David Brooks’ brief op-ed tells a good story. It is about the value of a non-specialized education, perhaps even a liberal education. It is about the relationship between theory and practice, about big ideas and big events. Maybe it’s about the how a young person sees the old, and vica versa. It is about judgments, the word that most people in the academy want to avoid like the plague. No, it is really more about learning. Actually, it is about what it is to be a student and how it is that universities should not encourage "squirrel-like specialization." In the end, it is about what a student should be and what a teacher should be. Brooks leads me to a short thought (I know, you’re surprised).
When Freshmen enter my Understanding Politics class they always look for the wrong things. They look for the narrow and the limited. They think we are going to talk about who gets what and how, which group wants a revolution, or how a bill becomes a law, which special interest has the most influence and why. Then they note in order to understand the daily headlines, the first thing we read is Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, and we do so not because we are interested in Persian history. Xenophon’s first paragraph goes something like this: Isn’t it interesting how many democracies have been brought down "by those who wished the governing to be done in some other way than under a democracy." And he mentions monarchies and oligarchies and tyrannies. He also notes that cattlemen and horsemen are the rulers of cattles and horses, and those animals are more willing to obey their rulers than are men. Men are hard to rule, maybe even impossible to rule: "human beings unite against none more than against those whom they perceive attempting to rule them."
And then Xenophon says that because there was Cyrus who acquired "very many people, very many cities, and very many nations, all obedient to himself" in may be possible to say that ruling human beings is not impossible, or even difficult, "if one does it with knowledge." Well, we talk about these things for a while (about four years) and we read all the others who have addresseed the issue--Aristotle, Locke, Madison and the boys, Shakespeare, Churchill, Lincoln--and then the students become citizens and are ruled and rule in turn. No squirrel-like specialization here.
This education is partly private, but mostly common because this regime is attached to freedom, and freedom is the easiest things to misunderstand; it is easy to think that freedom is doing whatever one wants, and it is easy to fall into the habit of wanting to change the democratic regime that allows freedom into something else. Freedom can be self-destructive. To encourage that understanding of freedom would be to corrupt the young. Men are no harder to rule than they are to educate.