How Can We Transmit the Permanent Things?
by Michael Jordan
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to explore the nature of education and its relation to the permanent things, lest we become a class of barbarians. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Education and the Permanent Things
If we are going to transmit the permanent things, we will have to put back into education the moral and metaphysical vision that is foundational to Western education and Western civilization. I hope to illustrate this thesis by discussing Russell Kirk’s vision of conservatism and the permanent things, by describing the Christian vision that was historically embedded in education, law, and culture in the West, and by showing that what has replaced the Christian vision in education is woefully inadequate because it has lost sight of the permanent things.
Let me begin with an anecdote, one that relates to my thesis. In the early 1980s, I had the good fortune to study with Russell Kirk for two years. He supervised my master’s thesis on “Original Sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Short Stories and Sketches.” Dr. Kirk believed in original sin, and after he got to know me, he said I was pretty good evidence of its truth. He occasionally said my intimate knowledge of sin, original and actual, qualified me to write on the subject.
Sometimes I’m surprised Annette and Russell took in and befriended a congenital, redneck hillbilly like me. But they did, and I thank them for that. Over the years they welcomed countless people to Piety Hill: saints and sinners, political refugees and hobos, wayward students and unwed mothers. They opened their home because their hearts were open to the God of Love. Dr. Kirk maintained that openness to the loving “source of all being” is the aim of human life—this, he says, is what the “enlightened conservative” believes and strives for (Program for Conservatives, 18).
Moral and Metaphysical Foundation of Kirkian Conservatism
In many of his works, Dr. Kirk argues that conservatism is grounded in moral and metaphysical truths that are the foundation of the permanent things, if not the permanent things themselves. In Enemies of the Permanent Things, he describes the permanent things as the “norms of our being,” as “a wisdom more than natural, more than private, more than human.”(61, 52) One of the norms of our being is that we “are made for eternity.”(55) In Kirk’s thinking, these norms of our being and this more than natural wisdom have a transcendent source. Because we have been made in the image and likeness of this transcendent source, because we have rational consciousness, a conscience, and an imagination, we are able to perceive transcendent Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Justice. Because of this, we are free creatures capable of loving God and one another. Yet one of the other norms of our being makes this difficult: “We all are” imperfect beings.(55) Thus, we don’t always do as we ought—and that is one great reason why the right sort of education is so important.
In Kirk’s groundbreaking book The Conservative Mind, the first of six basic canons of conservative thought is: “Belief in a transcendent order or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.”(8) Thus, he adds, “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” I will be arguing that educational problems, too, are primarily religious and moral problems. I’ll get to that momentarily.
Kirk also lists five radical schools of thought and the four canons they share. The first canon states: “the radical believes in the perfectibility of man;” he denies “that humanity has a natural proclivity toward violence and sin.”(10) In contrast, the conservative acknowledges that man has this proclivity to violence and sin. Christian theologians call it original sin.
The second canon shared by radicals is “contempt for tradition,” rejection of “formal religion,” and substituting “various ideologies” for religion to define human nature and forecast man’s destiny.(10) In other words, the radical is the enemy of the permanent things. The conservative, on the other hand, has respect for “the ancient moral traditions of humanity” and “the wisdom of [our] ancestors;”(8) the conservative statesman will always “take Providence into his calculations.”(9)
In 1986, when Kirk wrote the Preface to the seventh edition of The Conservative Mind, he acknowledged that we were in an advanced stage of decay, that education was decadent, and that secularism and egalitarianism were destroying the family and poisoning the culture.(xviii). He noted the “vertiginous speed of alteration” in our time. A great deal of water had passed under the bridge between 1954 and 1986—much of it in the 1960s, when revolutionary notions washed away moral, social, and educational norms. Kirk wondered if the “conservative impulse” could “prevent the disintegration of the moral” and social order. The answer, he said, depended upon how well conservatives at that time would “apprehend their patrimony.”(xx) Twenty-seven years have passed since Kirk said this, and social and moral flash floods have washed over the bridge. While some conservatives may have been apprehending their patrimony, dominant elites in education, the media, the corporate world, and the courts have not.
Read more: www.theimaginativeconservative.org