Provoking an Educational Renaissance

Today we’re talking with James Hankins about the problems of liberal learning in our current age and all the many facets of that. I’m honored to welcome James Hankins to Liberty Law Talk for the first time. He is a Senior Editor of Law & Liberty. He has contributed a number of essays in the past year on some of the things that we’re going to discuss today. He is a Professor of History at Harvard University. He’s one of the world’s experts on the Italian Renaissance and the humanism of the Italian Renaissance and is the author of the much-lauded, highly-reviewed book Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy. James, thank you so much for joining us today.

James Hankins (01:01):

Well, it’s pleasure to talk with you.

Richard Reinsch (01:04):

Just thinking about that book, for a minute. That’s sort of an interesting question for a lot of Americans, I think, who think about politics. What do you mean, Soulcraft and Statecraft?

Petrarch’s idea was you need people who respect their own institutions and want them to be preserved intact for the next generation, and people who understand that institutions have to be maintained by persons of good character, and they have to have a sense of cooperation with people of different backgrounds and different beliefs.

James Hankins (01:14):

Well, I’m drawing attention to the fact that, in pre-modern political theory, going back to Plato and Aristotle, thinkers and political actors have attached as much importance to the character and educational levels of the rulers, the ruling class, the elites, as they have to constitutional forms and laws. In the modern world, we seem to try to solve every problem by adding a new regulatory agency or passing some new laws. They were convinced in pre-modern times, in the Renaissance, but also, I think, pretty generally, in the ancient tribune, that you had to have good people running the institution. So, if you had bad people making the laws, bad people enforcing laws, you weren’t going to get any respect from the people, to start off with, and things would go bad very soon. In my book, I talk about this as a problem of the 14th Century, which was addressed by the great founder of classical humanism, who is Francesco Petrarch, who most people know as a poet, today. But he actually has a tremendous importance as an educational reformer. So he’s the one who invented the whole idea of humanity as a way of training elites so that they would be people of good character and wisdom and education.

Richard Reinsch (02:43):

You’ve written on toward this idea that Americans can learn a lot from this period, Europe 14th Century Italy, and through general decay, general decay and authority. Could you talk about that for us?

James Hankins (02:57):

I think there are some similarities, and of course, it’s very, very different, as it always is. But the similarities are the ones that strike me, mainly the problem with legitimacy, legitimacy of elites in institutions in rather remarkable parallels, such as epidemics which are, of course, 10 times, a thousand times worse in the 14th Century than they are today, like the Black Death. But the real problem that Petrarch saw, and other people to its time saw, as well, that the people who are leading the church and the people who are leading the various states, and the holy Roman Emperor, all these people, were either ineffective at their jobs or people who were corrupt and hard to respect. So the result was that you had a lot of illegitimate power and societies falling apart. Tremendous factualism, which is another analogy of the modern world, the terrible factualism in the republics of the… or the communes, they called them… We call them republics today… that the communes of Renaissance Italy. So there was constant fighting in the streets. Shakespeare did not invent the situation in Romeo and Juliet. He was channeling 14th Century history, when he talked about the Montagues and Capulets fighting in the streets. That was fairly common behavior.

So we have the same problems of fascism, fortunately not quite as violent as in the 14th Century. And we have the same problems of illegitimacy, not that our institutions are illegitimate, but that the people who are running the institutions don’t respect them. We have a great Constitution. We have some very fine laws that we… and government institutions, but they’re constantly being bent out of shape by people who want to exploit them for their own ideological purposes. So Petrarch’s idea was what you need. In a way it’s like, what you need is people who respect their own institutions and want them to be preserved intact for the next generation, and people who understand that institutions have to be maintained by persons of good character, and they have to have a sense of cooperation with people of different backgrounds and different beliefs.

Richard Reinsch (05:29):

So Petrarch alights on what we would, kind of, look to a policy response or a grand political campaign. Petrarch plays for the long game in trying to rebuild education. And that, sort of… Maybe you could talk about that some. I know you’ve been talking about it, but also thinking about general condition of humanity’s departments today. You said, the sum of your pieces, too, which, I think about, as well, which is, how much worse it can get, say, 20 years from now, as, sort of, even the moderating influences retire and leave the academy.

James Hankins (06:06):

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that for a while, what the end game is, here. And one thing I’m about to write for Law & Liberty is a long piece on what I’m calling the exiting tendency, now, to leave union-controlled public schools behind, and go to private education or homeschooling. I’ve been in touch with some people at the Great Hearts Academy who tell me that the homeschooling population is now over 10% in this country. First of all, that’s temporary because of… But it’s growing, and the number of schools that are essentially dropping out of woke education is also growing. Catholic parochial schools, there’s a lot of people, the good ones anyway, are attracting many more students. The private schools that have some kind of classical education or standard education are also growing dramatically.

So I think that this may be an endgame that nobody had suspected to this whole problem of wokery taking over the secondary schools. I’m actually much more worried about K-12 than I am about universities. Universities are very established institutions that change… I think that the woke revolution… I can already see signs that we could be at an end, people have suddenly realized that they’re subject to our trends and no one will read their publications if we all decide to give up on traditional education. Professors don’t like that. They imagine future generations reading their work. So if you’re a Shakespeare scholar and you suddenly figure out that the wokerati don’t want to read Shakespeare anymore, then you, kind of, wonder, “Where’s my subject going? Where are my graduate students going to go? How’re they going to get jobs, and will anyone remember my name in the next generation, if everyone’s reading Donna Gephart instead of reading Shakespeare?”

Richard Reinsch (08:15):

I was going to ask you, in your position at Harvard, what have you seen as one of the worst aspects of wokeism, critical race theory at your institution? What do you think is most troubling?

James Hankins (08:29):

Well, most troubling, for me, is the way that the entire institution has signed up to take the name BLM in 2020, without any kind of… I think they just regarded this as [inaudible 00:08:42] a good thing to do, and many people weren’t aware of what the BLM organization was about. They felt badly about the George Floyd situation, and this was a way of showing how upset they were. But BLM turned out to be a little… having more commitments than people suspected. So the main thing that’s happening how is a lot of pressure to hire people who are supposedly going to help us end racism and prejudice against BIPOC people. Last year, I don’t think that the top administration is very sympathetic to this, but they like to blow with the wind a bit. I think they would problem say they would like to yield to the wind and then snap back into place. That’s a fairly typical Harvard thing.

So the big question that the very few conservative faculty have around here is whether we’re going to be Savonarola or we’re going to be the witch hunts. The Savonarola, kind of, fanatical preacher of Renaissance Florence basically lasted two and a half years. The witch hunts lasted 50 years. So I don’t think we can keep up this level of anger and hatred for very long. But there are a lot of demands. I think the most radicalized element at Harvard is the graduate students who are demanding that people be punished for saying things that they don’t like. But we haven’t had any really bad cases, such as we’ve had at other universities, of people being canceled for an incorrect thought. People have been canceled for behavior with women, which I think is more understandable. But the idea… We haven’t had many cases of people who have been condemned for their ideas. It’s mostly… It’s not the Institution that’s doing this, at that point. It’s the graduate students who are trying to get the Institution to do that.

Petrarch’s final solution is that he’s going to change education. So that’s the real problem, is in the hearts of men, the hearts of men and women too, because the Renaissance Movement is both genders. So he’s going to spread a new form of education which he calls Humanities.

Richard Reinsch (10:47):

You know, it’s something which I think would be, sort of, applicable to Harvard or elite prep schools, sort of, adopting this thought model as well, from what I’m reading and hearing. So they come to school, a fist, sort of, already formed in their minds, I’ve wondered.

James Hankins (11:01):

Yeah, and it’s starting very early. I mean, I have a friend who is… He’s got a first-grader, and they already had DEI trainers at his grade school, although I have to say this kid is very amusing. He’s a smart little kid, just over six years old, and the DEI trainer tried to get them to identify something they’re good at, saying, “Little boys, tell us what you’re good at.” So, then, the next step would be get the children to acknowledge that their special ability was owing to white privilege. Right?

Richard Reinsch (11:35):


James Hankins (11:37):

My friend’s little boy says, “I’m good at DEI.” That, kind of, plummets the teacher a lot. But it’s really distressing what’s going on in these elite schools. So parents who are ambitious for their kids and normally want to have them in the best schools available, are discovering the best schools available are all taken over by this stuff. So, there’s a search for schools that are not going to give in to all of the latest fads. And I think what affects a lot of these parents is what they’re seeing on the curriculum. I have another colleague who has sent his… Well, he was looking at the most expensive private in Cambridge, Mass. Okay? He wanted to send his kids to the best place, and he decided he was going to check out the curriculum. So he went in to ask the English teachers what they’re teaching, and he didn’t find a single work from published before the year 2000. They weren’t reading any Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, none of that, not reading any of the classical works of Western canon. They’re reading books that are going to help them end racism and prejudice against BIPOC people.

So, I suppose, if you’re a political type, you don’t have any love for literature for its own sake. One author is as good as another. So this guy, who is a European, he’s actually… He was totally astonished by the lack of education that his child was going to get. So he sent her to another school. But you know, it’s a real trouble for parents, who aspire to elite status for their children, whether they’re going to subject them to an elite school which doesn’t teach them anything or whether they’re going to send them to someplace which, maybe, is not so well-known, but will have better, more traditional standards.

Richard Reinsch (13:32):

You wrote an essay, “How to Build Your Own Renaissance,” a few months. Help us understand, sort of, the Renaissance humanism education and, you seem to be saying in this, could be served as a model, in some ways an adaptable model, for us today. Could you talk more about that?

James Hankins (13:51):

Well, I understand that I sounded like a historian with a bee in my bonnet. So I studied one period of history too much, and then finding all sorts of patterns that are really not applicable. But I think that the general strategy is the right one, that Petrarch develops, is that you have to have a long-term strategy. Petrarch started out thinking he was going to have a revolution. He latched onto a guy named Cola di Rienzo, who was the subject of an opera by Wagner in the 19th Century, essentially rather a famous person in the 19th Century because he was a popular revolutionary. And Petrarch became his publicist. He was absolutely keen on the idea of not taking out the elite and bringing back the people. And he was hoping that this would turn into a revolution. Unfortunately, it occurred at the same time as Black Death. So, that put a kink in things. But also, Cola di Rienzo turned out be a weak reed. He ended up trying to be a tyrant, even though he’s calling for the return of the people.

So Petrarch becomes very chastened after the experience and decides that he has to go in for long-term solutions. One of the things he does is to start hanging out with tyrants, all the North-Italian cities have been taken over by tyrannical types in the early 14th Century. The Republics were all disappearing, one by one, and being replaced by tyrants. I guess the second idea is that, “I’m going to go live with these tyrants and try to educate them so that they will be into better people.” He does this with three sets of tyrants, and he does make some progress, in a way, because tyrants aren’t all bad in the 14th Century. They’re not necessarily what we think of as tyrants today. They’re just people with illegitimate power. So, then his final solution is that he’s going to change education. So that’s the real problem, is in the hearts of men, the hearts of men and women too, because the Renaissance Movement is both genders. So he’s going to spread a new form of education which he calls Humanities.

He’s the inventor of the Humanities. It’s called the Studia Humanitatis in Latin. And the idea is that you’re not only going to be preparing yourself for a professional career. But you’re going to study a curriculum that’s really going to transform you and make you into a better person, a wiser person, and more of a person of practical wisdom, a person who cares about the whole society, has love for the common good, someone who wants to distinguish yourselves for virtue. That’s what he found, and that’s what actually becomes the standard education in Italy, by the middle of the 13th Century.

Richard Reinsch (16:44):

So, thinking about the type of character that Petrarch wanted to form with this approach, what type of character does our education system form now, in those who are the elite levels?

James Hankins (16:57):

Well, I’m trying to remember where I read this, but I read an article. Maybe it was Theodore Dalrymple. I’m a big fan of his, who says that the type of virtue that modern education wants is for you to agree with principles, so that virtue is signaled, but it’s not acquired. Being elite means holding a particular set of ideas. Right?

Richard Reinsch (17:19):


James Hankins (17:19):

It doesn’t mean acquiring character traits. And the result of that is you learn what to think, but not how to think. You end up not developing character because that’s not important. What’s important is that you agree with a particular set of ideas, which of course, constantly changing, six years ago, no one thought that it was important to affirm transgender people, that, that would become a requirement to be a member of the elite. But now it is. Right?

But if you go out to smaller cities, you still find people who are trying to use their wealth to serve the community, building parks and all of those things you talk about, museums, and maybe they’re not building museums anymore, but they’re adding a wing onto the museum here or there. They’re supporting arts groups and they are on to do what they can to support good education.

Richard Reinsch (17:47):


James Hankins (17:48):

So, that sort of thing is what the moderns are after. They’re trying to enforce a certain way of thinking. It’s very ill-knowledged, basically. That’s basically the difference between what the ancients wanted, what the Renaissance humanist wanted. They wanted people to acquire the virtues and encourage prudence, justice, and temperance. They wanted all those virtues, and they thought they were important for political leaders to have those virtues, and they had a whole educational system built around the idea that you should acquire that kind of virtue. As actually, if you read Aristotle, I’m sure you know that there is a couple dozen virtues in Aristotle’s ethics. And they’re perfectly aware of that. But they want to get the character traits that are necessary for people to acquire moral legitimacy. That’s the form of legitimacy we had in the Renaissance because Renaissance period is one where political authority simply lacked legitimacy. They’ve gotten power in ways that are not legal, where the legal system itself is corrupt, or they… the Renaissance republics, for example, there’s a kind of, formal populism, but the oligarchs, who are actually running things from behind the scenes. Somewhat like the modern America. So the idea is that, if you can get those people who are running things to care more about the whole society, not just themselves, and try to understand everyone in a society, and to give them good leadership and good examples, that you’ll have much more integration in the society.

Richard Reinsch (19:26):

There’s also this example of, it seems to me at least, like the upper level of, say, higher education in America, then where they go professionally, what they do after that. There’s this sense of, “We earned this. This is ours by who we are, by what we’ve achieved, by what we’re capable of doing,” and it seems to… I think it spawned an enormous amount of ingratitude. Whereas, typically, which I think you wanted the people at the top of your hierarchy to have a sense of ownership of the entire society, and political, social order that they have a responsibility given to them that they have to fulfill. And I don’t see that in our current group, so much to the extent they think that way. It’s being a part of an NGO or some new cause or something like that. That’s how they serve. It’s not like the oil barons or the railroad barons, building parks, new schools, seminaries, libraries, things like that. So I felt that, as well, and I think that would be the outcome of the kind of education that they’ve been brought up in.

James Hankins (20:36):

Well, I wrote about that a bit in a review I did of a book by Adrian Wooldridge, called the… I think it’s called… It’s about meritocracy and I’ve forgotten the exact title, but-

Richard Reinsch (20:48):

Yeah, he did that for-

James Hankins (20:49):

… it’s about… He is somebody who is dead keen on modern meritocracy. He thinks that’s what we need and all we… should have people effortlessly rising from the lowest to the highest place in society. Some obviously get good grades and score well on tests, and their competent and they’re able to bring in the goods, and so forth. But for members of corporations and they improve the profits. So, that’s not the kind of elites that I think we need today. I think we need more localized elites who are more responsible to the local population. I’m not saying necessarily a face-to-face society, like the Renaissance, but people who more really invest in their local communities. I’ve been told by people who live in small American cities that, that still survives in America. If you go to New York and Boston, Washington, D.C., everyone’s globalized and they’ve been brought up among other, especially elite, universities and brought up among an international population of people that think globally. Many of them want jobs in NGOs, diplomats, and they’re wanting jobs that are not particularly rooted in any one society.

But if you go out to smaller cities, you still find people who are trying to use their wealth to serve the community, building parks and all of those things you talk about, museums, and maybe they’re not building museums anymore, but they’re adding a wing onto the museum here or there. They’re supporting arts groups and they are on to do what they can to support good education. So I think it’s not really dead in America. It’s just that there’s a kind of, super elite in America that’s very globalized. And it makes perfect sense, when you think about it, if you’re a global elite, that you would want to have open borders, because all those people are… If you are a global leader, then the entire population of the world is… You’re responsible for. So you don’t want to see any borders between your nation’s state and the next nation’s state. They’re all you know, the non-elites that you are presumably managing. One thing that would really help improve the moral quality in elites is for people that tend to be more localized and more deeply involved with communities more involved in civil society so that there is some kind of integration in the community between elites and non-elites. That’s what we’re lacking right now.

Richard Reinsch (23:19):

That, yes, sort of a more connected tissue.

James Hankins (23:22):

Well, it’s not only that, but it’s also the question of culture. Right?

Richard Reinsch (23:25):


James Hankins (23:26):

Because the global elites have a completely different culture, completely different moral standards and, with the advent of wokery, and DEI, that difference has really become stark, to the extent that those elites are in control of public schools. It creates a real problem for parents because they have parents who are traditional somewheres rather than everywheres, parents who have traditional values. They’re Christians, or they’re Muslims, or they just want their kids to be brought up the way remember they were brought up in high schools, 25 years ago. They want them to have a good education. When they’re confronted with this elite that wants to basically brainwash and I hate to use that term because it’s very loaded, but they want people to think a way that’s quite different from the way their parents think. And that’s very divisive.

Richard Reinsch (24:18):

As we’ve seen play out across the country, in the past couple of years.

James Hankins (24:24):

But I think it’s also… If you’d let me just say this because it popped into my head, and I’m always… And I’ll forget what I just thought up. But I think that it’s actually an opportunity, now that we can try to expand non-unionized schooling, public charters, and all of these private academies that are coming into existence. There’s a whole bunch of new school opportunities, these so-called hybrid education, classical schools, private academies. There’s a break-off group in the Catholic Church who’s trying to establish classical liberal education. Many Catholic schools are-

Richard Reinsch (25:10):

The state model.

James Hankins (25:12):

… Yeah, they’re trying to approximate the secular schools. So there’s a movement, now, to reform education, which I think is given a lot of impetus by the COVID year, and by BLM demonstrations.

Richard Reinsch (25:28):

Do you see humanities in higher education? I’ve got a friend of mine who’s taught in political theory for 30 years. He thinks humanities are finished in America, and the current model in higher education. Do you see it that way, or is that too extreme?

James Hankins (25:48):

The universities humanities are a little different from K-12 humanities, in that there’s more intention on professionalism and less on character formation and acquiring cultural literacy, and that sort of thing. One thing that’s, perhaps, unique to university education is you need to be able to measure someone’s achievement as a humanist. So that’s typically publications, but the type of publications that’s going to be valued are ones whose impact is easy to measure. For a long time, when the humanities originally lost steam, in other words, they lost their reforming purpose, it was already in the late 15th Century, one of the things that happened was that people started to be valued for their philology, for their scholarship more than for the moral character they were trying to communicate to the schools. When we see that a bit, the kind of professionalization of the humanities, means that we’re less concerned with what’s going on in the heads of students, and we’re more concerned with our professional community thinks is good and, in value, is able to… You know, if you can do a critical edition, that’s something. A critical edition, wonderful that is, and I’ve done… My entire life… I’ve spent my entire life in critical editions. It’s making anybody any better, except in some very remote sense. The real problem with humanities is it got invaded in, as early as, the ’70s and ’80s, by theory mavens. And it began to be the fad to try to apply French theory Foucault, and so forth, to and Derrida, to the study of humanities.

And I think, recently, people have realized that was not a good move from the point of the enrollments… very small number of people who want to wear the beret… I call it wearing the beret, like wearing French theory beret, at Harvard. But most of the people, they want… There’s still a large body of people out there who just want to read these great authors. They’ve not being served very well by humanities programs. Belatedly, we have realized, here at Harvard, that there is this large population of people who want to read the authors, what the authors have to say. Then, all of this theoretical manipulation with authors, and authors who are being essentially silenced, or negated, by the way that they’re read. You haven’t seen the hits… You’ve not seen the hits or followed any of her work. She has a very interesting distinction between primary and secondary reading.

So primary reading is where you read the author in the way the author wanted to be read. So if the author wants to entrance you or to inspire you or to send a message to you or just to have you enjoy the beauty of his or her language, then that’s primary reading, receiving what the author wanted you to receive. But then there’s secondary reading, where you try to show that the author’s writings demonstrate some private theory of your own, or some theory that’s popular in the academy, which is great for getting professional status, because everyone says, “Oh, this person knows the latest theories. He’s able to apply the latest theories to these texts.” But, from the student point of view, it’s not so popular. There’re some students, of course, who play along and think this is great, but I think the majority of the students have voted with their feet and they’re doing something else.

Our department… I’m in the History Department, and I’m the Literature Department, but we have lost enrollments dramatically in the last 10 years. And it’s partly what we’re teaching. It’s also, I’d say… This was explained to by my brother-in-law, who is a former high school principal, that what happened in the [1990s] and the noughties, is that history was basically cut out of all the testing regimes that came in, in the wake of No Child Left Behind and National Standards. They basically weren’t interested in adding history to the National Standards. And, of course, SATs don’t test it. Only if you take an AP History are you going to have any of that knowledge tested. So, lot of students simply never got the chance to be interested in history because, if you’re a high school, teaching to a test, and there’s no test in history, you don’t teach history. So that’s one reason why we’re losing historians. But I take your point that the other reason is that the professors are far too taken up with their own status hierarchies, and not… Maybe it mirrors, in a way, the way elites act, in general, that they’re taken up with their own status hierarchies, not paying enough attention to the needs of the students.

There’s virtue education and there’s ideological education, and what you want is virtue education, where it sets people free and enables them to be good, rather than ideological education which is designed to get them to think in a certain way. We can tell the difference. It’s the difference between love and fear.

Richard Reinsch (30:55):

Yeah. I think that’s right, in a certain sense. Want to switch gears and just think about politics, for a minute. We talked about this at the beginning. So your book, Virtue Politics, one of your contentions that, through the modern political project, that a firm constitution, with institutions, could constrain people and induce them to act in socially cooperative productive ways, and we wouldn’t need to think about character or virtue as much, because the rules would just keep things going. I take it you challenge that, and virtue politics, in a basic way. And also, it seems to have resonance in thinking about a lot of things today, what we’ve been discussing.

James Hankins (31:38):

Yes. I want to specify that I think that you need both good institutions and good character, but they work together. The humanist tended to believe that… They follow Socrates, the ancient or Greek rhetorician, who thinks that institutions don’t matter as long as you have good character. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a tyranny or a oligarchy or a democracy, it’s all going to work fine, as long as you have good character. I don’t believe that. Many humanists did. But there were also humanists who understood that institutions are terribly important, but you have to have both. And what happens historically is that this great interest in recruiting the character of rulers, which comes out of Petrarch and dominates the 15th Century and well into the 16th Century, it runs around. And it’s partly because of the religious controversies of the period, when there’s a great interest in making people prove their doctrinal orthodoxy in order to be members of society.

But one thing that comes out of the Reformation is the great distrust of laws, and Reformation’s the first great superfactionalized period of European history and goes well beyond Central Europe or into a totalitarian town, all of Europe and European colonies, were ridden by the struggle between the Protestants and Catholics, and Catholics and Lutherans. So, one result of that is distrust of rulers. We see this today. The more factionalism there is, the more hatred of rulers and contempt for rulers there is. One of the results of that was a greater attention to constitutionalists. So, instead of trying to make good rulers, 17th Century becomes obsessed with blocking the effects of bad rulers, stopping the worse consequences of having a bad ruler. One of the worst consequences, from the point of view of religions sectarians, is that the ruler will force you to believe a false religion or religion you believe to be false. So you have to stop that.

So one of the earliest forms of constitutionalism is guarantees of religious freedom would have been certain limits like Locke’s liberalism. A great deal of Locke’s liberalism is focused on preventing the state from being involved in religion or making too many religious texts. It’s to say that Locke wanted the state not to be involved in religion, but he wanted a great deal of tolerance within certain limits. You couldn’t tolerate Atheists. You couldn’t tolerate Catholics. But all of the Protestant groups should be tolerated. Puritans and high church people should all get along, and the state had to be set up in such as way… The unwritten constitution, in Locke’s case, had to be conceived in such a way that that was not part of the role of the state to enforce Orthodoxy. So that would be an example of what the practical aim of constitutionalism was, and it also applies to economics in the 18th Century. Above all, there’s certain things we don’t want the state involved in because the state’s going to make a mess of it. So the focus, I think, throughout the late 17th and 18th Centuries, the 19th Century is how do we keep the State from being oppressive? And we do that through law and constitutions. But they’re not thinking in terms of… Well, that’s not quite true, but they’re thinking less in terms, I would say, of character.

As you know, if you read Adam Smith, Adam Smith thinks a capitalist free economy depends on virtues of some kind. He has a different list of virtues from the Renaissance, but he certainly believes that behavior patterns are very important. That’s the only reason why Petrarch crossed to liberalism, to neo-liberalism, of the Hayekian kind, because someone like Adam Smith, and all the early icons understood that economic behavior couldn’t be absolutely free, in the sense of letting people do whatever in the hell they wanted. You had to be constrained by social norms, and by good character on the part of people involved in markets. So there’s actually some… I’ve been writing a little bit about that, as well, that it goes back to the Renaissance, the idea of the moral economy, that the way to prevent economic injustice is to try to convince economic actors to behave well and to put the community and family ahead of the private greed. So greed should be turned into something socially useful, as a legitimate desire to make money. If you have a family, you want to support your local city, you have all these good things you can spend your money on, it’s perfectly legitimate. What’s illegitimate is seeking money for its own sake and for power and status, and so forth.

Richard Reinsch (36:48):

And I was just thinking, too, what’s the virtue politics? What’s the conception of politics is there, what it’s for?

James Hankins (36:54):

Well, it’s the idea that ways of reform the polis, the state, is you have to pay great attention to education. Anda that goes back to antiquity, where Aristotle’s ethics designed to go with the politics, you studied ethics first, so that you know what virtue is, you know what good behavior is, and only when you know what good behavior is, can you then try to create a quality which produces good people. None of that’s Aristotle’s highest measure of a policy is a quality that creates good people. And Plato has exactly the same approach. They differ in so many things, but Plato agrees that education is a fundamental importance to the State, as you know, or several books of the Republic do not even set out to its education system in saying that the laws, that there’s effort to create an educated citizenry, as well as educated leaders.

I think what I would say is that education has always… In the virtue of politics, tradition is part of politics. And, in the liberal tradition, I think we tend to think of education as something that’s separate from politics. I’m not sure we have the luxury, and that should be a question for the modern world, because we have secondary school educators who want education to be political again. But what I’m saying, I guess, is that there’s politics in politics, and what you want from the liberal tradition is the idea that people learn not to choose their own good, but to make their own decisions and internalize the values of character that get habituated to act in good ways. We want an education that’s going to free people to act well. You don’t want an education that’s going to terrorize them into believing certain things. So you could say there’s a virtue politics and an ideological-

Richard Reinsch (39:04):

So we wouldn’t want a-

James Hankins (39:05):

… There’s virtue education and there’s ideological education, and what you want is virtue education, where it sets people free and enables them to be good, rather than ideological education which is designed to get them to think in a certain way. We can tell the difference. It’s the difference between love and fear. All right, you terrorize people into believing the correct ideas or they will be punished. But a good education is what I already knew, is one that uses love because the educators have to love their students and want them to be free and independent. It’s the difference between a mother who is a smother mother, a helicopter mom, who wants to control every aspect of the child’s behavior, so that the child grows up to be exactly what she wants him to be, and a mother who understands that the child has to choose for themself, at a certain point, that can give them direction and that can give them good values, good examples. But, at a certain point, you have to let the child flourish on their own.

Richard Reinsch (40:12):

I was just thinking about our own national education history. It occurs to me most of what higher education would’ve been in this country in, say, 18th and 19th Centuries, would’ve been something like, I don’t know if you want to say it’s Renaissance humanism, but it would’ve had a lot of elements of that, I would think.

James Hankins (40:31):

Yes, I think that’s right.

Richard Reinsch (40:33):

Just reading of the Amity Shlaes’s biography of Calvin Coolidge, and his education at Amherst seem to resonate with me on that. But then you know, things start to really change and diversify, and education starts to become different, and have different purposes, more straightforward utilitarian purposes. And it seems to me, now, that’s largely how Americans think of education generally. It’s, all of a sudden, economics dimension. That’s the most sober way people think about it which, of course, instrumentalizes it completely.

James Hankins (41:06):

No. That’s an old thing in education, too. I mean, that’s Plato and Socrates and Aristotle’s critique of education in their own time. They could, sort of, critique the sophists wanted to teach young men with political ambitions how to achieve those ambitions so they would learn speaking ability. Particularly, they would learn how to school people and to argue both sides of the question, get the skill of being able to persuade people to do what you want to do. But I think you’re right, that modern education, at a certain point, became much less concerned with character and much more concerned with getting people to roles in society.

James Hankins (41:52):

I think it starts at Harvard with Charles William Eliot, who is the great transformative president of Harvard. He, of course, is a huge figure and with a strong very influential figure, in the generation before Dewey. But he… Harvard had basically standard humanist classical education up until 1869. Then he took over, after the Civil War. And then he decided… He was a chemist by trade. He decided Harvard should basically give up any type of requirements and let people study whatever they wanted. And he thought that it was, kind of, like a educational version of John Stuart Mill, that he let a thousand flowers bloom and people would be happier because they’ll be doing exactly what they want to do. That didn’t last after his presidency.

James Hankins (42:45):

President Lowell came along and decided to reintroduce some requirements and make people learn some one thing. One of the results of Elliot’s presidency was that there was a condition known as the Harvard Ignorance, where Harvard graduates didn’t… You couldn’t count on the Harvard graduate knowing anything because they could take any course they wanted. So it was putting… There was no Harvard, except that you could never rely on them knowing even basic stuff. So Lowell came along and reversed that, to some extent. There was still some choice, but there was also what we call a concentration here, which is like a major, just so you know something.

James Hankins (43:29):

I’m not sure it’s really correct to say that American education has always been dominated by utilitarian instrumentalist purpose because I think that there’s always been people around who had humanistic vision, and who understood that human beings need to have ethical and moral development, and religious belief, even, as well as be trained for some purpose. I think it’s maybe gotten worse in the period of meritocracy. Meritocracy really takes off after the Second World War, and that’s where you start having all of these standardized tests, the goal of which is to displace the old laws, but lead to creatability that people who are good at taking tests, basically, and who will be productive members of society. As they go into a corporation, they’ll be most successful at hitting targets and so on.

James Hankins (44:26):

So, that, I think that the post-war meritocracy became a little bit… That’s when you start getting the division between an elite that cares about their own community, and an elite that starts being nationalized and internationalized.

Richard Reinsch (44:41):

James Hankins, maybe we can end there. Thank you, so much, for coming on to discuss, with us, liberal learning, challenges and opportunities in contemporary America, or liberal learning in a time of disrepair. We thank you so much.

James Hankins (44:54):

A great pleasure. Thank you, Richard.