Russell Kirk on Irving Babbitt and Liberal Education

One of the Harvard greats, Irving Babbitt.

One of the Harvard greats, Irving Babbitt.

“We may define Babbitt’s humanism as the belief that man is a distinct being, government by laws peculiar to his nature: there is a law for man, and law for thing. Man stands higher than the beasts that perish because he recognizes this law of his nature. The disciplinary arts of humanitas teach man to put checks upon his will and his appetite. Those checks are approved by reason—not the private rationality of the Enlightenment, but the higher reason which grows out of a respect for the wisdom of our ancestors and out of the endeavor to apprehend the transcendent order which gives us our nature. The sentimentalist, who would subject man to the rule of impulse and passion; the pragmatic naturalist, who would treat man as a mere edified ape; the leveling enthusiast, who would reduce human differences to a collective mediocrity—these are the enemies of true human nature.” (7)

“Irving Babbitt saw about him a civilization intellectually devoting itself to the study of subhuman relationships, which it mistook for the whole of life; that civilization was sinking into a meaningless aestheticism, an arid specialization, and a mean vocationalism. Babbitt’s attempted renewal of an understanding of true humanism was intended to return his generation to the real aim of education, the study of the greatness and the limitations of human nature.” (7)

“The purpose of studying humane letters was to seek after the Platonic ends of wisdom and virtue: that is, to develop right reason and sound character. The purpose of the rival utilitarian disciplines was to acquire power and wealth. Babbitt is demanding, what will become of college graduates who know the price of everything and the value of nothing?” (10)

“The curricula of even the better institutions, nevertheless, as the years passed, increasingly reflected the commercial and industrial interests of the American Republic, at the cost of humane studies.” (18)

“The aim of the oldfangled college education was ethical, the development of moral understanding and humane leadership; but the method was intellectual, the training of the mind and conscience through well-defined literary disciplines. A college was an establishment for the study of literature: it was nearly so simple as that. Through an apprehension of great literature young men were expected to fit themselves for leadership in the churches, in politics, in law, in the principle positions of leadership in their communities.” (63)

“Certain things a good college can do very well. It can give the student the tools for educating himself throughout his life. It can present to him certain general principles for the governance of personality and community. It can help him to see what makes life worth living. It can teach him basic disciplines which will be of infinite value in professional specialization at a university, or in his subsequent apprenticeship to any commercial or industrial occupation. And certain things no honest college can pretend to do at all. It cannot teach him directly how to win friends and influence people. It cannot make him a successful captain of industry or engineer or specialized scientist. It cannot guarantee him worldly prosperity. It cannot enroll him in a survey-course in “world culture” and pour wisdom into him, as milk is poured into a bottle.” (65)

“At best, what the typical college has offered its undergraduates, in recent decades, has been defecated rationality: that is, a narrow rationalism or Benthamite logicalism, purged of theology, moral philosophy, and the wisdom of our ancestors. This defecated rationality exalts private judgment and gratification of the senses at the expense of the inner order of the soul and the outer order of the republic.” (66)

“If we forget the primacy of moral worth in our scheme of education, we will establish no Arcadia of unchecked personal liberty, but instead bring upon ourselves a congeries of warring ideologies and fierce private appetites.” (66)

“Take away from the student his patrimony of moral imagination and ethical knowledge, and we are confronted, perhaps, by the secularized Pharisee, ignorantly denouncing as ‘immoral’ the imperfect but tolerable order to which he owes his existence.” (66)

SOURCE: Kirk, Russell. “Babbitt and the Ethical Purpose of Literary Studies.” In Literature and the American College, 1-68. Washington, D.C.: National Humanities Institute, 1986.

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