Learning to Be Human: Oakeshott on Education

Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). 165 pages. Originally published in the American Scholar 59 (Autumn 1990): 626–28.

"No small part of the native genius of a philosopher," Michael Oakeshott once remarked, "lies in the perception of where in the world of contemporary speculation is the point from which advance may best be made." Nearly four decades before Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and "A Nation at Risk" made an issue out of educational reform, Oakeshott perceived that any coherent understanding of education was in danger of being lost in a confusion over its true character. Beginning in the late 1940s with his essay "The Universities" in the Cambridge Journal, Oakeshott undertook to defend the unfashionable idea of liberal education. And he did so, not by hotly animadverting upon illiberal currents in education, but (to use his own phrase) by doubling back to retrieve the liberal conception implicit within the educational traditions of the West. As he saw it, his task was to embark upon an inquiry into the nature and circumstance of education, for he discerned—and this was no small part of his genius—that serious thought had rarely been given to the question of what it means for humans to learn. With the exception of Dewey, then, to whom he emerges as a rival, it may be said that no other twentieth-century philosopher of equal abilities has examined the problem of education as closely, or understood it as deeply, as Oakeshott.

Michael Oakeshott is best known as a political philosopher, but his writing on politics and other subjects (whatever else it is) is a philosophy. Yet because of his reputation as a political philosopher, and because he is sometimes dismissed (by those who know little of his work) as merely an apologist for British neo-conservatism, Oakeshott's influence has been more limited than it deserves to be. There are signs, however, of a reawakening of interest in Oakeshott. His first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933), once virtually unobtainable, was finally issued in paperback by Cambridge University Press in 1985. A new and expanded edition of his essays Rationalism in Politics (originally published in 1962) was reissued by Liberty Press in 1991. The Voice of Liberal Learning gathers two-and-a-half decades of his reflections upon education—some of the best work of Oakeshott's later years, much of which was tucked away in hard-to-find journals and specialized collections by diverse hands. The editor of the volume, Professor Timothy Fuller of Colorado College, is owed a debt of gratitude by all students of Oakeshott for salvaging these six important essays and bringing them together in one place. He has also provided a useful introduction to Oakeshott's thought.

Education occupies a central place in Oakeshott's philosophy, because he views it as a consequence of freedom. Oakeshott is firm in his conviction that the modern revivals of predestination, from Freud's doctrine of the unconscious and the "ideology" of neo-Marxism to the evolutionary determinism of sociobiology, cannot coherently account for why humans are able to do this rather than that. The formulation of these creeds denies the very thing they seem to be saying, for each "postulates a man who is something besides what these, or any other such statements, allege him to be." What is left out of account is the human self-understanding these various doctrines claim to be expressing. Man is endowed with a freedom that is exercised in any effort to explain his freedom away: he is free to understand himself in any manner he chooses. But if this is true, then the only way a man can come to understand himself in one manner instead of another is by learning to do so.

For Oakeshott, then, education is an initiation into the inheritance of human self-understandings. It is "learning to perform humanly." It is indeed learning to become human, for no one is born knowing how:

The ancient Greek exhortation, Know Thyself, meant learn to know thyself. It was not an exhortation to buy a book on psychology and study it; it meant, contemplate and learn from what men, from time to time, have made of this engagement of learning to be a man.Several conclusions follow from this showing of what it means to learn. First, education is not the engagement of learning how to think; men do not think about nothing in particular; it is learning "to think with an appreciation of the considerations which belong to different modes of thought." It is the study of literature and philosophy and history, not as what are now scorned as canons of texts, but as the different approaches to thinking about human experience that are intimated by those texts. Although he has nothing to say about them, Oakeshott would almost certainly reject interdisciplinary studies as a corruption of the engagement to learn. They are training in a noisy set of doctrines, in the modish and the dominant. A teacher, Oakeshott says, "may be excused if he finds the present dominant image of civilized life too disagreeable to impart with any enthusiasm to his pupils." He would not agree with Catherine R. Stimpson, a former president of the Modern Language Association of America, when she says it is "intellectual malpractice" not to teach women's contributions to history and literature. For Oakeshott, there is but one form of intellectual malpractice: to go on teaching while having "no confidence in any of the standards of worth written into [the] inheritance of human achievement."

Secondly, it follows that education is a "conversation" among the different "voices" in which an understanding of human life is expressed. Learning to be human (on this showing) is learning to participate in the conversation of mankind. Nothing in Oakeshott's philosophy is more profound than this conception of human experience as a conversation, and nothing in the recent history of philosophy is sadder than its vulgarization at the hands of Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). It is usual now, when the notion of conversation is invoked, to attribute it to Rorty rather than Oakeshott—and it is probably just as well, since it is the vulgarized notion that is usually invoked. Rorty himself acknowledged Oakeshott, but misinterpreted him. In Rorty, man's conversation occurs between different "social practices" by which claims to knowledge are justified but never finally substantiated. In short, "conversation" becomes just another word for cultural relativism.

Nothing could be further from Oakeshott's philosophy. For Oakeshott, the different voices of man's conversation are not "social practices," the plangent, disputatious claims of which can never be settled; they are themselves the practice of our society. To learn to distinguish and perhaps even to speak in the voices of literature and philosophy and history—this is what enables a man to engage in social practices. "To make one's own thought clear and to attend to what passes before one," Michael Oakeshott says, "is indistinguishable from participating in and handling the civilized inheritance of our society." It is difficult to think of a writer better equipped to handle our inheritance, or a voice more civilized.