intelligent design’ is the label for a loosely related set of theories that criticize Darwinian evolutionary theory and purport to offer an alternative scientific hypothesis about the origin and development of life: life is (surprise!) the product of intelligent design. This family of theories is widely dismissed by scientists and usually endorsed only by religious believers (and not even by many of the most educated and informed religious believers, at that). The controversy that has occasionally boiled up in the United States over whether it should or should not be taught in schools owes much of its heat to its apparent religious implications and motivations; critics charge not only that it is bad science, but that it is a not very covert attempt to inject religious dogma into science classrooms and public education more generally. I’d thought that the political debate about this issue had more or less died a while back, but apparently not, since I found myself this morning reading a rather strong condemnation of efforts to teach intelligent design.
I thought I’d take a break today from philosophy and politics to write about the thing I’m actually supposed to know something about: classical philology. I’m supposed to know Ancient Greek and Latin pretty well, given that I have a PhD in Classics and have been teaching one or another of these languages for ten years. As it happens, my Latin has always lagged far behind my Greek, largely because I’ve always been more interested in Greek philosophy and literature, and so have spent more time reading Greek. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that even after all this time, I still find myself learning things that, in hindsight, seem really obvious and make me wonder how I could possibly have failed to know this until now.
Today’s embarrassingly belated discovery: the origin of our English terms ‘minute’ and ‘second.’
It turns not not everything J.S. Mill wrote continues to read like it was written last week.
Of course, in some ways nothing he wrote reads that way; philosophers no longer write like Mill (which is mostly to the detriment of philosophy), and naturally enough he often makes reference to political and cultural phenomena that have long since changed. It’s in the generalities that so much of what he says could have been written last week, or yesterday, or tomorrow. The following, however, definitely could not have been:
The proper function of a University in national education is tolerably well understood. At least there is a tolerably general agreement about what a University is not. It is not a place of professional education. Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings…Whether those whose specialty they are, will learn them as a branch of intelligence or as a mere trade, and whether, having learned them, they will make a wise and conscientious use of them or the reverse, depends less on the manner in which they are taught their profession, than upon what sort of minds they bring to it — what kind of intelligence, and of conscience, the general system of education has developed in them. Men are men before they are lawyers, or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men, they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians. What professional men should carry away with them from a University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit. Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers – who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details. And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included. Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses. – Inaugural Address at St. Andrews (1867)
About a week and a half ago I wrote about how John Stuart Mill’s remarks on conventional Christianity in 1859 remained remarkably relevant today. Not quite two weeks before that I’d written about ancient Greek and Roman views of the injustice of slavery, suggesting that they might help us remember that what seems obvious to us has not always been so obvious to all intelligent and thoughtful people. After all, many of us might be similarly content with social institutions and practices that later, more enlightened ages will regard as obviously unjust. Today I was reminded that Mill had already made that point, too.
All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse. And hence all social inequalities, which have ceased to be considered expedient, assume the character, not of simple inexpediency, but of injustice, and appear so tyrannical, that people are apt to wonder how they ever could have been tolerated; forgetful that they themselves perhaps tolerate other inequalities under an equally mistaken notion of expediency, the correction of which would make that which they approve seem quite as monstrous as what they have at last learnt to condemn. The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of color, race, and sex. — Utilitarianism, chapter 5.
One of the chief reasons for studying the past and reading old books, as for learning about our contemporaries in other cultures and other parts of the world, is to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human possibilities. It is, however, difficult to spend much time studying the past without being impressed by how similar people can be across wide spans of time and despite great differences of culture. For someone who, like me, has spent many years with his head crammed in books written over two millennia ago, 1859 AD doesn’t seem so long ago, and Victorian England doesn’t seem quite so different from America in 2017. But of course the differences are striking once we zoom in a bit; to take but a few examples, neither the lightbulb nor cocaine had yet been invented, women could not vote and the United States had about 4 million slaves, and probably nobody believed that it would ever be possible to create bombs that could kill millions of people in seconds. It was a different world. Yet John Stuart Mill could write this in On Liberty: