Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.
Like Socrates in the Republic, my argument is about education or lack of education, paideia or apaideusia. Paideia is what is offered to children and the young, so I will discuss about the education and lack of education we ourselves have acquired and that we offer to our young. It is very difficult to use in precise discussion in America the terms “liberal” and “conservative” because almost everybody who claims to be a conservative is in fact a conservative liberal or, to use Professor Deneen’s language, almost everybody is at least concerned with maintaining the “essential political commitments” on which “liberalism is based.” So instead I will discuss the problem of patriotic education.
To take on the task of patriotic education in America is already to presume that the liberal American regime can still defended: America will hold together on the liberal principles on which it was founded or it will not hold together at all. If a conservative wants to conserve America, that means he or she wants to conserve America’s liberal regime. Conservatives thus find themselves, will or nay, defending that regime and its principles. They may defend that regime by chastening or moderating that regime’s liberal principles with what appear to be and may actually be illiberal principles or practices. Consider how Felix Frankfurter defends the compulsory Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in Gobitis when he wrote for the Court:
“The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. Such a sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation, and thereby create that continuity of a treasured common life which constitutes a civilization. “We live by symbols.” The flag is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences, however large, within the framework of the Constitution.”
Not just conservative liberals but liberal liberals should recognize that liberal rights will be sustained only if there is a country to sustain them. If the contradictions of liberalism are such that liberalism cannot be defended on wholly liberal principles, it will have to be defended from the outside, that is to say, by conservatives. Somebody has to defend Donald Trump supporters rallying peacefully in downtown Portland from being beaten by Antifa, or teachers in evangelical preschools from being made to read to their charges from Sparkle Boy or Jacob’s New Dress or give up their jobs. American patriotism seems like an important explanation for why somebody would risk life and limb for the constitutional rights of a speaker whom they would at, other times, disparage and even shout down.
I agree with Professor Deneen about many things. Yet the present crisis of liberal education is the subject on which I find Professor Deneen most persuasive and which therefore offers the best start of constructive projects. We need to specify a little more carefully and technically than Professor Deneen does in this book what we mean by “liberal education” and what the causes are of our want of “liberal education.”
Now Professor Deneen is our Socrates. Professor Deneen is a critic of the American regime, and of liberal democracy in general. Professor Deneen is perhaps even the most important contemporary critic of the American regime.
On behalf, therefore, of the poets and the orators, that is to say, the advertising men and women, I charge Professor Deneen with two-and-a-half charges. Professor Deneen does not believe in the gods of the city. Professor Deneen makes the weaker speech the stronger and the stronger speech the weaker. Professor Deneen attempts to corrupt the youth: I charge Professor Deneen with attempting to corrupt the youth because from Professor Deneen’s complaints about university education my understanding is that he mostly fails to actually corrupt them.
Where in this book, Why Liberalism Failed? does Professor Deneen deny the gods of the city? And where does Professor Deneen make the weaker speech the stronger and the stronger speech the weaker? Most of my readers can probably guess where, but so as to make clear the charge to all of my readers, sitting as you are in place of the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me quote:
“The liturgies of nation and market are woven closely together (the apogee of which is the celebration of commercials during the Super Bowl), simultaneously nationalist and consumerist celebrations of abstracted membership that reify individuated selves held together by depersonalized commitments. In the politically nationalist and economically globalist setting, these contentless liturgies often take the form of two minutes of obligatory patriotism in which a member of the armed services appears during pauses in a sporting event for reverential applause before everyone gets back to the serious business of distracted consumption. The show of superficial thanks for a military with which few have any direct connection leaves an afterglow that distracts from the harder question of whether the national military ultimately functions to secure the global market and so support the construction of abstracted, deracinated, and consumptive selves.”
Now, whether or not this two minutes of “obligatory patriotism” brought tears to your eyes or not (you did watch it, right?), we should be clear that this is an advertisement made to sell cars. This ad invokes the deployment of those cars in a war in which the 2019 owner of the Jeep brand, Fiat, was making armored vehicles and aircraft to kill the Americans who rode in them.
There is a lot that is questionable here, and Professor Deneen helps us see how to question it. Professor Deneen stands to fill in the breach made by the fact that, when I checked on 24 February 2019, this ad had 1955 comments on YouTube, NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THEM NEGATIVE.
But should we question and teach our students to question this wholesome, patriotic, and edifying advertisement, this stronger speech? Even uproot it in our hearts and replace it with a speech more to Professor Deneen’s liking that by the standards of American values and aspirations we would have to call a weaker speech? If we were to critique this ad along Professor Deneen’s lines, would we be educating our young people in virtue or corrupting them? And if we should critique this ad, when, where, and before whom? My argument is that such questioning is properly speaking not primary or even secondary, but tertiary. It is, in my view, a failing of contemporary education that such questioning that Professor Deneen does has leaked down from graduate school to second grade.
Having taken the reader for two minutes into the cave and given him or her an image of education and lack of education, it is now my business to lay out the problem of liberal education as I see it. It is usual in the modern world, and for good reason, to divide education into primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Primary education is education in basic literacy, numeracy, piety, and patriotism – this is the education that most Jewish Israeli children receive, with varying degrees of success, in their state primary schools and state religious primary schools. Secondary education goes beyond primary education to teach the student how to read, write, calculate, and examine things to the degree required to be an active citizen in democratic public life and a competent manager of his or her private affairs in the home and the workplace. Tertiary education is specialized education in a profession or discipline, such as geology, medicine, law, Algonquin linguistics or political science. The aim of tertiary education is to teach the student to be an expert professional and even a researcher pushing back the frontiers of knowledge or technique in his or her profession or discipline.
Professor Deneen has some important things to say about liberal education and about the illiberal or servile education that seems to have conquered American universities. Yet we need to specify that liberal education. Just for purposes of discussion, I propose starting with the old trivium and quadrivium of liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.
These seven canonical liberal arts are all things that we should have learned, and that our children should learn, in high school, at least to the degree adequate for somebody to go out and practice them if not teach them. Of course those of us who think of ourselves as engaged in liberal education are mostly or all university teachers or training to be such. So how did liberal arts education come to find a place, now an increasingly marginal place, according to Professor Deneen, in American universities which are ostensibly places of tertiary education?
In England of 1500, liberal arts were taught to teenage boys at, for example, Eton College near Windsor and Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge. On the model of a Cambridge college of its time, Harvard College was founded in 1636 in Cambridge Massachusetts, still offering undergraduates a secondary education in liberal arts.
American colleges continue, like Eton, to offer such a secondary education in liberal arts. Yet also, like the Israeli and continental universities and the reformed Cambridge colleges of 2020, they have taken on the task of tertiary education.
To repeat, who is school for? Primary school is for children, secondary school is for youths, and tertiary education is for adults — Plato says the study of dialectic should properly begin at thirty.
Now I will further explain these distinctions and complete my indictment of Professor Deneen by returning to the Jeep ad. This ad appropriates the American national anthem, but to understand it fully the viewer had to know all the words of the national anthem, as every American should have learned in primary school. The viewer has to recognize basic icons and idols of the American cave, Marilyn Monroe, a baseball umpire, a US Marine Corps enlisted man in his uniform. These are all things the viewer should have learned, with every other American child, in a primary school.
To make such an ad (in a better or worse version), the producer has to have mastered to some degree the technical skills of rhetoric and music. The producer of such an advertisement has to organize the numerous technicians and musicians required, pay them on time and know how to comply with all necessary regulations and laws — or at least know how to hire experts to do all the parts you cannot do and coordinate their work. These are all things one should have learned to do in secondary school, and that we college and university teachers wind up teaching our students, in a remedial way, in our colleges and universities. Part of the crisis of liberal arts that Professor Deneen describes is because in the disintermediated world of 2020 private and public employers need fewer middle managers who have learned the liberal arts.
Finally, to critique or defend such an ad, the viewer needs philosophy, theology, political science, history, gender studies, African-American studies, and who knows how many other disciplines that belong properly speaking to tertiary education. The critic might ask whether the gender roles in the ad are a bit too pat, whether the interracial couple and the African-American spinning in a flag-covered jersey are offered up to cover over with a Band-Aid of commercialized patriotism America’s true legacy of racial injustice; and the impossibility as of this writing, in the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency, of nonracial citizenship.
Note how elliptical the ad is about war: what is shown for “the bombs bursting in air” are not bombs of the kind the Americans dropped on the land of Fiat but Black and white children making explosion noises. The aged veteran is whole and unwounded. The viewer sees Marilyn Monroe visiting what is presumably a rear echelon camp far from any fighting. The ad shows the Jeep thrown from the airplane but not falling through some school or church or cottager’s hut or burned out by a shell from a carro armato Fiat-Ansaldo M13/40. This is war made suitable for eight‑year‑old viewers, even as the ad shows sexuality and sports in way that virtually all adult Americans would feel comfortable about watching with their eight-year-old.
The Jeep ad offers a two-minute lecture on 100 percent Americanism adapted to 2019. Now one might say with Alan Ehrenhalt that:
“We don’t want the 1950s back. What we want is to edit them. We want to keep the safe streets, the friendly grocers, and the milk and cookies, while blotting out the political bosses, the tyrannical headmasters, the inflexible rules, and the lectures on 100 percent Americanism.”
Ehrenhalt goes on to say that “Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream in the end. This is a lesson that people who call themselves conservatives seem determined not to learn.”
I would emphasize a different point: if American children in publicly-regulated schools are not taught 100 percent Americanism they are going to be taught, as we have seen in the last few decades, 100 percent anti-Americanism. “Free public education,” Justice Jackson prophesied in his majority opinion in Barnette, overruling Justice Frankfurter in Gobitis, “if faithful to the idea of secular instruction and political neutrality, will not be partisan or enemy of any class, creed, party or faction.” “If faithful…” To the 1943 prophecy of Justice Jackson, 2020 replies with the Spartan reply to Alexander, “If.”
Though I write with the authoritative experience of somebody who spent the entirety of one year in an American public school and expatriated in 1995, it seems to me that school principals are just as tyrannical and the rules are just as inflexible as they were in 1943 or 1959. The content is what has changed.
Rod Dreher has proposed the “Benedict Option,” that conservatives should retreat into legally protected enclaves where they can educate themselves and raise their families according to conservative notions. Dreher’s “Benedict option” is, in my view as a conservative liberal, both premature and doomed: The Benedict option is premature because the once-liberty-promoting-state can still be recaptured for liberty. The Benedict option is doomed, because autonomous communities might be able to weather state breakdown, of the kind faced by the original Benedictine communities, but they cannot weather a determined totalitarian state – Tokwon Abbey in North Korea closed in 1949, and thirty-six monks and nuns were martyred in the prison camps of the regime. The opponents of free government who matter are not half-hearted reactionaries but straight-out true-believing totalitarians.
To return to education. In the old curriculum, one needed to have passed one’s examination in arts, and received a degree of Bachelor of Arts before one could go on to the disciplines of philosophy or theology in which one would learn, say, what about the Jeep ad is questionable. The charges against Professor Deneen are not so much that he questions what should not be questioned — that peculiar American mix of sport, spectacle, commerce, patriotism, history, music and visual rhetoric that is the 2019 Jeep ad. Nor is it that he questions whether the kind of literally two-dimensional and brief patriotic exercise is enough to sustain a liberal regime, or is even a sign that the liberal regime is sustained. With less than 53,000,000 YouTube views, the ad is not yet doing enough, as if it could by itself do enough, to sustain the political religion of the country that Professor Deneen critiques. The charge is not that Professor Deneen thinks that the ad is bad insofar as it sustains commercial liberalism.
The charge is that Professor Deneen is attempting to corrupt the youth by making an effort to undermine their faith in America all too early, before they have mastered at the primary and secondary level (in school and in college) the liberal arts required to understand and produce the rhetoric this ad exemplifies — before the students can weigh Professor Deneen’s critique against a full understanding of the content and function of such rhetoric.
Such is the indictment. Since we can assume that Professor Deneen will admit the charges against his book, the reader should put himself or herself in place of the jury and choose a penalty. As Socrates shows in the Apology, there are only two penalties worth considering for Professor Deneen, death or tenure.
Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed, Kindle edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel, 2017.
Ehrenhalt, Alan. The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Kindle edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 19.
Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, p. 65.
One Republic, “Big Game Blitz,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msllMWcmC08 (accessed June 2019).
On 28 March 2019 I saw 9 negative comments out of 2,021.
Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues Of Community In America (New York: Basic Books, 1995; both quotes are taken from Rod Dreher, “John Gray: Red Toryism won’t work,” Beliefnet (April 2010), archived from the original at https://web.archive.org/web/20190411140220/https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/roddreher/2010/04/john-gray-red-toryism-wont-work.html (accessed February 2018).
On the “Benedict Option” see Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed?, p. 191; Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017); and why enclave strategies are the wrong response against today’s would-be totalitarian progressives see Sohrab Amari, “Against David Frenchism,” First Things 29 May 2019, archived from the original at https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-french-ism (accessed June 2019).