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Seth Cropsey (SF72) honored at Santa Fe Homecoming
Alumni Award Luncheon
15 September 2012
Fellow alumni and friends, thank you for this honor. I am proud to have graduated from St. Johns and continue to read with satisfaction of my fellow alumni’s accomplishments in The College. I am also grateful for the education I received here and for the opportunity the Alumni Association has given me to say so publicly.
One of the founders of the curriculum at St. Johns, Scott Buchanan, influenced a controversial University of Chicago president who tried to shift the university’s scholastic emphasis toward classical education. I grew up in the U. of C. community so as a high school student I knew what St. Johns was about. As Joseph Epstein put it in a recent magazine article:
The idea behind the curriculum at the College of the University of Chicago was the Arnoldian one…of introducing students to the best that was thought and said in the Western world. Mastery wasn’t in the picture…What the school gave me was the confidence that I could read serious books, and with it the assurance that I needed to return to them, in some cases over and over, to claim anything like a genuine understanding of them.
My late father was a professor of political philosophy at Chicago so I knew that St. Johns was not the only place where faculty and students studied the classics and took the ideas of their authors seriously. When I was a senior in high school I went to a lecture at the U. of C. given by the distinguished academic advocate for St. Johns, Mortimer Adler and was amused by the contrast between his declared admiration for respectful discourse and his haughty manner of answering students’ questions, their merit notwithstanding. I was also impressed that the college catalogue emphasized the connection between liberal education and citizenship. If men and women are to govern themselves successfully they need to make sensible decisions about who will represent them and what principles their political regime rests on. This still makes sense to me.
What I have seen since graduating has reinforced my opinion that a basic understanding of self-government is essential to its continued success and that a more advanced appreciation is even better. The link between a liberal education and a free society shouldn’t be taken for granted—as I learned soon after graduate school. I drafted Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger’s speeches in the early 1980s. He was a knowledgeable reader and avid admirer of Shakespeare. His wife had chaired the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. I felt comfortable sending him the draft of a graduation speech that praised liberal education as a necessary complement to professional military education. He delivered the speech as I had written it. But before the draft reached him one of his military assistants asked me how the Secretary would likely react to the description of education as “liberal.” I said something about the difference between liberal in the partisan sense and in traditional political usage. I don’t mention this story to settle a score or to belittle the officer. He is a good man and I have nothing but admiration for our military. But it was a useful practical demonstration that some very basic ideas to which we are exposed as students here should not be taken for granted. It was also a small pointer that Barr and Buchanan’s unusual idea of education and its role in supporting American civic virtue was not universally understood.
The philosophical bases that shaped the founders’ understanding of ancient polities and the writings of European Enlightenment thinkers should not be taken for granted. I’ll put this more directly: it’s a mistake to assume that the idea of our self-government is always understood by those who protect, preserve, and defend it. Several years ago a successful woman was appointed to a senior position at the State department. She had a strong background in business. She believed that democracy could be represented to people who did not understand it merely by emphasizing religious tolerance. She was not utterly wrong. But she didn’t see the link between religious tolerance and minority rights. She didn’t see that the connection between minority rights and society’s defense against the tyranny of the majority—and thus a part of tyranny itself—was essential to our polity. I was never certain that she saw that separating religion and the state also provided liberty in both spheres. She did not appear to see the difference between laws from God and laws made by men. These are important ideas in representing American ideas to foreign audiences, especially Middle-Eastern ones. The notion that there is something problematic about mixing the pursuit of divine justice with protecting the unalienable rights that Jefferson said came from Nature and Nature’s God was not something with which she had been familiarized. She knew about checks and balances but I don’t think her education allowed her to see the difference between the practical mechanics of democratic governance and its ends. The result was that her office produced articles, journals, and other written and electronic material for international audiences which could have been more effective had they suggested the richness of American democracy either in theory or practice.
Her successor’s background was as an effective and shrewd political operative. She had held an ambassadorship. The idea that the U.S. is a nation built on ideas and that these ideas are important in explaining the U.S. was part of her vocabulary, not of her understanding. She suggested once that the key to improving America’s image in the world was to imitate the Australians. She had seen a bridge in a Middle Eastern capital on which were written in large letters: “A gift of the Australian people.” We needed, she said, to take more credit for foreign assistance. I thought that advertising the public works that U.S. financial aid supports in some parts of the world was an invitation to trouble. There’s a difference between public diplomacy and “in-your-face-diplomacy.” There’s a bigger difference between foreign assistance and the essential ideas on which our republic is based.
More recently, a colleague who works at the National Endowment for Democracy told me of a conversation she had earlier this year with another employee, a professional who assists constitution writers from other countries who request help in drafting new constitutions. My colleague asked her what prepared her for this job: had she read Aristotle’s writings on constitutions? Had she read the Federalist Papers? She hadn’t. My colleague said that this employee was a hard and dedicated worker, but did not know her co-worker’s familiarity with books that would help writers of a new constitution. A passing familiarity with Aristotle’s thoughts about different constitutions and how they are changed as well as the arguments of the American founders in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution may not apply to all nations. But knowing them would sharpen the skills of any constitution writer. This decent, competent professional didn’t have the advantage of the kind of education that has benefited those who have been exposed to the ancient and modern foundations of a modern liberal democracy.
None of these people are bad or neglectful public officials. All would be better off with a firm intellectual grasp of the basics of American democracy. The American founders may set the bar of understanding self-government too high, but in aggregate they knew the classics. Madison agreed with Aristotle about the dangers of too much inequality in a democratic regime but parted ways on what to do about it. It is difficult to believe that Madison was ignorant of Aristotle’s judgment that an ill-informed citizenry will be hard-pressed to make good decisions about laws and who should hold public office. Jefferson was famously adamant about this. Can we make good decisions about who will represent us if the media is as partisan as the political parties of which they are supposed to be impartial observers? Or do we as a nation now accept that impartiality is an impossible standard for the media? And if so, is not an education in the fundamental principles of self-government a good antidote to so troublesome an opinion? The same question applies to economics. The nation has for some years now been engaged in a debate over the distribution of wealth and the accumulation of debt that has no modern antecedent except to a similar debate that took place in Britain as the cost of the Boer War vastly exceeded expectation, and in those pre-Keynesian days the slightest negative imbalance between national revenue and expenditure alarmed members of both major political parties. In today’s public discourse large macroeconomic terms are tossed around like potato salad. The public’s confusion is as clear as the demand for a more solid grounding in the basic facts of economics.
Similarly with another issue that will not go away, war. More than two-thirds of a century has passed since the last great war. A significant portion of Europeans believe that history has now bypassed such blood-letting. Major war—they think and all of us hope—will not occur again. To a lesser degree this idea has adherents in our own country especially among those who want negotiation, consultation, and international agreement to be the first line of protection against the outbreak of war. Even Jefferson, and certainly Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton and Washington would have dismissed this idea. The provisions they made in the Constitution for the United States’ defense show their understanding that conflict between states may ebb and flow, but will not disappear. Most of them were familiar with Thucydides or had read his work themselves. I suspect they would agree with President Mike Peters’ observation in his lecture at Bakersfield College last year that “no matter how manageable their (i.e. Athens’ and Sparta’s) differences, fear, as Thucydides describes it, made the fundamental differences between Sparta and Athens virtually irreconcilable.” One either buys Thucydides’ implication that the events he describes are worth understanding not only for their magnitude but because their causes and effects are hard-wired into human nature, or one must come up with an alternative account of man’s relationship to conflict. And, yes, such accounts exist. But the important point is that familiarity with the ideas of Thucydides about human nature as well as those who followed him—and how these influenced our polity—represents the kind of civic education that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speaks admiringly of in her carefully written and thoughtfully argued 2011 essay, “The Democratic Purpose of Education.”
St. Johns has become more important to education in the U.S. as our higher education system has suffered. As Joseph Epstein notes in the article I mentioned earlier, the Vietnam-era university teachers have:
…politicized psychology and sociology, and allowed African-American studies an even higher standing than Greek and Roman classics. They decided that the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture. They put popular culture on the same intellectual footing as high culture…And finally, they determined that race, gender, and social class were at the heart of all humanities and most social science subjects.
Epstein’s picture is grim in itself and grimmer still for the future of in a republic based on ideas, as is ours where good citizenship and good citizens who understand those ideas and their origins are imperative. There are few times in our history when such an understanding has been more important than it is today.
I am, as I said earlier, grateful for my education and for this award. I admire and salute the Alumni Association’s excellent work in supporting the college. And I appreciate the opportunity to speak this afternoon.