Michael Oakeshott and School as “A Place Apart”

by Jason Peters on September 27, 2011 · 3 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place,Writers & Poets


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.”

But are we or should we ever be entirely emancipated from “the limitations of local circumstance”? Should the “din of local particularities” really be set at arm’s length so that it becomes “no more than a distant rumble”? Can’t we somehow at once admit that a proper education teaches a student to “recognize and identify himself in terms other than those of his immediate circumstances” and yet at the same time recognize that any student abstracted from “his immediate circumstances” will soon be poised to wreak havoc on them?

We benefit from starting each day at the piano keyboard with a Bach chorale (as I was taught to do in music theory), for the chorales can liberate us from the tyranny of our own current musical shackles. But we also benefit from knowing intimately, with each sip of the morning coffee, the health of our local watersheds. Not to know anything about our watersheds may be an emancipation from the limitations of local circumstance, but it is also an invitation to catastrophe. Those who wish to filter water through ground coffee beans on a daily basis do well to know something about water and coffee beans. Water and coffee beans are not limitless or placeless things.

It is my understanding of Oakeshott (of whose writings I have a very limited knowledge) that he attempted to resist, at least to some extent, being politically pigeonholed. The quotations I have proffered here suggest, I suppose, his limited success in that endeavor. But I am quite certain that a recurring theme of his—and one worth pondering—is that we are none of us born human, that “the quality of being human is not a latency which becomes an actuality in a process of ‘growth,’” that each is “what he learns to become.”

I am not prepared to dispute latency and actuality, not on this desperate Tuesday evening. But I am prepared to assert, if not to argue, that if becoming human occurs in school, if it occurs in places apart, it also occurs in places that are not apart, and that we’d better get our minds around this important and ineluctable fact. Our encounter with our inheritance is qualified “by the partialities, the neglects, the abridgments and the corruptions it suffers in current use.” And thank God it is. Thank God it isn’t, but thank God it is.

It was Cicero, I think, who said that the purpose of education is to deliver us from the tyranny of the present. That is one of its purposes. But that is not the same thing as supposing that education delivers us from the constraints of circumstance and place. Such deliverance usually leads to another form of tyranny, and tyranny is tyranny no matter how you slice it.

Oakeshott (as noted above) called schools “places where a learner is initiated into what there is to be learned.” He had in mind placeless knowledge, or, rather, knowledge that transcends place. Such knowledge is useful, indeed indispensable. Many of us—nay, all of us—are, to varying degrees, the beneficiaries of such knowledge. But Oakeshott did not have in mind placed knowledge. And places, no less than universities, can deliver “what there is to be learned.” It is time that we in “higher” education knew the value not only of placeless but also of placed learning.

But then knowing how to teach both kinds, how to impart them, is another matter altogether.

So how about we sit in a circle and talk about how this makes us feel?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar richard September 28, 2011 at 10:29 am

I hate few things more than sitting in a circle and talking about feelings, but this good essay is worthy of a response.

At one time, institutes of higher education were able to reflect their local place while serving as a conduit to bring to local cultures the greater cultural inheritance of the West. Harvard in the 18th Century was very much a New England institution, and life there was very different from William and Mary. Many of the colleges in my native Western Pennsylvania once reflected a very Scottish and Calvinist approach to learning and culture. The boards and student bodies were primarily drawn from the region. Maybe the rootlessness of higher education today merely reflects rather than causes the loss of local cultures?

It is also worth noting that “habits of attention, concentration, exactness, courage, patience, discrimination, and the recognition of excellence in thought and conduct” are the adult virtues that are a prerequisite to live in a real geographic community. Much rootlessness among modern “adults” seems to me like a prolonged Rumspringa. Maybe the old colleges which were successful in being both tied to local culture and serving as a conduit of greater Western wisdom were also better at producing real adults (who then built real communities).

avatar Luke October 16, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Thanks for this piece. I appreciate your exploration of the dialectic of education in which the ways that our knowledge is “determined” by particular places and histories and “liberated” from time and place can be both celebrated and challenged.
All best,

avatar Gracelin December 19, 2011 at 11:00 pm

If I were a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, now I’d say “Kownabgua, dude!”

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