If the facts asserted in a lawsuit a mother and son in Nevada have brought against a public charter school are accurate—that a teacher failed a biracial student for refusing to recite the catechism of identity politics, imperiling his graduation—they have a clear case under West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette’s protection against compelled speech. It is worth pausing to note that they have an equally strong argument against the derangement of education.
According to the suit, William Clark, a senior at a Democracy Prep charter school in Las Vegas, failed a course called “Sociology of Change” after he refused to participate in a project called “Change the World” that required him to disclose his intersectional identities across a range of areas, including sexuality and race, and to declare the privilege and oppression associated with them.
The case provides a stark illustration of the perils of politicized education. But it illustrates more than that. It shows what happens when the purpose of education is deformed.
Liberal vs. Servile Arts
In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains the distinction between the liberal and the servile arts. Pieper’s particular concern was the Marxist preoccupation with training workers to serve centralized economic plans. But the concern endures.
Pieper quotes Aquinas on the difference: “Only those arts are called liberal or free which are concerned with knowledge; those which are concerned with utilitarian ends that are attained through activity, however, are called servile.” The terms, Pieper notes, are antiquated. The question is not: “Is there a sphere of human activity, one might even say of human existence, that does not need to be justified by inclusion in a five-year plan and its technical organization? Is there such a thing, or not?”
Democracy Prep explains that one of its goals is to close the “civic achievement gap” by “preparing scholars to become active citizens and leaders in our democracy. Through civic initiatives, community engagement, speech and debate, and authentic student and family advocacy for more school choice, our scholars acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitude to change the world.”
In other words, one purpose of education is to “change the world.” That formulation contains a great deal. Among its premises is that the world permanently needs changing, never conserving. Another is that our concern is “the world,” an abstraction that stands in explicit contradistinction to a concern with the concrete institutions and relationships in front of us. Tocqueville associated this with democracy: “In democratic centuries, on the contrary, when the duties of each individual toward the species are much clearer, devotion toward one man becomes rarer: the bond of human affections is extended and loosened.”
But the word that most deserves attention is “preparing.” It suggests knowledge exists for the sake of something else, the essence of a servile rather than a liberal art. That differs from “formation,” a term better suited to liberal education. Preparation suggests technē, a process of training by which people are instructed in citizenship the same way they would be instructed in carpentry or medicine or any number of endeavors. Formation, by contrast, says: The result of this kind of education is, in the fullest sense, a citizen.
But the key is that formation achieves this precisely because it does not set out to do so in an overly literal way. Students should learn the mechanics of government. Schoolhouse Rock serves an indispensable purpose. But citizens are formed through engagement with enduring questions like the nature of justice or of beauty. True civic education does so by teaching civic mechanics, but also philosophy, literature, history, and a range of other avenues of inquiry. That is true because the essential political virtue is prudence, a capacity acquired not through technical instruction but rather through sustained encounters with the messy complexity of social life.
More deeply, as Aristotle teaches, we are political animals precisely because authentic politics consists of conversation about the good. Such a conversation is predicated on the fact that we both disagree with one another and help to clarify, challenge and amplify one another’s perspectives. An individual contemplating the good alone on a desert island is not engaged in politics. Neither is the subject of a regime in which the answers to political questions are dictated from above. Both are, rather, apolitical. That is the true result of activism masquerading as education.
Because a liberal education is concerned with questions about the good for their own sake, it forms whole human beings. And because citizenship—engagement in both the public and the particular—is essential to the human experience, wholly formed people are better citizens too.
Any project of training students to be citizens will inevitably eventuate in the kind of abuse William Clark asserts. It begins with desiccation—citizenship is reduced to knowing how a bill becomes a law or where to vote or how to write elected officials—but it cannot escape the question of the purposes to which these skills are put. When a surgeon is trained in how to make an incision, or a mechanic is trained in how to change a head gasket, the end is implicit: a functioning body or a functioning car. Training need not answer why a functioning body or car is good, but it must be able to say what they are.
In other words, the telos needs definition. There is a way of defining the telos of a citizen constructively. The end of citizenship is participation in the common good. But a project to train citizens rather than to form human beings who are citizens involves the temptation to define—and impose—the content of the common good too, not simply to encourage concern for and engagement with it.
Michael Oakeshott understood the danger: The telocratic regime, unfolding toward an end, feels justified in trampling the William Clarks of the world on its way. A nomocratic regime, by contrast, respects freedom because it understands the good is disputed, so it sets ground rules for its pursuit.
The nomocratic regime understands, moreover, that the essence of political life is not just concern with the public good but conversation about it. If the public good is objectively defined, on tablets handed down from on high, the task of education is not politics. Nor is it inquiry. It is conformity. Even supporters of charter schools, perhaps especially supporters of charter schools, should take notice that Democracy Prep’s mission explicitly includes training students to advocate for charter schools. Sometimes activism and self-interest—or, more to the point, cultural and economic Marxism—collide.
Philosophers and Welders, Citizens and Activists
In 2015, Senator Marco Rubio, then a presidential candidate, glibly derided liberal education by declaring that America needed fewer philosophers and more welders. There was a profound condescension latent in this flippant attempt at populism: the premise that welders cannot, and need not, think philosophically. W.E.B. Dubois had the better case: “The object of all true education,” he wrote, “is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men.” Good carpenters needed “sufficient intelligence and technical skill”; the formation of human beings required “liberally trained teachers and leaders to teach him and his family what life means.”
Education-cum-activism is merely the politicized version of education-cum-job training. Secondary schools certainly should ensure their graduates are capable of meaningful and productive work. But they disserve students if their premise is either that students are incapable of meaningful lives or that no education is necessary for that purpose.
It is true that liberal education confers all manner of skills, including habits of careful thought and clear expression. But these results occur precisely because they are not the object of the endeavor. Students learn to write not by being drilled in formulaic understandings of how many sentences constitute a paragraph or which of them states a topic and which a thesis. They learn to write because the process of forming them as whole people exposes them to the best that has been written. They learn to read not through study tips but rather through reading great books.
Modern education is inseparable from career preparation, and there is profound value in infusing vocationally oriented training with liberal studies. That is compatible with, and must not eclipse, the pursuit of truth for its own sake. Whole people formed for that pursuit are better welders. They also lead more fulfilling lives.
Seeking True Diversity
The situation of the student trained as an activist is indistinguishable from that of the student trained as a carpenter. There is a correct way to use a hand saw and a claw hammer. The activist educator is equally prone to believe there is a correct way to use a vote. In wood shop, a student is penalized for misusing a tool. In political shop, a William Clark is penalized for misusing propaganda. Even here, there is a telling contrast: woodworking requires the craftsman to practice judgment; activism of this sort simply demands the student follow authority. Both are being trained. They should instead be formed.
The problem with the “Sociology of Change” course is consequently not that it is ideologically imbalanced. It is. But the real problem is that it is ideological in the first place. But it was bound to be once the essential Rubicon of substituting training for formation was crossed. That is inseparable from the derailment of liberal education more generally. Liberal education should entail Pieper’s leisure, a retreat from the momentary to focus on the enduring.
A nominal purpose of the “Sociology of Change” course is to instill respect for diversity. Yet formation, not training, is rooted in what is genuinely diverse. The formation of the whole person for the pursuit of the true, good and beautiful assumes they will see those things differently. That does not mean all views are either interchangeable or right. It means the pursuit is best served by politics in the noblest sense: an engagement with one another about the deepest and most enduring questions. When activism becomes a skill, it does not ask that of us. It just seeks what was demanded of William Clark: conformity. Whether that will result in social “change” is an open question, as is whether that change will be oriented toward the good. But whatever else this kind of education may be, it is not political.