10/04/2007 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Think and How to Act: Liberal Education and Political Corruption

Reading in today's New York Times (October 4) about the latest revelations that the Justice Department secretly approved extraordinarily brutal interrogation tactics made me wonder where these people got their ideas. What led them to a point of view where they could live with public decency and private corruption, lying to the public and making the Justice Department into an arm of the Administration machine instead of a servant of the public, not to mention a defender of national honor? And why aren't we, the thinking public, as enraged about what has been done in our name as we surely ought to be? Are we all just so many people skilled in separating private and public life as were the SS rulers of Nazi concentration camps, listening to Bach in the evenings and butchering Jews and gypsies as a day job?

What makes this kind of deceptive double-think possible is the inability to think other than strategically, to link clear lines of thought with a vision of what a human person is and to be consistent in making humanity take precedence over expediency, not to mention over sucking up to some elected official. And by the same token, what makes the public tolerant of such behavior is our own failures in intellect and compassion, and the connections between them and an honorable society. Add to this the sort of self-justification that the late and unlamented Attorney General indulged in before Congress and with his own department. Was he lying (terrible enough) or was he deceiving himself (considerably worse). And shall we throw in to the mix the fact that we live in what sociologists rightly consider to be the most religious society in the developed world, at least if we measure "religion" by a person's claim to believe in some kind of higher power watching over us. (Parenthetically, the churches have been pretty darn quiet about U.S. prominence in the torture business.)

Religion isn't the problem or the solution, education is. The fundamental purpose of education from which everything else worthwhile will follow is self-knowledge, as the Greeks knew. Without self-knowledge, all that we might learn may never be put to good effect in promoting human flourishing, but all too often will simply serve strategically to promote our own private self-interest, however disguised as "the public good" or "in the national interest." Knowing ourselves is where integrity begins, and with it a grasp of what is important in life, why we should always speak the truth, and what we should be willing to die for. This is missing in so much of our public life today, perhaps because it is missing to a high degree in private life. You can't just blame the politicians, because we let them get away with it.

Education isn't primarily about acquiring information and skills. They are secondary to coming to understand the world as it really is and then finding our place in it as concerned and constructive citizens of the world, which means as human beings. But none of this can happen unless people, above all those in undergraduate education in colleges and universities, are first and last rewarded for disciplined attention to the process of language and thinking through which self-knowledge emerges. All undergraduate education ought to be liberal arts education. Save business and engineering for later, like medicine and law. Not because they are not important, but because they are too important to be put into the hands of people who haven't learned to know themselves and to recognize that self-discipline and self-knowledge, not technology, are the foundation of civilization.

Anyone reading this who works in the academy will now expect a tirade against the liberal cultural elites and a call for a return to great books written by dead white men. However, great books are all over the place, some of them relatively new and lots of them written by the living, by people of color and by women. But whether we read Plato or Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe or Moses Maimonides, the end product of disciplined attention to language and thought will be a radical critique of ourselves and the society we have made. The accomplishments of the American past were extraordinary, but we are living on someone else's laurels and we need to take a deep breath, turn off American Idol and find a way to know ourselves as individuals and a society. Then we just might stop torturing other human beings and justifying it in the name of the good people of the Republic.