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.