Sunday, October 10, 2004

Habits of Mind

The Liberal Arts we study in college are liberal in the sense that they cover a lot of ground from many perspectives and to many different conclusions. That's at least three dimensions of permission and latitude. It is the job of young college students to make some sense of these things. Faculty give them guidance, but only general guidance, hoping that some student among the throng will arrive a novel conclusion or put things together in a different and illuminating way. It was a triumph of our tradition of Liberal Arts when young Robert F. Kennedy spoke in Indianapolis on April 4th, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered:
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

The Liberal Arts are designed to foster an appreciation of the arts and literature, an understanding of logic and logical argumentation, an appreciation of science and the scientific method, a sense of history, a respect for unpleasant facts, and, among several others, a desire for life-long learning. With this framework in mind we read today in the Los Angeles Times a most remarkable editorial, a piece that you would not get in the average college general studies curriculum, but nevertheless an important message to understand our times.

The gist of the Times's editorial is that it really does matter whether or not the President of the United States is a moron or not. It really matters whether he (or someday she) can put an event in perspective and draw our nation out of its grief or its humiliation or its embarrassment with a touch like Kennedy's to the Greek poet Aeschylus, a hand-hold from the distant past that reminds us that our times are both unique and not, that our lives are part of a great continuum of life. It is important that the President be cultured and learned. Not every President must be a Jefferson or a Lincoln, but they must rise above themselves and see the necessity for working hard at understanding.

It is important that the Commander-in-Chief be schooled in the classics of war and of peace. It is not sufficient (or even appropriate) that he don the brush plumed helmet of Sparta or Troy. He must understand compassion through good works and habits of mind, not through arms and rhetoric.

It is imperative that our President set himself high goals, that he be honorable, truthful, and not indifferent to the opinions of others or to unpleasant facts. A election campaign is not an insignificant undertaking, but it does not produce those habits of mind that the candidate did not cultivate in his youth and in his manhood. Habits of mendacity, sycophancy, sloth, and corruption will reveal themselves again and again as they already have.