Of his eponymous subject in his wonderful essay “Democratic Education,” C.S. Lewis writes, following Aristotle, that it ought not to mean merely “the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy.” In any conversation in any type of free society regarding the purposes of education or the good of learning, this should serve as a kind of first principle.

It’s a timely thing to consider. For many readers the summer has already ended and the kids have returned to their classrooms. For the rest of us, still enjoying the vestigial charms of holiday, the shadows of summer’s retreat nevertheless grow relentlessly longer and the academic year crouches at the threshold. So, what should we think about when we think about the purposes of education?

For starters, in addition to the rather capacious assertion that democratic education ought to focus on those kinds of things that help preserve a democracy, two other principles ought also to come alongside. First, education shouldn’t be trumped by mere training. Second—and similarly—skill should never be valued in quite the same way as character. While parochial education has additional principles in play—that are neither dissimilar nor in tension with the above—these three principles ought to form the core of any mode of education—with or without a Department of Education—endeavoring to prepare its young boys and girls to grow into that kind of man or woman able to pursue and advance flourishing—their own, yes, and of course also of those for whom they have special obligations, that of the wider community around them, and, indeed, ultimately of the wide world itself—encompassing both its human and non-human dimensions. It’s a hardy task.

Some observations: First, Lewis observed that Aristotle’s demand that democratic education preserve democracy may in fact result in some seemingly unpleasant necessities. For one, it would appear to make a hash of demands for simple equality in education. In my own elementary career, I “benefited” from my local school system’s apparent hesitance to allow any student to feel inferior to another. Lewis saw this in his own day, expressed, in the extreme, by the trend to “abolish all compulsory subjects…and make the curriculum so wide that… even the boy who can’t or won’t learn his alphabet can be praised and petted for something –handicrafts or gymnastics… or the care of guinea pigs.” In my own experience, the gentle approach ultimately permitted me to abort my mathematics education—gloriously I thought at the time—at Introduction to Algebra. I got a D+ (I was quite chuffed about the +). But now, I genuinely question (genuinely but safely distanced from the threat of ever taking another math course) whether such an allowance instilled in me the discipline and “stick-to-it” mentality demanded for the maintenance of a free society. If that seems overwrought, my lack of mathematics (Lewis would have said “maths”) might have derailed my ambitions for doctoral studies. Happily, my 14% on the math(s) portion of the Graduate Record Examination didn’t apparently harm me (if I may boast a bit—that 14% more than doubled my best practice score. Or, well, at least I think it did).

Even if we avoid extremes, the problem as Lewis saw it is more quotidian: the demand for equality can emerge from two sources, one noble and one base. “The noble source,” says Lewis, “is the desire for fair play; but the other source is the hatred of superiority.” While preternaturally predisposed against doing so, having spent twelve years in a post-communist society, I have a double-bind against ever undervaluing the horrors of the second source. We must never let the tendency—present to some degree in all humanity—to resent “what is stronger, subtler or better” than ourselves to harden into “an implacable…hatred for every kind of excellence.”

A free society must never try to appease envy if for no other reason than that envy will never be satisfied no matter how much ground we give it. But, secondly, we mustn’t try and introduce equality where it cannot exist.

Most often more in life is gained by the diligent over the idle; the capable over the incapable or incompetent; and the disciplined over the careless. This is also generally true in education, where the student who does know turns out most often to be the student who wants to know. In the compulsory levels of education we are not, of course, striving for in-depth expertise in all disciplines; but for basic competency in a small core of subjects that until recently every society in Western Culture thought minimally educated people ought to know. Let us then establish curriculums that afford advantage to the interests of those students willing to exercise the diligence to succeed. Such a curriculum shall be, according to Lewis, a “ruthlessly aristocratic” kind of education. Not an aristocracy of privilege but of ability and effort in specific fields of learning. This doesn’t preclude remedial mechanisms to help those who are behind to catch up. But a government “of the people” requires effort by the people, expressed at least by the cultivation of hard work, endurance, and the willingness to subordinate certain, immediate desires for higher, long-term gains. With this in mind, let our schools become “a nursery of those first-class intellects without which a democracy” cannot thrive.

Of course, no society can be truly free if legitimate opportunity is not available to all, and it’s here that our desire for fair play must be enlisted. If “equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception” then in terms of universal access to political, economic, and societal spheres we must rigorously and continually champion equality. No aspect of ethnicity, class, religion, sex, or political view can be allowed to prevent a student from genuinely deciding for themselves whether they will be the kind of student who succeeds or fails at their education.

I regret the seeming loss of vocational education in many jurisdictions. In my high school, less academically talented students learned to build things—and many went on to deeply satisfying and well-compensated trades. But vocational training–including focusing on the development of businessmen and businesswomen—presents a particular kind of challenge. In an economy increasingly based on knowledge and information, knowledge itself will only increase in its role as a key agent in productivity and economic growth. The temptation to respond to this by the acquisition of increasingly specialized, vocation-specific skills seems necessary to navigate, comprehend, and have a hand at innovating complex knowledge networks. But caution is required.

Vocational training prepares one for, well, their vocation—but care has to be taken to be sure that it prepares one for the larger issues of life as well. In reflecting on his twenty years of teaching at a university in which a third of the students are business majors, Vigen Guroian lamented that business training sucked too many of them of idealism and a sense of meaning and put in their place only “pragmatism, utilitarianism, and fatalism.” Guroian was frustrated that few leave college asking why they’ve chosen to spend their life in business. At the extreme, Guroian observed despairingly that many of the young businessmen around him do not know how to leave behind their jobs when vacation. Instead, “they work hard at taking a break from work…so that they are ready to go back to work.” This loss of one’s self to their job is an affront to a free society in which no one is to be a slave. Importantly, the work done at our military academies, where professional training is necessarily very front and center, there is a deep commitment to character and moral formation. While not every professor at every military academy believes there’s such a thing as “a good human being” they all certainly believe there is such as a thing as a good officer—and it doesn’t have only to do with mastery of weapons systems, tactics, and other technical proficiencies. As a premier example of this, the mission of the Naval is worth quoting in full:

To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.

With the exception of the lack of oxford commas, the mission is exemplary. Built into it is the attention to flourishing of the individual and the wider communities radiating out from that individual and to which they belong. In the United States, the military has never been merely about killing people and breaking things through the controlled application of violence. I have frequently insisted that the Profession of Arms is, rightly understood, the Vocation of Peacemaking. The professional military ethic that is cultivated at our nation’s military education academies is peace work.

Many people have heard about the profession of arms and the various oaths that military professionals make. But it is interesting to note that there exists in our nation a professional civilian ethic as well and that it, too, has it oaths. Those foreigners who earn US citizenship take a naturalization oath of allegiance as they become Americans. It goes like this:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

This oath is remarkably similar to the commissioning and enlistment oaths taken by our nation’s warriors. Citizens have an obligation to perform that is all about voluntarily committing other-centered acts of self-donation. These acts take place every day in varying degrees and, if required, in times of national emergency they may take place to the nth degree.

What can bring such character-rich citizens into existence? Well, a wider base of learning certainly helps. For instance, “reading,” says Francis Bacon “maketh a full man.” Why should those in focused on vocations—whether military or civilian—bother themselves with literature? Lewis has a simple suggestion: “unless you contain in yourself all the sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke, and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.” Groking this, Guroian observes that reading can help us become free from our own perspective, “and in that freedom grow into…more complete…and interesting human beings.” We are not fully human if we can talk nothing but shop. Lewis, expounding on the importance of reading, put it this way:

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog…In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Of course, reading great books is never simply its own justification. I’ve been making the claim that education has always had a purpose—to cultivate the humanity of boys and girls so that they learn how to be human beings. The early chapters of the Hebrew bible remind us that being human means that we have been made in the image of God. A part of what that means is that we have been given the responsibility of dominion over all of creation—which includes our little piece of it, both in terms of geography but also of time. Dominion isn’t domination – it isn’t merely marital assertion. Dominion is the exercise of providential care—as God’s viceregents—over creation. To care for something means we desire to see it flourish. But things—including human beings—cannot simply flourish in any old way. There is a very narrow moral ecology in which human beings can do so. A part of dominion—a part of Christian responsibility in and to our world—is, as Paul makes clear in Romans, to help bring about the conditions that make flourishing—or as close an approximation of it as we can have in this world—possible.

“Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library,” said Winston Churchill; understanding the role of literature for deepening the moral imagination—that faculty through which we endeavor for high purpose. In books, we are inspired to recognize that we often choose what to make of our lives and that these choices, like all ideas, have consequence and wield power to effect positive or negative change for ourselves and for others. In standing in another’s story, we realize we are not alone. No great body of literature celebrates selfishness, because no civilization can last long when its citizens care for no one but themselves. This empathy can be the starting point for great acts of social responsibility.

Interaction with literature also yields practical benefits to those working in a knowledge-based economy: the capacity to think, speak and write clearly; the cultivation of a discerning mind able to identify, comprehend and respond to truth and falsehood; to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant information; to discover and interpret patterns; and to use both theoretical and analytical skills to transform tacit understanding into codified and articulated knowledge. Great literature is no substitute for our own experiences, personality, or familiarity with the world but it can enhance them. Above all, it helps to redress the imbalance of according to careerism a higher value than living a full life.

But literature exposes the literate leader to the wisdom of history. “Every age,” writes Lewis, “is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes.” Wise readers know that they are prone to the mass assumptions of their time. Ages, then, are like heads, “two are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” Books allow a conference across centuries. We benefit from the success and failures of those who came before us. Vicarious experience becomes a great leader’s personal resource. 

In all this, the virtuous leader can do what no curriculum finally can—teach by example; inspiring others through coaching and modeling to great personal, vocational, and social success. And our times are sorely in need of noble exemplars. On the debate stage last night, Republican candidates argued whether it is morning in America or night. It seems a silly debate. I don’t know a single serious person who doesn’t think America is going through a dark time. But most of them also know that every generation probably thinks things are as bad as they can be. And yet America has endured. And so hope in the power of America to continue to endure—and even flourish again—is not merely wishful thinking. But there are no guarantees. “The lesson of history,” said Lewis, “is that civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost.” As we continue to consider what is needed for the preservation of a free society—especially as the presidential campaign cycle heats up—it pays to remember that “in a money-based economy, businessmen and businesswomen wield great power.” Because of this, says Guroian “they are frequently called into roles of civic and political leadership.” But if all you know are the pragmatic and utilitarian tools of the business trade, what type of leadership can you really provide for a society comprising more than commerce?

I don’t want to idealize any of this. No matter how wonderful wide learning is, it is insufficient. When I lived in Central Europe, the crew I worked with was fond of recalling that, at one point in history, Karl Marx sat in a library in Chetham, England, working on ideas that would change the world. One must also remember that the majority of officials formalizing the Final Solution around the table at Wannsee held advanced academic degrees and were men of culture. Wide reading and a deep appreciation for learning may still yield a shallow soul and narrow mind.

But the Western world, and the classical education which for centuries sustained it, has as its hinterlands the Greco-Roman and Hebraic traditions that have fortified our culture since its inception. Grounded in piety, governed and kept on azimuth by theology—the  Queen of the Sciences—and fortified by the myriad academic disciplines which are her handmaidens, proper learning is a means of preparing our children for, among much else, their encounter with the great ideas that have motivated action, and shaped, that continue to shape, and that are just beginning to shape our world.