Michael Oakeshott and School as “A Place Apart”

Rock Island, IL

Here is a paragraph from one of the essays collected in a book titled The Voice of Liberal Learning:

The engagement to educate is a transaction between the generations in which newcomers may enjoy what they can acquire only in a procedure of learning: namely, a historic inheritance of human understandings and imaginings. The idea “School” is that of a place apart where a prepared newcomer may encounter this inheritance unqualified by the partialities, the neglects, the abridgments and the corruptions it suffers in current use; of an engagement to learn, not by chance, but by study in conditions of direction and restraint designed to provoke habits of attention, concentration, exactness, courage, patience, discrimination and the recognition of excellence in thought and conduct; and of an apprenticeship to adult life in which he may learn to recognize and identify himself in terms other than those of his immediate circumstances.

I expect that a great many people in the racket known as “higher” education—probably a majority of them—will find this if not offensive then utterly incomprehensible. “Historic inheritance of human understandings and imaginings”? An inheritance, they will protest, comes from the past, and the past is not as enlightened as the present for the simple reason that the past came before the present—and neither the past nor the present will, for the same reason, be as enlightened as the future.

Such people are guilty of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” which is a disposition to treat yesterday snobbishly and to raise tomorrow’s haughty nose at today, and so on and so on.

Then there are those who can’t, in reading the paragraph cited above, see the forest of ideas for the trees of a masculine pronoun. Such readers miss out on a great deal. The interstices of their interpretive nets are very small, and nothing can pass through those nets unless that nothing be cast in a clumsy and numerically confused but permitted language. They, too, are chronological snobs.

But many others, whose interstices are a bit larger, will nevertheless fail to see a subtle but wide-ranging pestilential error in the paragraph. They will applaud (as will I) the phrase “procedure of learning”; they will agree that education is “an engagement to learn, not by chance, but by study in conditions of direction and restraint,” and they will readily allow that such study should result in “habits of attention, concentration, exactness, courage, patience, discrimination, and the recognition of excellence in thought and conduct”; they will especially applaud the notion (as, again, will I) that education is an “apprenticeship to adult life.”

But they will pass over without disturbance two phrases that, by now, ought to worry us considerably: school as “a place apart” and the desideratum that a pupil “learn to recognize and identify himself in terms other than those of his immediate circumstances.”

I will treat of these in order.

Earlier in the book Michael Oakeshott (for he is the author) says that

each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historic time, lapped round with locality. But school and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances and from the wants he may happen to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed. He finds himself invited to pursue satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for. They are, then, sheltered places where excellences may be heard because the din of local particularities is no more than a distant rumble. They are places where a learner is initiated into what there is to be learned.

This is one of those paragraphs that we must both agree and disagree with, and both in equal measure.

It is true that school is a “place apart” where a student is “moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed,” pursuing “satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for.” Most of us remember what it was like—that is, how electrifying it was—to be shown the structure of a Bach chorale or the literary and rhetorical merits of the fourth Gospel. We remember the pleasurable disturbance of being shown how electrons don’t quite enjoy an existence independent of observation. And if in retrospect we are honest we know full well that such moments took place because we were “emancipated,” if only momentarily, “from the limitations of … wants.”

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