Rationalism and Teaching the Constitution

Elizabeth Corey’s recent discussion in Academic Questions. An extract below:


Oakeshott’s Critique

In his most famous essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” published in a book of the same name, Oakeshott calls the American Founding a “Rationalist” project. In Oakeshott’s lexicon, Rationalism is not something to be praised but a pathological condition, a cast of mind exhibited by many people in the present day and especially by those involved in politics. It is the notion that what is most important in any activity is not the knowledge acquired in the practice of an art or science, but instead the principles and precepts that can be distilled and written down about it. These precepts can, in turn, be used as guides or directives for novices. Thus does an ideology substitute for an inherited or hard-won understanding of political activity.

This is the kind of knowledge one finds in technical handbooks and how-to manuals: “Teach Yourself Piano in Six Weeks” or “How to Become a Food Critic in Nine Easy Steps.” The presupposition is that in showing novices how to engage in an activity, somehow these abridgments can assume the place formerly held by teachers and expert practitioners. Another assumption is that these precepts are somehow self-generating—bright ideas thought up by enterprising individuals or committees—owing little to tradition and almost everything to the exercise of a supposedly pure, unaided reason.

If it is not already clear from the above description, being called a Rationalist is no compliment. Yet these are precisely the terms in which Oakeshott describes the authors of the Declaration of Independence. The American colonists believed that “the proper organization of a society and the conduct of its affairs were based upon abstract principles.” Such principles were “not the product of civilization; they were natural, ‘written in the whole volume of human nature’…to be discovered in nature by human reason.” He credits John Locke with having set out an ideology that was adopted wholesale by people such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who then claimed “a positive superiority over older societies not yet fully emancipated from the chains of custom.”4 Allied with this indictment is Oakeshott’s severe skepticism about written constitutions and their ability to constrain political practice in the way their authors intended.

Historians and political philosophers will no doubt find much to quibble with in this account, since it is brief and deliberately provocative. In painting with a broad brush, Oakeshott is certainly guilty of simplifying a situation that is far more complex than he admits. Yet there is something persuasive about his critique of the Founding as a Rationalist project and his idea of written constitutions as an integral part of this Rationalism. This places the current debate between timeless truths and fluid experiment—often framed as the difference between “Originalism” and “Living Constitutionalism”—on a somewhat different footing.

Oakeshott’s criticisms highlight the contingent character of documents that many of us might be inclined to view as foundational, even quasi-scriptural. And yet he does not careen off into unfettered relativism. Oakeshott is perhaps most helpful in reminding us that traditions must be learned and maintained—that they constitute a kind of endowment that must be continuously replenished by emerging generations of students. Yet while he is undoubtedly right that no written abridgment can adequately capture a tradition, neither, he might suggest, should we abandon the one we have inherited, even if it is built on the “Rationalistic” documents of the Declaration and Constitution.

The arts are key to student success

The philosopher of jazz (and music), Wynton Marsalis has, as usual, nailed it.

We hear widespread calls for “outcomes” we can measure and for education geared to specific employment needs, but many of today’s students will hold jobs that have not yet been invented, deploying skills not yet defined. We not only need to equip them with the ability to answer the questions relevant to the world we now inhabit; we must also enable them to ask the right questions to shape the world to come.

We need education that nurtures judgment as well as mastery, ethics and values as well as analysis. We need learning that will enable students to interpret complexity, to adapt, and to make sense of lives they never anticipated. We need a way of teaching that encourages them to develop understanding of those different from themselves, enabling constructive collaborations across national and cultural origins and identities.

Music stresses individual practice and technical excellence, but it also necessitates listening to and working with others in fulfillment of the requirements of ensemble performance. In jazz, collective improvisation offers musicians the freedom to reinvent, adapt and change. But that freedom is tempered by a shared overall objective: swing. The art of swing is the art of balance, of constant assertion and compromise.

Learning to play or paint, dance, sing or act, means constantly being refashioned, constantly demanding risk. “If you don’t make mistakes,” Coleman Hawkins once said, “you aren’t really trying.”

In other words, we need learning that incorporates what the arts teach us.

The arts are about imagining beyond the bounds of the known. They embrace the past and the future of the human mind and soul. Playing music can be both a model and a metaphor for important aspects of the lives our children will be called upon to lead.



Review of Franco-Marsh Companion

Review essay of A Companion to Michael Oakeshott


by Suvi Soininen

Redescriptions: yearbook of political thought, conceptual history and feminist theory. 2012/2013, vol. 16, pp. 172-187 (in downloadable pdf)



Oakeshott on Education

Here are some extracts from my co-editor Paul’s essay.

Toward the end of his essay on “The Universities,” Oakeshott returns once more to the issue of specialization, this time in a less polemical, more thoughtful manner. Though he believes that Moberly has exaggerated the problem, he nevertheless acknowledges that the disintegration of the world of knowledge into a set of miscellaneous specialisms “is something we suffer from at the present time and that it is destructive of the university we are considering.” Still, we must not look for quick or simple remedies. The problem of integrating the world of modern knowledge is “one of the most difficult of the current problems of philosophy: a century of pretty intense thought has already been given to it without much result.” For this reason, “to expect a university to provide an integration of its curriculum is asking for dishonesty” (VLL, 131–32).

It is in connection with the university’s “gift of an interval” that Oakeshott finally touches on the practical, indeed transformative, effect of liberal education on the student. “Nobody,” he writes, “could go down from such a university unmarked.” Not only will the student have acquired a discipline of mind that “puts him beyond the reach of the intellectual hooligan”; he will also “have learned something to help him lead a more significant life. . . . He will have had the opportunity to extend the range of his moral sensibility, and he will have had the leisure to replace the clamorous and conflicting absolutes of adolescence with something less corruptible” (VLL, 102–3). Here Oakeshott echoes another one of the great themes of Cardinal Newman, who claimed that the reason why it is more proper to speak of the university as a place of “education” rather than of “instruction” is because education “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of our character.” Oakeshott does not dwell at length on this practical and transformative effect of liberal education in the two essays we have been considering—no doubt partly because it muddies his polemic against Moberly’s emphasis on the university’s role in providing students with existential meaning and purpose—but it plays an increasingly larger part in his later writings on education.

The new emphasis on self-cultivation and self-realization is evident from the outset of “The Study of ‘Politics’ in a University,” where Oakeshott defines education as the “process of learning, in circumstances of direction and restraint, how to make something of ourselves.” Learning how to make something of ourselves, however, is not something we can do simply on our own or independent of a particular context. Self-realization or self-cultivation necessarily involves initiation into a particular, historical civilization, in the process of which we “discover our own talents and aptitudes in relation to that civilization and begin to cultivate and to use them” (RP, 187).

It is remarkable to think that Oakeshott wrote this passage in 1974, before the advent of personal computers, the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter. But for all its insight into the world in which children now grow up, the passage unwittingly raises a question about the sharp division Oakeshott draws between the university and that world. Nothing would seem to be clearer than that the university Oakeshott prizes cannot survive in a world degraded in this way. The university must exert some sort of cultural influence on this world if only to secure the conditions of its own existence. Oakeshott himself asks how the university should respond to the current hostility to intellect and spirit that prevails in today’s world; he answers, by “a quiet refusal to compromise” (VLL, 42). But such a response seems to fall short of what is really needed. To remain a lonely island (or interval) in an otherwise hostile sea is ultimately to accede to the inevitable and engulfing flood.