“Perfected Knowledge:” Milton’s Crisis in the Humanities

Recently, Nicholas Kristof’s NY Times column sounded a clarion call to lure professors out of their ivory towers and into the public realm. Kristof professes alarm that academics have “marginalized themselves” by becoming increasingly specialized, and by participating in a “culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Kristof’s recap of typical anti-intellectual complaints have led some to point out that the article blames the victim. That aside, Kristof’s column highlights the deep anti-intellectual current in our culture, a Gulf Stream of sorts that energizes much of the current “crisis in the humanities.” The crisis in brief: a turn toward vocational training and increasing disdain for the liberal arts as administrators under pressure to cut costs and increase placement rates weigh “utility.”

In the early 17th century, the Czech educator Johann Comenius was spearheading a turn away from Renaissance humanist education methods and toward a more Baconian model. Gone would be the emphasis on learning passed down through the Greek and Latin classics. Instead, Comenius and his English disciple, Samuel Hartlib, proposed a curriculum focused on the quantitative scientific empirical method that allowed students to interact with the world in substantive ways rather than in the arid realm of philosophy. The foundations of a classical education would be truncated, ideally into new compendiums of knowledge. In short, the new education would be aimed at vocation and be quicker and more “useful” than a humanist education. Sound familiar?

In England, Hartlib turned to a young London schoolmaster to support the cause. John Milton’s resulting pamphlet, Of Education (1644), presents his ideal curriculum as a combination of Comenius-inspired reforms and the solid humanist Renaissance tradition that had produced Milton himself. If his curriculum seems unrealistic, it is only because the poet is singularly untroubled by the practicalities of a 24-hour day. Not unlike some military academies today.

Casting himself in the role of a “public intellectual,” or poetic spokesman for England, years before he would actually fill that role as Cromwell’s Secretary of Foreign Tongues, Milton lays out his curriculum in brief. He lends the matter urgency, explaining, “that which I have to say, assuredly this nation hath extreme need should be done sooner than spoken.” Milton’s belief that England’s educational system needed reform in order to make possible political reform became somewhat of a theme throughout his career. In a sense, and particularly after the failures of the Interregnum, Milton sees a need for “nation building” at home – beginning with education. He was most explicit about this on the eve of the Restoration, as the English people prepared to welcome Charles II and return to what Milton termed “bondage.”* At considerable risk to himself, the blind poet suggested  that (instead of restoring the king) a stop-gap government rule until the English people were educated enough to properly manage a republican form of government.

That Milton saw no artificial divide between the political and academic fortunes of a nation is reinforced by his suggestion in Of Education that students at his ideal academy should study political science “that they may not in a dangerous fit of the commonwealth be such poor, shaken, uncertain reeds of such a tottering conscience as many of our great counselors have lately shown themselves, but steadfast pillars of the state.” Milton’s academy proposes to unite utilitarian or vocational concerns with the ideals of the Renaissance humanists. Education in not for the well-to-do to idle away their time in vain pursuits, but instead to make them useful members of the state:

I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public of peace and war…. These are the studies wherein our noble and our gentle youth ought to bestow their time in a disciplinary way from twelve to one-and-twenty — unless they rely more upon their ancestors dead than upon themselves living.

Small, and located at diverse locations throughout the country, Milton’s academies would decentralize (and demystify) education and bring it nearer commoners.  He lays out a plan of study, exercise, and diet for his notional students. The curriculum carefully strikes a balance between the practical and the lofty –  students must learn languages because no one nation or time has a monopoly on knowledge, but he insists that the readings in these languages be gauged to be most useful or edifying. For instance, his students would study ancient accounts  of agriculture so that they may “improve the tillage of their country, to recover the bad soil, and to remedy the waste that is made of good….” I’ll let you make connections to environmental studies and our own desperate need for a generation who will be stewards of the planet.

Woodcut from Comenius's Orbis Pictus

Woodcut from Comenius’s Orbis Pictus (1658)

Later in Milton’s curriculum, laymen, to include  hunters, fowlers, fishermen, shepherds, gardeners, apothecaries, architects, engineers, mariners, and anatomists, would share practical experiences with the students for a small honorarium. Practical, yes, but only when built upon a the solid foundations laid by the broad, humanist education that would foreground it.

The exercises Milton prescribes are largely military in nature, including lessons in swordplay and military arts of “embattling, marching, encamping, fortifying, besieging, and battering” so that at graduation these students would come forth as if from “out of a long war” ready to serve England.

A desired dialectic between the state of academics and the health of the polity is implicit in Milton’s pamphlet. But, in reality, the divide between popular culture and academic culture would come to a crisis at the Restoration. As Charles II returned, Milton could no longer cast himself as England’s poetic and intellectual spokesman (“John Milton, Englishman”) but only as a lone voice in the wilderness preaching to a people who weren’t able to understand him.* The skirmish between academics and a popular culture, between so-called pedants and dilettante amateur gentlemen scholars, later found expression in the Ancients vs. Moderns debate and would continue well into the early 18th century. For a highlight, see Pope’s Dunciad, where he skewers scholarly annotation and critique.

Kristof’s call for modern academics to come from their cloisters and escape the margins of society highlights how far we have yet to go in closing these divides. While Kristof closes his column by assuring professors that “we need you,” there is an undercurrent throughout the piece that suggests it is “oblivious” academics who need to be brought down to earth by engagement with the world and all that is practical.

At my own school this undercurrent is expressed in worries that military professors will become “too academic” and forget their military roots. Thus, military professors are asked to periodically return to the force (foregoing sabbaticals for research), not to bring their expertise out of the cloister & enrich the military with the fruits of research and learning, but to somehow ground the professors by contact with combat units once again. This seems a shame, since properly sought out and applied academic expertise might provide the best ways to look at the most pressing problems facing a military in transition. Further, engagement by these academics in a wider academic culture may help close the growing “civil-military divide,” certainly at its worst in some corners of academia.

The crisis in the humanities is, when it all comes down to it, a debate about the ends of education. It is what happens when the dialectic that Milton envisioned is replaced by  administrators asking what their “client” needs from graduates, rather than what their students need from an education. Like the civil-military divide, the “academic-civil divide” cannot be bridged in one direction alone, but only through mutually beneficial compromise and mutual education.

– David A. Harper 17 Feb 14

*See Milton’s The Ready and Easy Way (1660).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of David Harper do not represent the Department of Defense or the United States Military Academy.

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3 Responses to “Perfected Knowledge:” Milton’s Crisis in the Humanities

  1. Excellent piece. Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Enjoyed this post very much, Dave.

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