Phi Beta Cons

‘The Free-Born Mind’

Single Issues, it could be said, ranks among the least known yet most conceptually elegant and rhetorically concise apologias for what we have come to call the “culture of life” in America. It’s author, Joe Sobran, was a longtime senior editor at National Review. Sobran, now dead, was remembered in the magazine after his passing in October.

Single Issues, sadly out of print, consists of selected essays from Sobran’s contributions to the Human Life Review. In the final chapter, “Happy at Home,” Sobran takes the reader on a survey of C. S. Lewis. It is the least explicitly “pro-life” essay, but, of course, is a treasure for lovers of Lewis.

As Lewis’s scope was vast, so too is Sobran’s, and in this chapter there’s a short section which I’ll excerpt here, dealing with Lewis’s devil-teacher Screwtape and Lewis’s fear about the core intent — or at least, inevitable result — of a ruthlessly egalitarian public education system:

Screwtape in his final appearance gloats that “penal taxes” are destroying private education. Soon only state education will remain, and the total collectivization of England will be within sight. For the object of state education will be to make all its products uniform. The educators will be, in reality, the poultry-keepers, fattening up the young birds to be devoured.

As a teacher Lewis naturally took a special interest in the fate of education. He emphatically thought it was a realm that should be private, hierarchical, aristocratic in the sense of being devoted to excellence. But he saw state education as devoted to equality in a debased sense, equality as uniform servility.

[Lewis:] I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has “the free-born mind.” But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?

At least two perennially daring thoughts here.

#more#First, from Sobran: “The educators will be, in reality, poultry-keepers.” In a culture that has embraced the commodification of free men and women, treating graduates as “products” of a system, as “inputs” and “labor” for “industry,” can there be any doubt about educators as “poultry-keepers?”

Quaint as it may seem, I think there’s real danger — both for the health of our culture and for, truly, the salvation of our souls — to speak of man as anything other than man. We become what we believe. When our language, and the thinking that delivers its spirit, speaks of man in the same way it speaks of oil production or defense manufacture, we then have a basis for also treating man in that antiseptic spirit.

Then, from Lewis: Only “the free-born mind” allows one the perspicacity to “snaps his fingers” at ideology, and at the tyrannies that seduce and pervert depth of thinking.

In other words, working in tandem, Sobran and Lewis remind us that ideology poisons free thinking, the principal thing with which an education is designed to equip young people. Our age brims with ideologues and lacks Montaignes. 

Planners everywhere, it seems, are devising absolutist paradigms by which ever greater masses will allegedly be both produced (like circuit boards) for the needs of tomorrow. And our central planners, especially within the $80 billion federal education leviathan, continue undaunted by their existential contradiction, which is this: “planners” necessarily run up against, and must ultimately come to a form of violence with, those of “free-born mind,” who by definition live by a sort of un-plannable code, lives rich with spontaneity and unpredictability, where great moments of decision, discovery, risk, or adventure turn on subtle moments of retrospectively monumental importance.

The cultures that produced the great men and women of history regarded sameness as an evitable baseline, not as a desired standard. One great man only recently died. We’ve taken to calling him John Paul “the Great.” We do so because billions knew him, and millions recognized his spirit as supreme self-possession (to borrow a phrase), and have been excited to embrace an elevated standard.

Free-born man remains the historical exception, and so requires a protection as a still relatively tender and delicate specimen in our history. 

Young parents, I think, are in a special place to decide the fate of our culture by answering amongst themselves their preference: poultry-keeper planner, or toward Montaigne and the free-born mind? We can become great, in our own way, by educating for greatness, remembering the truism that rising tides life all ships.

What glory, or fun, really, is educating toward the baseline, toward sameness?

These first principles can spur recovery of form in education.


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