Oakeshott on Classical Education

In his 1975 essay, ‘The Place of Learning’, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes the character and influence of the study of Classical antiquity in the Renaissance (and thereafter) in the following terms: learning, he says, came to be ‘identified with coming to understand the intimations of a human life in a historic culture…[and] with the invitation to recognise oneself in terms of this culture. This was an education which promised and afforded liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life’. Oakeshott then adds: ‘And so it continues to this day…the torch is still alight and there are still some hands to grasp it’.

To state the obvious, there is a rather negative tone to this summary (not least in its rather glum final image of a dying torch being passed among a few dwindling hands: I hope this image, in particular, is quite wrong). Oakeshott’s words seem to betoken, above all, a profound disappointment with the present: indeed, the need for ‘liberation’ from the present seems, for him, to be the very thing that most underscores the benefits of a Classical education. And Oakeshott seems to assume that, when encountering Classical antiquity, pupils will inevitably find ‘a culture’ which produced the very opposite of muddled thought, crudeness, sentimentality, intellectual poverty and so on.

This is too optimistic. While it is true that the best of ancient writing can indeed offer much that is lucid and intellectually fascinating, this is by no means always the case: moreover, ancient writing can certainly be both crude and sentimental! There is also the issue of Oakeshott’s collapse of the markedly different (and internally diverse and ever-evolving) civilisations of Greece and Rome into the simple phrase, ‘a historic culture’. Certainly, this is a phrase that could – should – have been formulated more judiciously.

And yet. There is nevertheless, I think, an important truth which Oakeshott manages to give voice to in the words quoted above, even if he does so in a muffled way. The truth in question concerns the vital role of Classical study in opening up space for perspective – perspective which may allow ‘liberation from the here and now of current engagements’, as he puts it. This sort of perspective, argues Oakeshott, is important not only for students, but for the ‘civilisations’ of which they are members. It is a crucial ingredient, as Oakeshott saw it, of liberal learning.

As he puts it in his 1965 essay, ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘to initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available much that does not lie upon the surface of his present world….much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. To know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance’.

Here Oakeshott is unquestionably on strong ground and he builds toward a provocative, if perhaps somewhat melodramatic, conclusion: ‘To see oneself reflected in the mirror of the present modish world is to see a sadly distorted image of a human being; for there is nothing to encourage us to believe that what has captured current fancy is the most valuable part of our inheritance, or that the better survives more readily than the worse’. In a number of respects, I think, this must be right.

The implications for teaching, he suggests, are clear: ‘the business of the teacher is to release pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills’. Doing so is not about ‘inventing alternatives’ but about ‘making available something which approximates more closely to a whole inheritance’.

The point being made here, then, is that a major aim – maybe the major aim – of teaching should be about allowing pupils space to gain a sense of perspective on their contemporary situation by allowing them to get to know the past (interestingly he is keen to exclude any kind of futurology from this process). In getting to know surprising or even mundane truths about what was, what could plausibly have been, and (by implication) what could still be, pupils are better able to appreciate contingencies and to think freely.

Nonetheless, Oakeshott is wary of offering unguarded optimism about the consequences of developing this sort of capacity. Learning of the sort he recommends does not, he insists, deliver a ‘clear or unambiguous message; it often speaks in riddles; it offers us advice and suggestion, recommendations, aids to reflection, rather than directives’.

Elsewhere he writes that ‘the engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute’. Liberal learning, he maintains, is about ‘learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind’.*

This perspective chimes directly with quite a lot of what I try to achieve and emphasise in my classroom. In a number of ways, I think, it neatly summarises what studying Classics – and, from what I can see, the humanities more generally – is like.**

*For a fuller outline of Oakeshott’s views on liberal education, there is a useful discussion here.

**Having said this, I find much of Oakeshott’s writing on the subject of education (collected together in a book, The voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller) quite opaque. His analysis is often expressed in pretty general terms: for example, in relation to the above, the reader is left to wonder to what extent he thinks study in different fields like poetry, history, art, philosophy and so on succeeds in delivering his desired outcomes. The whole discussion proceeds at quite an abstract remove. And, as mentioned above, his tone can be pretty pessimistic, while his prose is sometimes quite dense. In spite of all this, he can be refreshing to read, not least because he is prepared to make unfashionable arguments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s