- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

By Jeffrey Hart
Yale University Press, $26.95, 261 pages

How is the citizenry of a republic to be educated? Each generation poses the question; virtually every answer seems to presuppose a condition of a certain leisure, of a cultivated avidity to understand the important issues of the day, and an educated habit of thinking hard about their antecedents, about their connections to the larger purposes of the polity. Each generation searches for some means of cultivating disinterestedness, a word dear to the Founding Generation of our country, a condition in which the urgings of ego are scoured away in a constant determination to advise, to judge, to do what is right for the commonwealth, unimpeded by calculations of personal advantage.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famous idea of the General Will, for example, presupposed some means of identifying that informed will: what an alert citizenry would do when it acted according to its best self, actuated only by a solicitude for the larger purpose of the state.
Even this, Jeffrey Hart argues, in "Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe," is insufficient. Quoting a former teacher of his, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, veteran of World War I and the early depredations of Nazi tyranny, he insists that "a citizen is a person who, if need be, can re-create his civilization." And though he admires Matthew Arnold, he finds Arnold's hope for, at least, an educated, "saving remnant" of citizens thus educated and active in the way they use their education he finds it bleak and insufficient. Mr. Hart insists that education must concern itself fundamentally with preparing useful citizens for the American polity; and though his book bears the clumsy sub-title "Toward the Revival of Higher Education," Mr. Hart's preoccupation is really with lifelong, continuing self-education: and with how such a … habit … can be inculcated in the years of undergraduate education.
And he knows, too, that all but a tiny remnant of those now being sent into professional careers, will cease immediately to think about the great, continuing questions of politics and political philosophy the moment their diplomas are in hand. Actually, it is much worse than that. Only a bedraggled band of brothers makes its way through the undergraduate years nowadays with any serious exposure to the issues Mr. Hart judges paramount and urgent.
This is a luminous and beautiful book. It wastes little time in diagnosis we all know what is wrong or in bleating outrage or assignments of guilt. Along the axis of the familiar Athens-Jerusalem taxonomy, the western cultural legacy has its roots in a "philosophic-scientific approach to actuality, with the goal being cognition" (Athens) and in "a scriptural tradition of disciplined insight and aspiration to holiness" (Jerusalem.) It is in the tension between the two, in their interaction, that the West has found "the energy for its greatest achievements, both material and spiritual." To think deeply, constantly, about those achievements, those artifacts of mind, those legacies aesthetic and philosophical, and how in their various ways they bear upon the contemporary questions, this is the obligation of the serious and committed citizen.
The pedigree of such an argument is ancient and distinguished, reaching back both to the Old Testament and Homer, through Plato and his Greek and Roman embroiderers, through Dante, Erasmus, John Milton, and Matthew Arnold. The canonical texts, several of which Mr. Hart explores at length, are assumed to confer fructifying insights, fresh streams of intellectual nourishment, constant, unignorable evidences of the majesty of their legacy.
The diligent citizen, who aches, thirsts for such nourishment, is bound to become a more useful member of the commonwealth, more reliably able to contribute to its deliberations, more likely the source of provident ideas and judgments. An obvious reason is the formation of judgments based always on "the best that has been said and thought in the world," and judgments based therefrom in an energetic insistence that the best is the enemy of the good.
These arguments are familiar, and they are urged in language as compelling, as generous and persuasive, as Mr. Hart's own masters', Mark van Doren and Lionel Trilling. They are without the tincture of sadness, cynicism, or frustration. While all around him lies the litter of a way of education that ignores virtually everything he quietly champions, Mr. Hart proceeds as though, within the legions of undergraduates preparing for careers of which the height is to be measured in possessions which will confer some form of exalted distinction over their contemporaries, in empty celebrity, fashion, in idle interconnectedness at all times (surely the greatest enemy of leisure imaginable) as though, within such a generation of students there actually can be found not only a saving remnant, but a large army of prospective evangelists; Pauline missionaries to all the great outposts of American politics and public life generally.
The author brushes by a central problem: Who is to educate the educable? Legions of credentialed young professors join faculties each year; precious few of whom share such hopeful views, far fewer the passionate commitment to propounding them, and to articulating the great texts that are their strongest arguments. The means by which graduate students are prepared for their careers as college teachers would seem to exclude the very things that Mr. Hart considers necessary to sustain an educated citizenry.
There's a famous characterization of John Henry Newman, preaching in St. Mary's Church, Oxford, which seems perfectly matched to the author's own voice, in this book: " … breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music subtle, sweet, mournful …"
A great teacher and writer always communicates the fervor of his commitment to ideals whose attainment usually, but not always, seems impossible to his pupil. As a teacher, professor and writer, Mr. Hart would seem to embody the best virtues of one of his own spiritual mentors Chaucer:
Sounding moral virtue was his speech,
and gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

Josiah Bunting III is writing the sequel to his recently published novel, "All Loves Excelling."

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