Two out of Three–on Milton and Education

Here’s a piece from what I more-or-less regard as the “capstone” of my undergraduate work, the single-author Milton course I took with Dr. Hotchkiss in Spring 1999 at The Master’s College (end of my senior year).  Among my classmates was Esther Chua, now the head of that department; and we had a remarkable class presentation and candidate conversation from Grant Horner, a first-rate Miltonist who was hired into the department after that year [profiles here].

So this piece has a couple points of interest, aside from the way that a strong interest in Milton and in both Milton’s and Locke’s contributions on education were to blend into my special interest in Rhet/Comp and in Nineteenth-Century British.  One point is that I concede a lot to Milton, here, that I would (perhaps obviously) now be unwilling to concede concerning scholasticism and scholastic method; and I likely introduce the conflated sense of “classical,” myself.  If you’re very careful, you can see the cognitive dissonance between the Deweyan construal of “liberal arts” that I was formed in and my habitual rejection of pragmatism starting to work out; note the way that the “instrumentality” of language is a cipher for an awful lot that remains unarticulated, here.  My critique of Milton’s paradoxical adoption of an anti-rhetorical stance is one I’ll stand by, though there’s a lot of nuance needed (at the time I had no conception of the way that a Renaissance feud between “rhetoricians” and “dialecticians” was reverberating, here).  Likewise my critique of his deferral of writing (with quite a few years more experience, I think the idea of writing, translation, target-language composition was pretty astute for an undergrad, if perhaps a bit obvious).  And of course you will see on full display the strong sympathy I felt for Milton’s dissenting position, even making “protect dissent” a primary aim for educators.

Most quizzical, for those who were formed classically before engaging Modern Western philosophy, will be the way I seem to regard as structural a distinction between “scholastic and Aristotelian” or “Peripatetic” and rabbinical modes of philosophical discourse and instruction.  Of course, I inherited Milton’s own prejudice against the scholastics, and at the time it was amplified by a sense that the Augustinian tradition was fundamentally wrongheaded and included the “too Catholic” part of Christendom, including most Reformed thought, and certainly including the heirs of Aquinas.  It would be a decade later before I could really approach Aquinas without a kaleidoscope of wrongheaded assumptions interfering with my reading, of course; for now, simply note that an anti-metaphysical stance pervades this work, and that it ends up totalizing the individual will in alignment with a Divine Will that instrumentalizes all else; all mediation is either fallenness or directly the occasion of recognizing and aligning with the Divine Will.  It’s a common but utterly soul-sucking mistake for modern Christians, and the more seriously and rigorously you try to live by any such ontotheological program, the more damage it will do to your mind.

Having happily survived, I offer you this interesting, prickly, and flawed little response to Milton’s Of Education.

Review Essay
April 24, 1999

Milton’s Of Education spells out an aggressive curriculum for youth from twelve to twenty-one years of age. Based in Milton’s own thirst for learning, and his understanding of the importance of language and classical literacy, the program of education is designed to create scholars of encyclopedic knowledge, moral vision and military acumen ideally suited to the revolutionary and utopian Puritan political milieu in which Milton moved and to which he was so passionately devoted.

Milton’s primary innovation against the education of his day is in privileging substantial reading in a language over linguistics and composition. He protests the “time lost . . . in a preposterous exaction, forcing the empty wits of children to compose Theams, verses, and Orations, which are the acts of ripest judgment and the finall work of a head fill’d by long reading, and observing, with elegant maxims, and copious invention” (980,1). Milton does not lack concern for the technical aspects of language use; rather, he believes that it is a waste to ask those who are only learning classical language and literature to begin writing and disputing in language they have not fully learned. In essence, he demands a literacy that is cultural, rather than merely technical. His Puritanical tendency for the practical also insists upon an instrumental view of language, so that “though a linguist should pride himselfe to have all the Tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet, if he have not studied the solid things in them . . . he were nothing so much to be esteem’d a learned man” (980). In reaction against this abstract learning of language detached from the literature itself, Milton proposes that the student be given the “preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory” and immediately “led to the praxis thereof in some chosen short book lesson’d throughly to them” (981). Milton is convinced that as the student is thoroughly educated in the literature, he will learn the language both more quickly and more profitably than otherwise.

In a similar rejection of the tedium of classical education, Milton dislikes the tendency to immediately give the student “Logick & metaphysicks” (981), before they have a thorough cultural literacy. Their grammar and life experience still inadequate, the student is expected to cope with the foundational issues of human thought, “to be tost and turmoild with their unballasted wits in fadomles and unquiet deeps of controversie” (981). In Milton’s view, these issues are not to be entered into without a thorough body of knowledge, polished linguistic ability (derived from long study of the classical literatures) and extensive life experience. Milton’s experience suggests to him that students thus taught to dispute before they understand content, causes many to lapse into “hatred and contempt of learning” (981).

Milton’s alternative, then, is to create an environment in which cultural literacy may be inculcated in students without oppressive and abstruse classical methods. He recommends that the school be a large house and its grounds, fit for about “a hundred and fifty persons” (981). These 150 are to include about twenty attendants and one master. The entire education would be conducted in this school, “not needing a remove to any other house of Schollership” unless to study for a profession (981). He then lays out in detail a progression through the classics, beginning with grammar studied and exercised with the moral books and proceeding (in proper Puritan fashion) as rapidly as possible to the practical studies of agriculture, physiology, natural philosophy, mathematics, rudimentary medicine and military science (982,3).

One further innovation finds its way into Milton’s program at this point: he suggests that studies of these subjects should be reinforced by conference with their contemporary practitioners, such as “Hunters, fowlers, Fishermen, Shepherds, Gardeners, Apothecaries; and in the other sciences, Architects, Engineers, Mariners, Anatomists” (983). This continuing evidence of a concern for the practical aspects of learning is an important component of the Puritan ideal which contributed so greatly to the growth of modern science (and, less favorably, to the trade-school mentality of the modern academy).

The continuing progression of knowledge (ethics, drama, politics, law, theology) eventually culminates in the study of poetry, by which Milton means primarily the epic, dramatic and lyric forms which dominate classical studies (and Milton’s own writing). Such a proper education “would make them soon perceive what despicable creatures our common rimers and playwrites be, and show them, what Religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of Poetry both in divine and humane things” (984). Only at this point would Milton begin the process of “forming them to be able writers and composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with a universall insight into things” (984).

While Milton goes on to describe the exercise (mostly military drill) of his ideal academy, the real argument of his essay is captured in his expressed desire that students be “fraught with a universall insight into things.” In the end, Milton’s great enemy is provincialism of all kinds. He opposes the disputatious provincialism of the classical academy, locked away from practical learning by their abstruse speculations. He opposes the provincialism of the English, who ignore classical learning from a mistaken (in Milton’s opinion) notion of their superiority to the Latin cultures. In fact, even though he emphasizes the Puritan ideal of practical learning, Milton opposes the Puritan tendency to suppress drama and other potentially immoral and subversive learning. Milton’s view is that a student, wisely guided, will come through the learning process with sufficient insight to reject the shallow wit which hides the immoral, and to value that which is of lasting worth. This is in accord with Milton’s views on freedom of the press as expressed in Aeropagitica, and is a theme explored in Paradise Lost.

Insofar as Milton seeks to establish a universality of insight, his plan is laudable; it has, however, some vulnerabilities. First, Milton’s reaction against the wastefulness of asking young students to write an endless succession of meaningless assignments causes him to postpone nearly all writing to the end of a man’s education. Yet writing, like reading, is a habit gained from long practice; and while Milton is certainly correct to state that writing of worth develops only when cultural literacy is already present, it cannot then be said that no one who is not completely educated should avoid writing until his education is complete. Milton’s hypersensitivity to the misuse of the classical languages causes him to overreach himself here; his school would fail without opportunity for the students to respond to, and record their advances in, the literature studied. A better suggestion might be to allow students to write their first compositions in the vernacular, proceeding to translations of their earlier compositions into the classical languages, and then continuing with original compositions as their understanding of the literature flowered. However, Milton is almost certainly right to react against the concept (still current) that all learning must be exhaustively documented by assignments, grade-marking and other busywork.

A further weakness results from Milton’s clash with the classical establishment’s abuse of logic and metaphysics. To be sure, taking students who have only at long last mastered the grammar of the classical languages, and expecting them to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge of metaphysics, would be a fool’s errand; and so Milton correctly values it. This flaw in classical education seems likely to have resulted from an environment of orthodoxy wherein scholastic philosophy and patristic theology (supplemented with Aristotelian cosmology) were to be learned and not challenged, however dialogic the actual teaching method may have been. In such a system, the foundational value of logic and metaphysics were in forming assumptions upon which all other learning could be based, rather than to cultivate rational inquiry and protect dissent. However, Milton’s solution is to banish rhetoric completely from the curriculum, and to eliminate the academic discipline of disputation. The harmful results of such an overreaction are apparent in the modern academy, where the absence of foundational emphases on logic and rhetoric (in the classical, not the postmodern, sense of the term). Whereas debate has a long tradition, extending at least to the rabbinic method among the Hebrews and the Peripatetic tradition in Greek philosophy, the more recent emphasis on teaching as solely an instrumentality for the conveyance of information. This method stifles dissent and banishes metaphysics and logic to the closet, as they are of marginal pragmatic value at best (except in the exceedingly dilute form of “critical thinking”). In the end, it leads to the trade-school mentality; learning is valued solely for its real-world value (easily measured by economists), and that which is not so measured is forced to either re-interpret itself or become extinct.

However vulnerable Milton’s thought in On Education may be at these points, it must be said that his presentation is generally quite good. His curriculum begins and ends with language and literature, and contains a wide variety of highly useful studies. Perhaps the ardent Milton critic should first attempt to complete the reading list contained in On Education; the project would undoubtedly rob him of his resolve to question Milton’s credentials–or if not his resolve, certainly his energy!

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