The Uses of a Liberal Education
by Brand Blanshard
American philosopher Brand Blanshard towers over 20th century philosophy like a redwood over a forest of scrub oaks. That this hasn't yet been recognized is an especially telling indictment of Anglo-American philosophy. The chief corpus of his accomplishment begins with the most brilliant essay in philosophical psychology yet written, The Nature of Thought, and continues with a trilogy of books in the defense of reason that encompasses Reason and Analysis, Reason and Goodness, and Reason and Belief. Each is a landmark of Western thought (and this is not hyperbole), but this astonishing trilogy was later followed with the astonishing Four Reasonable Men.
But even this truly remarkable body of work doesn't complete Blanshard's oeuvre. He also spun off a large corpus of shorter essays and lectures over the course of his long life that include a number of the best ever written. Most of these have never yet been collected - an appalling embarassment to American letters the equivalent of, say, failing to publish the short fiction of Mark Twain, the essays of Emerson, and the essays of Thoreau - but in The Uses of a Liberal Education some of the best have, at least, been gathered together.
Blanshard, of course, was an educator for some decades of the most important subject of all: philosophy; and this helps give this collection its considerable heft and authority. But the title, apart from being a bit pedestrian, is also somewhat misleading. The chief "use" of a liberal education is the fullest possible development of a complete human being;' and this requires, above all, an education in character. And this is the central theme of ULE.
This comes out most clearly in What Should We Get From College?, and is more apparent in The Idea of the Gentleman and Admiration; but this underlying concern can also be felt in many of the other essays.
The Development of Character
With an impressively comprehensive lack of perception, Blanshard is sometimes thought of, when he is thought of at all, as the defender of a coherence theory of truth. Yet from the closing paragraph of The Nature of Thought, through the last paragraph of his last book, Four Reasonable Men, it is apparent that Blanshard's central concern was always the nature and development of good character. One of the reasons that Blanshard is a philosopher of such enormous stature is that no one has ever had more to tell us concerning this subject than he has.
It is a topic that mostly lies outside of the more technical discussions of philosophical issues, and yet the very term "philosophy", meaning in its etymological roots the "love of wisdom", suggests that the discipline will go far wrong when it neglects this concern. Wisdom is a thing apart from bare literacy, and centers less on knowledge per se than upon understanding what is of greatest importance in human affairs. Character is, in large part, a matter of orienting one's life to these affairs. Those who do so most successfully we refer to as "great". Those who do so least successfully we refer to as "criminals".
And why this should be so will be much more clearly understood when one has read The Uses of a Liberal Education.
Our preference in book reviews is to provide readers with a few characteristic and valuable passages so they can get some sense for themselves of the flavor of the writer's style and concerns unfiltered by the reviewer.
The difficulty of doing this for ULE lies in the embarassment of riches. It is the most dog-eared book this reviewer owns. However, here are a few.
The Test of a University, pgs. 8 - 9
"I suggested that good judgment has two bases, one of which is the reflectiveness that sees beliefs and proposals in the light of what they imply. But there is a second element in good judgment, the sense of value. The first without the second has often been a menace to mankind: think of the intellectual power that German generals and scientists threw into the service of Hitler. There are lawyers of great gifts who are not above using them to smirch innocence and condone wrong. Some large American fortunes have been built on a well-mixed concrete base of shrewdness and callous inhumanity. Indeed, the commonest cirticism of our culture as a whole is that it combines a large control of the means to the good life with much dimness as to what the good life is. If judgment is to be sound, it must be able not only to calculate consequences, but to weigh the good or evil of those consequences."
The Uses of a Liberal Education, pg. 42
"Now the educated mind is the mind that has achieved mastery of its own powers, and such mastery is reflected through all the detail of one's living. A liberal education impractical? Why there is nothing n the range of our speech or thought, our feeling or action, that it leaves quite as it was! Because the educated man knows the difference between knowledge and opinion, his thought on everything - on his business, on his creed, on the devaluation of the dollar - will be more self-critical and more precise. Because speech is the reflection of thought, his talk on all these matters will have more point and precision and weight. Again, right feeling is largely a matter of right thinking; if a man is honestly convinced that racial discimination is wrong, the struggle for right feeling is two-thirds won. And besides, feeling is as educable as thought. The person who has really entered in "Rabbi Ben Ezra" or Burns on the field-mouse, or Stephen Benet's John Brown's Body can never feel about old age, or four-footed thngs, or black people, as he did before.
And if his thought and feeling are affected, so surely will his action be. I have been reading lately Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March. I felt about his hero , Julius Caesar, though with some reservations, as I felt long ago in reading Froude and Mommsen, that there is something not only fascinating but almost frightening in the man. That extraordinary intelligence so permeated everything he did that the ablest statesmen and generals of his time, when they tried to oppose him, looked as you or I would look if we played chess against Bobby Fischer. He was a great man of action, but he was so because his action embodied the precise and lucid mind that wrote the Gallic War, a mind that saw every detail, saw them all in perspective, seized the essential as if by instinct, and conducted a campaign with the economy of a superb artist."
Education as Philosophy, pgs. 50 - 51
"The capacity of the average man and even the college student to live in a honeycomb of unconnecting little cells is marvelous. A student will be an expert biologist on six days of the week; on the seventh he will go to church and recite "I believe in the resurrection of the body" without even a sense of difficulty. He will study economics and accept its conclusions about tariffs, monopolies, and taxes; he will then go home and cast a cordial vote for candidates whose views are the contradictories of his economic convictions.
You may say that he doesn't need to be a philosopher to avoid this; all he needs is an interest in thinking things out coherently for himself. I answer that that precisely is what I mean by philosophy. I am not arguing that Professor X's dessicated teachings about the syllogism or fusty old Professor Y's lectures on Descartes-to-Kant are going to save education. I am not thinking of philosophy as courses in philosophy or even as a subject exclusive of other subjects. I am thinking of it in its old Greek sense, the sense in which Socrates thought of it, as the love and search for wisdom, the habitof pursuing an argument where it leads, the delight in understanding for its own sake, the passionate pursuit of a dispassionate reasonableness, the will to see things steadily and see them whole. It is a bent and temper of mind that can show itself in any field; indeed some distinguished educators have held that philsophy would do its work most effectively if the department were abolished and all teachers taught philosophically."
Please see also our reviews of:
Reason and Analysis, and