Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Eschatologies of Education

In the end, what is the point of learning the art of being free?

There is a wedding feast, and the eternal reign of Christ the King. On this, at least, Christians of all stripes, even a lot of the weird ones (heterodox? heretics? something else entirely?), agree about the end of days. The details are fuzzy, though, what with poetry and prophecy and tradition. Is this the future or something spiritual, always already eternally present, anno Domini? That’s “amillennialism” to the nerds. Is there a Rapture? Tribulations? Some apocalyptic season of testing that unveils the true earthly church and calls the Lord’s Chosen People back to Him on His Holy Mountain? That’s usually called “premillennialism,” or “dispensationalism,” and is discussed exhaustively by precocious Baptist kids every Wednesday night in youth groups across the country. 

Then there’s a certain kind of guy that, eyes glowing, grinning toothily, usually bearded, turns to you and asks, with the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:3, “Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?” The kingdom is at hand; the elders and the people of God, new creations, need only be faithful in laying down the seeds and we will be co-heirs and co-creators and co-rulers with Christ under this heaven and on this earth first, before with the Lord’s return it passes away for a new heaven and new earth. That’s “postmillennialism”—when it’s given a semi-technical name and not called something scary like “dominionism” or “theonomism” or “Christian nationalism,” whatever that means.

In the last book of Plato’s Republic we read an account of what is called the Myth of Er. In the eternal classical world, with neither definite beginning nor final consummation, Socrates proposes that the soul is immortal, too. And so he tells a story in which the good and the bad find in death rewards and punishments fit for the lives they have lived, but after a time must choose a new life, to be reborn forgetful into the material plane of begetting and passing away. The right answer appears to be to choose the contemplative philosophic life. The specific significance of this narrative is as contested as any other aspect of the Platonic tradition and I do not propose to solve those debates here. But a general truth is clear enough: Coming as the Myth of Er does at the end of an account of justice and just regimes and the education required by and for them, it reminds us that the cosmic end of all things conditions the particular ends of human life; if the soul is immortal, act like it (some readers of Plato, atheists, just take the second part). 

Since forever—or at least the teachings of Moses, Solomon, Confucius, and Socrates—education has been understood to be in some sense the main thing. After literal reproduction, breeding, it is the means by which the political community, which is always a religious one, is preserved and cultivated, for it forms the people. The healthy organism wants to reproduce itself, and so it must nurture its offspring, foster those traits it considers necessary for flourishing, draw from them their fullest capacities. We see this in families that raise their children in churches and private religious schools; we see this in curricula requirements like state history courses or (less and less) basic math; we see this in the very concept of compulsory schooling and public education. This is all almost too obvious to say.

But sometimes we have to go back to the very basics, because we are not a particularly healthy political community, and so seem to be failing at certain obvious parts of being a political community (which is, if you think about it, an almost repetitive phrase). American Compass recently released its latest report Failing on Purpose. The good people over there kick off the series with a terrific essay by John Sailer and Bruno Manno. If, as Compass head Oren Cass reminds in the forward, the basic purpose of public education is the preservation of the public, i.e. the political community—literally “Teach for America”—then we as a democratic republic must remember what sort of person a republican citizen is, and enter our children into “The School of Self-Rule.” 

To quote Sailer and Manno: “If we aspire to self-rule—not dependence on autocrats for political order or landed gentry for economic survival—education inevitably plays a central role in our political life. It should be a public education that empowers the common person in the project of self-government.” They go on to say, “We become free through taught habits and dispositions that empower us to govern ourselves. They are inculcated through both a reverence for the past and the specific wisdom of that older tradition of liberty.” 

This is all very well and very good, and obvious enough to most readers of The American Conservative. The real question is, why did I start this column with eschatology?

In our time, a time of mass society and total politicization—a secular age—the millennium has been repeatedly brought out of eternity and into history. The great regimes of the 20th century, liberal democracy, communism, and fascism, all made a false church of the political community and sought, to use the phrase from Eric Voegelin, to immanentize the eschaton. In general they have behaved at various points as an atheistic species of postmillennialist, but we might say that liberal democracy has more often an amillennialist cast about it, participating in the end of history and simply cultivating more and more refined liturgies of worship of the individuated, free human person. 

While Sailer and Manno don’t use this analogy, they do point in a theological direction as they describe the directionlessly directed, therapeutic (think moralistic therapeutic deism and the god within) nature of contemporary education, especially in the nexus of four-year colleges. Borrowing from the theologian Carl Trueman, they write, “​​Ultimately, managerialism and expressive individualism are but two sides of the same coin. The removal of constraints warrants an expansive managerial apparatus; the apparatus enables the removal of constraints.”

To give that more detail: 

According to managerialism, the tracked life, the “conveyor belt,” is a laudable goal. Higher education functions as a pipeline to the professional-managerial class, the means by which bureaucratic expertise is disseminated. Meanwhile, college is the perfect rite of passage for the expressive individual, as students are told to find themselves and go as far as their dreams will take them. A university education is buttressed by, and further disseminates, both moral assumptions.

This is what happens when the liberal arts become defined as teaching the art of being a liberal rather than the art of being free. The trouble is that a deliberate, careful, truly republican public education in a secular democratic republic actually should have some of this sort of aimlessness we find in a godless amillennialism. The Christian amillennialist enjoys present union with Christ and his kingdom through the eternal work of the church and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; the civic amillennialist has the political community, which was, and is, and will be, and looking back to Plato, perhaps the idea of justice. At its best it seems, good citizenship is a kind of contemplative life, but that is not one accessible to all as we bump back into the perennial political problem of the few and the many. Sailer and Manno do an excellent job of suggesting how in an earthly republic the servile arts might buttress the liberal without again becoming ends in themselves. 

If we play with this analogy between eschatology and civic education further we might come to two conclusions. First, just as in the Evangelical churches many of them attend, conservatives have a strong premillennialist tendency in how they think about education; whether simply riding declining public schools out or in a certain approach to homeschooling, there is an acceptance that things are going to get worse and worse and an emphasis on doctrine and reaction as setting them apart, rather than an effort to reform or rebuild. Second, a postmillennialist approach, one that plans in terms of centuries and seeks to build at a civilizational scale, does not appear to work with only the modern national democratic republic to ground it. You need God, and an immortal soul. How can you judge the things that pertain to this life if you will not judge the angels? 



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