Today's Paper Latest Elections Coronavirus 🔵 Covid Classroom Cooking Families Core values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

John Stuart Mill, a liberal in the old and better sense of the word, once tried to explain the difference between what too many of today's upwardly mobile confuse with an education and the real thing. An educated man or woman is someone who does more than climb on the career treadmill and follow it to the heights of power, influence and wealth. Such a well-trained professional may have a title on the door and a rug on the floor, but he has mistaken what one philosopher called the bitch-goddess Success for the genuine lower-case article.

"Men may be competent lawyers without general education," John Stuart Mill observed, "but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers who demand and are capable of apprehending principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details."

According to Peter Berkowitz, author of "Liberal Education and Liberal Democracy" in April 20's Weekly Standard, the idea and ideal of a philosophic lawyer brings to mind the late great Antonin Scalia, justice of the United States Supreme Court. He could be either caustic or kind, but he was never dull. And his legacy remains as invaluable and instructive as ever. To follow one of his legal opinions is akin to listening to a great musical score from start to finish, from thoughtful overture to rousing finale.

The man was not only a great jurist but a great artist; he understood what the rhythm and rhyme of his words would mean to future generations of Americans.

Mr. Justice Scalia began his verbal performance with a dismal picture of what awaited a state and society that puts its trust in words, however fine and glittering those words. For man does not live by verbal formulas alone. "If by some terrible misfortune," he once began a lecture, "I should be compelled to leave the United States of America, my first priority would be to find a country that protects freedom. I would not search for a bill of rights. As a former law professor who studied comparative constitutional law, I can tell you that the Soviet Union had a long and beautiful bill of rights. It abounded in inspiring promises. Those promises, as you doubtless realize from your study of history, were worthless.

"Were I to be exiled from my beloved United States of America," Justice Scalia went on, "I would search for a country with well-designed political institutions so that the powers of government are dispersed and blended among distinct branches that operate to check and balance one another. This, study of government teaches, is the best means to thwart the abuses of power and invasions of liberty to which those who hold political office have been forever prone."

A. Lincoln, another Republican of some note, once put it this way: "As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal. ... where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Mr. Justice Scalia seemed to delight almost as much in provoking his student audience as he did the country by some of his opinions that cut away the fat and went to the bone of constitutional questions. One student was moved to ask: "Justice Scalia, why do you write such harsh dissents? Can you really expect your rhetoric to convince your colleagues?"

To which the distinguished justice replied: "No, I don't expect my dissents to persuade my colleagues. If I am writing a dissent, it means I have failed to convince a majority of them." It is one of the many benefits of having had a liberal education that it makes such objections of no moment.

"I write my dissents the way I do"--Justice Scalia continued--"I try to be lively, hard-hitting, some might say acerbic--for the sake of students. For young men and women like you. I want to wake you up, grab your attention, provoke you to think." And surely he succeeded.

There is little your faithful correspondent and columnist for Arkansas' Newspaper can add to Mr. Berkowitz's splendid encomium. The role of mere newspaperman in these circumstances may be compared to that of attendants who brush away the crumbs from the garments of the truly great.

It's necessary work if a fickle public is to be presented with some record of the enduring values and shining personalities of its own time. For they also serve who only stand and wait for the test of time to reveal what greatness lived amongst us for an all too brief moment.

We the People have only begun to honor them as they should be honored, not so much for their sakes but ours. They remain examples for the rest of us, and our children and grandchildren, to follow them as they weave their stories into the American fabric, that many-colored garment. And each strand is worth saving. For nothing should be forgotten, not even the ugly, garish episodes that also mar our history.

Why save all that? A liberal education answers that question definitively. Words can wound, but they can also elevate. And leave the rest of us free to choose between the good and ill in politics and in life. To quote Mr. Berkowitz: "Liberal education ought to champion the virtues of freedom. It ought to cultivate curiosity and skepticism in inquiry, conscientiousness and boldness in argument, civility in speaking, attentiveness in listening, and coolness and clarity in responding to provocation. These virtues enable students--regardless of race, class, or gender--to take full advantage of free speech."

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 05/27/2018

Print Headline: An education for the free


Sponsor Content

Archived Comments

  • WhododueDiligence
    May 27, 2018 at 8:50 a.m.

    The target of this column's partial Lincoln quote was the Know-Nothing Party which managed to elect many of its candidates to US Congress seats in 1854.
    The full quote, written in 1855:
    "I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How could anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring 'all men are created equal.' Now we practically read it 'all men are created equal equal except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocracy."

  • WhododueDiligence
    May 27, 2018 at 9:09 a.m.

    In 1857 the US Supreme Court handed down its disastrous Dred Scott decision.
    In 2010 the US Supreme Court handed down its flood of unlimited dark electioneering money in its divisive and absurdly-named Citizens United decision.
    What would Lincoln think of Scalia's arguments and Supreme Court vote in favor of Citizens United? We can't say. It's a rhetorical question. But we might think that Lincoln might think that our progress farther down the road of degeneracy appears to be pretty rapid when five of the nine Supreme Court justices think it's a good idea to allow unlimited amounts of dark money to be legalized in electioneering shenanigans solely and cleverly designed to fool more of the people more of the time.

  • 23cal
    May 27, 2018 at 9:50 a.m.

    Good words, Whodo. Go you.