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The Hardest School

The Boomer and Xer Generation’s search for the “quick fix” has done much to cripple the Millennial and Homeland generations, who I fear have weak mooring in the ancient bulwark of principle. The older generations have taught them to desire things from an entitlement perspective, which is always prefaced with an “I deserve” or “you deserve,” without regard for the hard work and sacrifice it takes to achieve them.

No, we will continue to demand today with no effort, that for which our grandparents spent a life time living to acquire, and never securing the knowledge that they possess—that the joy is not in the getting, but in the living towards.

In education (not schooling mind you), we make huge strides in the direction of entering on the path of becoming true liberal artists, only to be sucked out to sea with the tsunami undertow of public opinion and fear of pain. The truth is, unless we can resolve to just be honest with ourselves, our attempts at Liber Education will end up in little more than slightly higher mediocrity. There is a price to pay to get a superb leadership education and in our day everyone seems bent on finding a short cut.

Acquiring a liberal arts education is likely to be the most difficult and painful thing you have ever attempt in your entire existence. It impacts every aspect of your domestic, religious, and professional life. If you are alone in this endeavor, you will be chastised, ridiculed, gossiped about, made fun of, and left out. You will spend hours upon hours in solitude studying books that nobody you know has ever heard of. People will say, “while I admire your effort, what kind of job can you get with that?”

“There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much one from another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.”

But it gets worse. First, if you are unfortunate enough to have a group to study with, then the going really gets rough. Whenever two or more people get together to study (without a world class liberal arts mentor) to gain a liberal arts education, it is nearly always a failure before it begins. Immediately they start to make it easier by distributing the workload, dividing the reading up between themselves so they can “share the experience.” This is anathema to true learning in most cases. It is like trying to build muscle mass on your own body by having one person work out their own legs, another doing their own biceps and so on. It might be a great work out, but you gain little from the experience.

Second, it is so tempting to find anything claiming to be connected with Thomas Jefferson Education and just adopt it as the real thing. It often costs less and always requires less. “The easier, the better” seems to be our national motto. And we are tempted to apply it to our education just like every other aspect of modern life. After hearing great mentors promote superb but “gut-wrenching” hard education, we are so relieved when someone comes along with the “quick fixed” short-cut version.

Third, particularly if you are working with youth, you will naturally begin to look for ways to streamline and mainstream the curriculum, easing the youth into the educational process. We do this so we can impact more youth and help them improve their minds. But this is a little like watering down the Kool-Aid so everyone can have some; they all get a drink but nobody ever knows what “Loonie Lime” truly tastes like.

Remember, we do all of this with the best intentions, with vigorous efforts to ensure balance and good feelings all around—at the sacrifice of sound principles of extremely hard work, missed games and parties, nights crying in frustration, and mornings dawning with new and solid realization and resolve. This protected, “take the hardness out” approach to education, especially applied to acquiring a liberal arts education, results in the following natural consequences as summarized by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1840’s:

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises they loose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened and complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles it, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls.

Aristotle to Augustine, Homer to Shakespeare, Adler to Hutchinson, Barzun to Lewis, Dickens to L’Amour—it is always the same. True Leadership-Statesmanship comes out of none other than pain, struggle with God and self, tenacity and hard, long study. This concept is no where better discussed than by Mortimer Adler in his essay Invitation to the Pain of Learning:

One of the reasons why education given by our schools is so frothy and vapid is that the American people generally—the parent more than the teacher—wish childhood to unspoiled by pain. Childhood must be a period of delight, of [happy] indulgence [of] impulses. It must be given every avenue of unimpeded expression, which of course is pleasant; and it must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty, which of course are painful. . . What lies behind my remark is a distinction between two views of education.

In one view, education is something externally added to a person, as his clothing or other accoutrements. We cajole him into standing there willingly while we fit him; and in doing this we must be guided by his likes and dislikes, by his notion of what enhances his appearance. In the other view, education is an interior transformation of a person’s mind and character. He is plastic material to be improved not according to his inclinations, but according to what is good for him. But because he is a living thing, and not dead clay, the transformation can be effected only through his own activity.

Teachers of every sort can help, but they can only help in the process of learning that must be dominated at every moment by the activity of the learner. And the fundamental activity that is involved in every kind of genuine learning is intellectual activity, the activity generally known as thinking. Any learning which takes place without thinking is necessarily of the sort I have called external and additive—learning passively acquired, for which the common name is “information.” Without thinking, the kind of learning which transforms a mind, gives it new insights, enlightens it, deepens understanding, [and] elevates the spirit, simply cannot occur.

Anyone who has done any thinking, even a little bit, knows that it is painful. It is hard work—in fact the very hardest that human beings are ever called upon to do. It is fatiguing, not refreshing. If allowed to follow the path of least resistance, no one would ever think.

We don’t need it easier. We don’t.

My colleagues and I often hear people who are learning about Thomas Jefferson Education saying things like: “that just won’t work,” “we don’t have time,” “you just can’t expect that out of teenagers,” “it’s crazy to study so much,” or my personal favorite: “I liked this other seminar better because the lady giving it made Thomas Jefferson Education so much easier.” Great mentors hate that one—they work so hard getting people to put in the hard work, and then someone with the excited flush from 5 months of reading classics goes around teaching people the “easier road” or the simplified system to a great education. What a waste!

No, what we need in our homes and for all Americans living is for our education to be much, much harder. The strength and fortitude for the completion of a future mission is never developed within the comforts of our “Comfort Zone.” It is incumbent on parents and mentors of the youth to embody the “leadership arts” standard, profoundly articulated by Josiah Bunting:

Mentors must embody the qualities of character we wish to educe in our students. When we say ‘educe,’ we mean draw forth . . . be paragons of the sort of excellence we want our students to learn. And not only learn, but to become . . . . These men and women, these mentors, are themselves unfinished persons. They are to be strivers, searchers, tenaciously engaged in their work.

This is just as true today as it was in the times of great mentors like Moses, Socrates, Christ, and George Wythe. It was Sir Walter Scott who wrote, “All men who have turned out worth anything, have had the chief hand in their own education.”

There are thousands of people in America today just like you who have refused any and all easy roads to education, who have taken the Thomas Jefferson Education challenge to get a world class, superb, Thomas Jefferson level education, no short cuts and no simplifying. I challenge you, if you have not already, to join our ranks, to settle for nothing less than a real Thomas Jefferson Education—the kind you painfully earn.

The easier it is, the less you are learning. The harder it is, the greater chance that you’re earning the kind of education you want. As the great classical historian Thucydides put it:

“There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much one from another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.”

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