Being in the dark is not a good place to be. The fact that it makes us all appear to be equal offers no consolation. We need light in order to know where we are, who we are, and how to go about the business of living. Plato’s famous cave dwellers lived in the dark, and since they never knew anything about light, were not open to it. Educators would try in vain to liberate them from their predicament. The denizens of darkness, however, preferred to live among shadows and noise. They were all equal, but equally deprived.
George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is about how to keep people in the dark in order to maintain a totalitarian society. Many of the words Orwell employed that relate to depriving them from the light of knowledge are now familiar to many, such as “Big Brother,” “Double-think,” “Newspeak,” and “Thoughtcrime”. A citizen of 1984 who is enlightened and able to think becomes an enemy of society and must be dealt with mercilessly. The contemporary world is beginning to look more and more like the dystopia that Orwell depicted.
William H. Whyte, Jr., an American sociologist coined the term “groupthink” in 1952. “Groupthink” is a psychological phenomenon that characterizes a group of people whose intense desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational decision-making. It is a phenomenon evident in political factions and in the Mass Media. Orwell’s totalitarian outlook is imposed by the government. The current slide toward totalitarianism is more voluntary. In either case, darkness is preferred to light.
Abraham Lincoln was often pestered by advisors who offered him their unilluminated opinions. On one occasion, in the interest of shedding light on the situation, he told the tale of a backwoods traveler who was lost at night in a violent storm. Thunder roared about him. One loud clap, which seemed to shake the earth beneath him, brought the harried traveler to his knees. From this salutary position, he prayed: “O Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little less noise.”
Light is liberating; darkness is not. A liberal education, therefore, provides us with the illumination we need to free us from the bondage of ignorance. But if people have only opinions and no knowledge, such liberation is not possible. It is a grave error to try to educate while at the same time holding tenaciously to the mistaken notion that all opinions are equal. Knowledge is more valuable than mere opinion because it is firmly connected with reality.
At this point we may distinguish between a liberal education and liberalism. In his Biglietto Speech when he was raised to the Cardinalate, John Henry Newman offered a clear explanation of why he strongly opposed the latter: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion.”
Newman saw liberalism “as opening the door to evils which it did not itself either anticipate or comprehend.” He was both right and far ahead of his times. Could he have possibly envisioned abortion on demand, legalized physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage? A liberal education employs reason in order to acquire a more reliable hold on things. It provides greater freedom through reason. Liberalism, on the other hand, is deceptively expansive and progressive because it separates itself from reason. Reason is a guide that leads us from opinion to knowledge. It is irrational in the most literal sense of the term to disregard reason in the interest of maintaining a useless equality. Without reason, we do not know how to care for each other.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine makes a careful examination of the human condition. “It would be good if men would meditate upon three things to be found in themselves,” he writes. “The three things of which I speak are existence, knowledge, will. For I am, and I know, and I will.” But if all we have are opinions and no knowledge, we remain in the dark about how we are to utilize our will and thereby stifle our identity at the starting gate. Liberalism is not an education, but its avoidance. There will always be a group of people who prefer one thing to the other simply because it demands less effort. And so we have fast-food restaurants, instant coffee, French without Pain, Shakespeare for Dummies, Italian without Toil, and morality without principles. But the value of a liberal education is measured precisely by the amount of work that is required. To remain ignorant costs nothing. But it leaves us groping in the dark.
Mortimer Adler may not have been America’s most profound philosopher, but he surely was her most encyclopedic. His passion for the Great Books Program was inspired by his zeal for a truly liberal education. He understood that students must expend energy in order to become educated, to pass from “rude” to “erudite”. “The discipline they accomplish,” writes Adler, “frees us from the vagaries of unfounded opinion and the strictures of local prejudice.” By “liberalism,” he referred to the view which “confuses authority with tyranny and discipline with regimentation. It exists wherever men think everything is just a matter of opinion. That is a suicidal doctrine.”
“Let there be light” should be the inspired motto of all educators, writers, and politicians. Light remains the only effective power that safeguards democracy and keeps totalitarianism at bay.