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Higher Education—Part 4: Should We Be More Puritanical?

So Tocqueville found two sources of the American devotion to universal education.  The first is the universal literacy that is a requirement for a country where everyone works for himself.  Being middle class is somewhere in between being an aristocrat and being a slave (or servant).  The aristocrat is free not to work, to enjoy noble leisure by depending on the work of others.  The slave is stuck with working for others and not for himself.

The good news is about being middle class is you’re free to work for yourself.  The bad, we might say, is that you’re free like an aristocrat to work like a slave.  As Marxists say, the overwhelming majority of people in a capitalist countries are wage slaves.  They’re stuck with selling their time for money.  Anybody who is free and has to work has pretty much as to know how to read and write, add and subtract, and so forth.

The other source of American devotion to universal education Tocqueville traces to the Puritans.  The Christian belief is that we all have souls, and the Puritan belief in particular was that we all have a duty to read the Bible for ourselves.  So serious were the Puritans about the idealistic egalitarianism of this religious belief, Tocqueville explains, that they turned it into a political idea.  And so our first Puritans were the most democratic people in the world up until that time.  Most of our democratic political institutions, in fact, can be traced to the Puritans.

The Puritans, as Tocqueville described them, didn’t have the aristocratic prejudice that liberal or genuinely liberating education was only for the few.  They thought nobody was above work, and nobody was was below leisurely contemplation about our true destiny.  That’s why the Puritans were so serious about preserving Sunday from work.  Tocqueville thought that the Americans should remain at least remain Puritanical enough to preserve Sunday from the busyness of commerce and the mindlessness of the recreation industry. 

It’s true, as you all want to shout in unison, that the Puritans had their downside.  They had, Tocqueville reminds us, ridiculous and tyrannical laws, as they tended to turn every sin into a crime.  So severely serious was their egalitarian idealism that they were way too politically intrusive when it came to caring for souls, forgetting the great principle of religious liberty.

The great contemporary novelist, Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead and Home), is all about getting us to remember what’s good about the Puritans as a way of recovering real civilization in our country.

Robinson reminds us that there was a revival of something like Puritan (or Calvinist) enthusiasm in the American East as a result of the Second Great Awakening. The radically egalitarian political idealism—particularly the insistent abolitionism—of this revived piety made these neo-Puritans (mainly Congregationalists) so hated in their native states that the Puritans once again had to become pilgrims. They relocated in the Middle West, where they started a good number of racially and gender integrated colleges (like Oberlin).

At these colleges, everyone did manual labor, including the faculty. That way, the educated class would be more useful, and there would be no economic barriers to higher education. The goal was to create the classless, humanely and spiritually educated world intended by the original Puritans. Those new colleges, Robinson claims, were real liberal arts colleges, where “the humanities in the very broad sense” were generously studied. 

These colleges did not have what Tocqueville called the middle-class purpose of learning a trade or skill; they were educating beings with souls, who only incidentally had interests. Liberal education—beginning but not ending with the Bible—is a vehicle for liberation of every human being.

Liberal education, Robinson contends, was understood as liberating education by these new Puritans in a more immediate sense. They were often founded as stations onthe underground railroad. They were structured “as centers of humane learning that would make their graduates and those influenced by them resistant to the spread of slavery.”

The abolition of slavery was only one feature of this project for political liberation. Its aim was “near utopian,” to reform American society “by practicing as well as pointing to standards of justice and freedom to which the nation had not yet risen.” For them even more than the original Puritans, their religious enthusiasm was the source of boldly innovative egalitarian idealism—the theory and practice of generous and transformational change of the whole of society,” and not just “the suppression of slavery in the states of the South.”

The Calvinist Puritans, Robinson claims, are the foundation of the humane, egalitarian left for much of the history of our country. Their idealism was indispensable for spurring the American Revolution; the theory of Locke was not generous enough to inspire the honorable risk of everything in pursuit of liberation for prejudice and patriarchy.

The theory of Locke also was not genuinely liberal enough to cause men to risk everything to abolish slavery; it made men (like Thomas Jefferson) anti-slavery far more in principle than in practice. Mr. Jefferson would not have thought much of integrated Oberlin, or the underground railroad, or providing support to the radical John Brown.

I’m no Puritan, and it could be Marilynne Robinson and Tocqueville aren’t above exaggerating to make their case for the Puritans.  Nonetheless, we should explore every source of higher education in our country.


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