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Let's Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education

Thanks to Steve Lubet for noting my book, Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education, and for inviting me to guest-blog about it.

I like Locke. Like Daniel Kahneman, albeit without a fistful of studies, John Locke reflected deeply on how the mind goes wrong. His The Conduct of the Understanding is a master class in identifying mental mistakes. Like John Stuart Mill, Locke worried especially about our one-sidedness. We “see but in part, and we know but in part, and therefore it is no wonder we conclude not right from our partial views.”

Unlike Kahneman, who looks to water cooler conversations, or the Mill of On Liberty, who looks to untrammeled freedom of thought and discussion, Locke looks to something like what we now call liberal education to overcome, as much as possible, our narrowness. As I explain in the book and here, Locke aims at “comprehensive enlargement of mind.” That requires attention to the “opposite arguings of men of parts.” It requires attention to those we imagine “come short of” us in talent. Even if we haven’t overestimated our own talent or underestimated theirs, they will know things we don’t. It requires recognition of the limits of “the science that [we] study and the books that [we] read.” It requires the study of some old books because part of our narrowness is of time, though Locke thinks the education of his time too bound to such books. It requires, where possible, travel because parochialism pertains to place.

Lockean liberal education is about more than skills or breadth. The man Locke calls the “logical chicaner”—one might think more broadly of bullshitters, spokespeople for cornered politicians, or one’s Twitter nemesis—sometimes possess these in frustrating abundance. The reasonable person at whom Locke aims is perhaps above all one who is determined to be guided by reason, rather than to use her reasoning skills to get the better of others. Locke is aware that different matters admit of different degrees of being known, but in a passage from Some Thoughts Concerning Education, with which my book opens, he sticks to the limit case in which reason spits out something like a clear answer: "There cannot be anything so . . . misbecoming . . . anyone who pretends to be a rational creature as not to yield to plain reason and the conviction of clear arguments."

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