My high school social studies teacher was one of the biggest influences on my early political and social beliefs. He was a post-modernist, radical environmentalist, pacifist, and otherwise good guy. Current events and social topics were presented to my class through the framework of his progressive world view. We were taught that capitalism is an unfair system where the “haves” exploit the “have-nots”. I left high-school believing that the world was made up of two classes of people: the oppressors and the oppressed. I became a vegetarian (to support environmental sustainability) and a devotee of progressive causes, continuing down this path during my first year of university. I accepted the progressive narrative because it is optimistic and gave me a sense of purpose. But honestly, I accepted – and defended – the progressive world view mainly because I never thought to question it. How could it be wrong? Most of my teachers and my peers believed in it. Everyone I knew supported these causes.
But everything changed when in my second-year political theory class I read Plato’s Republic. I found myself in awe of the wonderful imagery; the pilot metaphor that gave us the “ship of state” concept, the regression of political regimes, and the allegory of the cave, to name but a few. After reading this 2,400-year-old work of genius, I began to question the political and moral beliefs that I held so dearly. I started to read Augustine, Adam Smith, and many others that I had previously thought were intellectual relics. They gave me a fuller understanding of the paradox of personal freedom and civic responsibilities, and I came to regard my previous ideology as the product of intellectual laziness – of passive conformity to my surrounding environment.
After graduation I was lucky enough to find a great job that allows me the opportunity to moonlight as an occasional guest lecturer in first-year university political science classes. This is one of my favourite experiences. I get to introduce students to some of the foundational ideas of western civilization, and I have seen some of them go through the same transformative experience I did after wrestling with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Locke.
My story may surprise some readers. Much of the news from campuses today tests public faith in our universities. We have seen the rise of “safe-spaces”, where students do not have to engage with ideas that they deem oppressive, hateful, etc. Students in the UK have tried to “decolonise” their institutions by demanding that “white” philosophers be removed from course syllabuses. In many arts faculties rigorous intellectual debate seems to have given way to oppressive intellectual conformity. The recent U.S. college admissions scandal has only added to the perception that universities are no longer the valuable institutions they once were.
Lots of people, including taxpayers who subsidize it, now believe a post-secondary education in anything other than the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields is a waste of time and money. They too dismiss the study of history, including the classic philosophical texts (albeit for different reasons than progressives). They judge education mainly in terms of the material gains it offers. It’s true enough that many students in the humanities and social sciences don’t graduate with a technical skillset, and many struggle to find jobs to pay off the student debts they have accrued.
But at the heart of such criticism is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a real liberal education is, or should be, and what it can do for individuals and for society. Here again Plato offers an answer, in his aforementioned cave allegory. In book VII of the Republic, the reader is introduced to a dark cave where human beings are chained and only able to see the wall directly in front of them. Behind them is a fire and puppets whose shadows are projected onto the wall in front of the prisoners. The shadows act out stories that are the only “truth” the cave-dwellers have ever known. When the prisoners finally break free of their bonds they discover the truth they thought they knew was false. They escape from the darkness of the cave into the light of the sun, and experience genuine reality, beauty, and truth for the first time. Plato’s story was intended to illustrate the purpose and effect of education. By escaping the cave, we can discover universal and unchangeable truths, the “forms” needed to comprehend reality and recognize truth.
In teaching us to think freely, to seek and discover truth, Plato and other pioneers of western values reasoned, the liberal arts also teach us civic responsibilities. The study of history and political thought informs our understanding of societal structures and institutions. Collective knowledge and appreciation of these institutions are the foundation of civil society.
One of the most important lessons handed down by classical philosophers is that humans are imperfect and society imperfectible. Nearly a thousand years after Plato, the great Catholic theologian Saint Augustine built on the Platonic vision of a divine and just order to creation and the free will of humans to make educated, responsible and civilized choices of virtue over vice. Augustine saw social institutions (like marriage) and political institutions (like parliamentary democracy) as ways to channel free will toward choices that allow us to live in community. The limitation to our freedom is where our responsibility to our community begins. It is this responsibility that gives us a purposeful life.
The story that my high-school teacher taught me absolved me of free will and responsibility. His answer to human ignorance and evil was that humans can be perfected through the creation of perfect institutions. His obliviousness to the failures of all the utopian schemes the world has ever known was anchored in a collectivist view of human nature. The progressive does not give proper weight to the complexity of the individual and in doing so does not have full appreciation for human dignity. Their focus is on groups, defined by race, class, gender, and so on. The conflicts between groups can and must be mediated by all-powerful institutions. Individual free will can and must be subordinated to the will of the collective.
As Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote in the Gulag Archipelago, “[T]he line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” His point was that utopian institutions like Communism don’t perfect humans, they merely absolve them of responsibility for the evil actions they take. Modern progressives don’t understand this – maybe because of their disregard for the ideas that have formed the very foundation of western civilization – which is why they so easily adopt authoritarian rhetoric and policy to achieve their social, political and economic objectives. Only through liberal education can we begin to understand the dangerous folly of this approach.
Johnathan Strathdee lives in southern Alberta and graduated in 2017 with Master of Arts degree majoring in Political Science.