Liberal Education, Part I: The Petty Troika

“Must be your skin that I’m sinkin in
Must be for real cause now I can feel
and I didn’t mind
it’s not my kind

Bush, “Glycerine,” from the album Sixteen Stone

Does liberal education destroy the three things that humans want most?

This is a speculative post, made to answer questions by Mark, Chet Richards, and Federalist X, and to expand on some questions I had. This isn’t a definition of a strategy, like “Embracing Victory” — or even a rumination, like “The Magic Cloud.” It is an attempt to clarify my thinking, as well as an honest question. Feedback is warmly appreciated.

In particular, this web series will expand on a comment I made at ZenPundit

If [the root of "4th Generation Warfare"] a crisis of legitimacy of the state, it may be a self-inflicted one.

The grand educational project of the past 130 years has been the destruction of identity. Liberal education is designed to create relativists, to introduce critical thinking, and to break free of the past.

In other words, create a need for belonging where none existed before.

So now instead of widespread if petty sub-national groups, we have a highly-cognitive elite, a middle morass of nothingness, and among far too many a need to belong.

The (slow) rise of competitive primary and secondary education in the United States, coupled with an affinity for Confucian methods in China, may show a rejection of liberal education methods.

Ultimately the morality of liberating or controlling education may be besides the point. If liberal education sows fields for a 4GW harvest, it will be abandoned to defend the State.

and its companion over at Global Guerrillas

Would the weakness of states made possible by liberal education also be a root cause? The education system in most modern countries is designed to sweep away the petty identities students come in with, making them more amenable to 4GW-style revolutionary ideologies.

I would imagine a significant fraction of American ideological-revolutionaries (from SDS to American salafis) share a fantastic liberal education.

I earlier wrote that reality is a sea of friction, but for most of history, human interactions relied primarily on the troika of folk, kin, and trade.


For instance, in The Good Earth the protagonist can be neatly summed up as

Folk: Northern Han
Kin: Wang
Trade: Farmer

Likewise in Atlas Shrugged, our hero Dagney is

Folk: American
Kin: Taggert
Trade: Industrialist


A troika, a social sled drawn by three characteristics

Even sketchily drawn characters, such as the motorcyclist in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, are best identified by this troika

Folk: American
Kin: Father of Chris
Trade: Rhetorician / Philosopher

Throughout time, it was the interaction of these three categories which provided the conflict of life. Each of these qualities can naturally lead to their own petty leagues

Folk: Tribes
Kin: Clans
Trade: Guilds

And indeed the better part of history is the struggle between these. Until the rise of Capitalism.

The two greatest desires of humans are the needs for power and justice. The most effective movements, such as Holy Wars, combine rewards for the followers (ample tracts of lands, enslaved concubines) with justice for all (That all will hear the Call of the Lord equally). However, in mundane matters the wealth and justice drives directly conflicted. Most historical economic system were essentially zero-sum, meaning that for every winner there had to be a loser. Therefore strife between tribes, clans, and guilds often turned violent. Those who also believed in justice were largely marginalized, except for rhetorical purposes.

Capitalism allows the explosive crystallization of folk, kin, and trade networks. Production capacity continually crimes, reducing the incentive for violence and increasing the incentive for peaceful cooperation. The expanding wealth of a society naturally leads to governments which are able to buy off enemies — to manage crime — which allows for potential internal enemies to be pacified while the societal pie grows larger. Further, capitalism increases the number of proven technologies and techniques, allowing ever greater security. The triple-identity of man as a folk/kin/trade creature doesn’t diminish, but the troika becomes increasingly “petty” from the perspective of the state.

Sadly, the desire of the State to do more soon interfered. Governments failed to focus on decreasing inter-group conflict and protecting citizens against enemies. Instead, the traditionally hegemonic State became imperial, and attempted to focus the citizen around it. Unable to focus the folk, kin, and trade identities around it (the number of States which tried this is small, and includes Khmer Rogue Cambodia), States instead focused on breaking the identities of its citizens.

The tool the State used to do this was Liberal Education.

To quote from Wikipedia

Today, the liberal arts are often promoted as “liberal” in a later Enlightenment sense, as liberating of the mind, removing prejudices and unjustified assumptions. In spite of the earlier medieval meaning, this is regarded by many today as the more relevant sense of the broader term liberal education.

The purpose of liberal arts is snap out the petty engines of the folk, the kin, and the trade. Because all men find themselves under the State anyway, this should create less friction in State-citizen interaction. For similar reasons, States cobbled together out of tribal societies (such as Ba’athi Iraq and Saudi Arabia) try to dilute the influence of tribes, to bring the citizen closer to the State.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that any education with furthers these petty loyalties is illiberal education

The scope of the liberal arts has changed with society. It once emphasised the education of elites in the classics; but, with the rise of science and humanities during the Age of Enlightenment, the scope and meaning of “liberal arts” expanded to include them. Still excluded from the liberal arts are topics that are specific to particular occupations, such as agriculture, business, dentistry, engineering, medicine, pedagogy (school-teaching), and pharmacy.

These illiberal educations still exist, because they help the State promote economic growth. Non-economic illiberal education, such as homo economics and genealogy, have been largely excluded from public education all together.

Through liberal education — through its weakening of the ties of folk, kin, and trade, the State seeks to “push out” from what’s really important, making the citizen more bendable to the State’s desires

Liberal Education, a tdaxp series

Liberal Education 1: The Petty Troika
Liberal Education 2: Liberation and Rulesets
Liberal Education 3: Infection
Liberal Education 4: The Mitochondrial Peace

22 thoughts on “Liberal Education, Part I: The Petty Troika”

  1. Hah, well, you know the problem with leading a horse to water…

    I would say that rather than 'ensuring' learning, he's there to facilitate learning. Now, I imagine that the next riposte would be, “But by refraining from hostile argumentation, he'll be facilitating learning!” given what you appear to be outlining.

    I think that the problem with the professor in question (who I watched on more than one occasion) was that he had a fundamental disrespect for his students. I mentioned that he was an annoying man; here's what annoyed me the most: on the overhead projector, he wrote almost everything he said, even the goofiest side comments — in sentences, even — every step of the way, rather than write only bulleted lists or key info. He would spend much of his time writing nearly everything that came out of his mouth, from the belief, it appeared, that his students who would be taking these notes would be copying everything he wrote, or his every word. Now, I was always several steps ahead of him, thinking, Get on with it!, while he scrawled out sentences. (Imagine me telling you this rather than writing it here, but also writing this post while telling you, hoping you'd copy all these words as your notes. Now imagine the time it would take for me to write each of these sentences right after I've said them — writing each before I spoke the next sentence. Then you'll have a pretty good image of what I mean by 'annoying.') And, I suppose some of his students were actually dolts and he may have been right that they'd not take good notes nor remember what he was saying if he didn't encourage such extensive, sentence-by-sentence note taking.

    I'm not arguing that pure, unadulterated hostility every moment of a class would be a good thing, far from it. In the first place, I think that a professor who really understands his field and has a love of teaching/learning it will not lash out at every unusual or confrontational comment given by a student; rather, he'll notice the new but valid angle or else what key information the student is lacking. The most hostile teachers will be those who are the least competent in their fields — or maybe also those so far above their students that communicating with them is actually difficult work; too many intervening steps or gaps between student and teach, then, unless the professor has phenomenal patience and cares a bit more about teaching than his field.

    But baby-stepping students, treating them tenderly for the sake of tenderness or else to try to 'ensure' learning or to avoid 'shutting them off' — as if, of course, such direct mind-to-mind control is possible — is treating them with disrespect. The professor may believe he his making them better students, but he's really disempowering them. If the student is 'shut off,' then the student will miss out, true; but his own mind is his own responsibility, not the teacher's. Of course, if I were to teach a course, I'd first outline this approach from the beginning, to let the students know what to expect. ;)

  2. Come to think of it, perhaps I should have outlined this approach before I started commenting on tdaxp!

    BTW, I disagree that the reaction is 'a human reaction' that can only be trained away after countless hours of 'purposeful practice' — rather, I disagree that this is therefore justification for not requiring that practice, or of gaining that kind of control over one's own cognitive processes.

    And there are other natural 'human reactions' that compete with this reaction, as well.

  3. “I mentioned that he was an annoying man; here's what annoyed me the most: on the overhead projector, he wrote almost everything he said,”

    This is just bad teaching practice. The professor, as you describe him, was not maximizing his student's comprehension at all.

    Consider my earlier notes on Biggs (1999) [1]:

    “Sustained and unchanging low-level activity lowers concentration. Sitting listening to a lecture is such an activity. Yet it requires concentrated effort to follow lecture content….

    The attention span of students under these [lecture] conditions can be sustained for about 10 to 15 minutes, after which learning drops off rapidly… A short rest period, or simply a change in activity, after about 15 minutes leads to a restoration of performance almost to the original level.”

    The teaching you describe is one who is merely “facilitating” learning, to use your phrase, instead of “ensuring learning.”

    “a professor who really understands his field and has a love of teaching/learning “

    Why are you assuming these two qualities go together, especially if you only want professors to be able to facilitate (not ensure) learning?

    Why should a professor take any less care for his student's minds than a 4G or 5G warrior does?

  4. “Why should a professor take any less care for his student's minds than a 4G or 5G warrior does?”

    Because he's not trying to destroy them or supplant them or use them …? But I wonder if a distinction between 4G and 5G should be made; that one works by disempowering cognition (in an obvious manner) while the other works by empowering it (or at least by making them think they have been empowered to think on their own). That's an interesting question you ask, Dan, and it is one that is odd to consider while considering whether a professor should take a hostile approach!

    “The teaching you describe is one who is merely 'facilitating' learning, to use your phrase, instead of 'ensuring learning.' “

    I don't know that dull repetition is facilitation. If the student has learned from the first mention of an idea, then repetition of it via this professor's approach (writing it down) may be more like throwing water onto a dirt path: creating mud and slowing progress. Thinking of it this way, this teacher's role seems 4G to me.

  5. “Because he's not trying to destroy them or supplant them or use them …? “

    If a professor isn't trying to use his students to help their comprehension, then he's some radical Behaviorist who I wouldn't want to take a class from! Of course yu should use your students to help them understand.

    In a way, education if a form of cognitive domain-specific take-over, or a form of subversion. You change how they think about something in order to change their actions in some way. If a student leaves a class “unschooled,” then that “education” has been a waste.

    “That's an interesting question you ask, Dan, and it is one that is odd to consider while considering whether a professor should take a hostile approach!”

    Not at all – unless you believe a SysAdmin should be “hostile” to the population it serves!

    “I don't know that dull repetition is facilitation. “

    As I understood your use, “facilitation” meant minimal-effort and “ensuring” meant maximal-effort. You implied that proffors should facilitate, and not ensure, learning, because the onus of effort should not be on the professor.

    Perhaps I misunderstood your use of these terms?

  6. The fact that they cannot view legitimacy or its lack regardless of the [emotive?] manner in which an argument is given is the real problem.

    Another problem may be in the way 'hostility' is interpreted. This professor sought to do exactly what you imply; the girl had already thought he was hostile to her religion, merely because he didn't give her a good grade for her 'Christian' understanding of rainbows. So he minced words and, worse, minced understanding, in order to appear non-hostile.

    There is this other thing I think I read behind your words: that because 'we wish' to educate, the burden is more on the professor than the student. I think that the professor's primary burden should be competency — knowing his field and being able to express what he knows — and that last part would mean, also, expressing it in a way that will not mince understanding. Being able to think horizontally and comparatively requires understanding the fundamental distinctions between things, and conflict can be very good for that. I do not believe the professor's primary burden is ensuring learning, but in providing the info and insight into his field; rather, the burden of learning is on the student.

  7. Curtis,

    “The fact that they cannot view legitimacy or its lack regardless of the [emotive?] manner in which an argument is given is the real problem.”

    The problem is not that we can't, but we don't. It's a human reaction. I'm sure it's possible to train away from it, and become expert at a better style after only a few thousands or tens of thousands of hours of purposeful practice

    “There is this other thing I think I read behind your words: that because 'we wish' to educate, the burden is more on the professor than the student.”

    Well, I do think that the professor should be able to not just express what he knows — if that was the case, article writing is the entirety of education — but to be able to make his students understand his field. Saying that one species-typical understanding (the anxiety reaction to hostile commentary) is not a fair measure of this is an insensible as saying any other (the inability to hear hyper-acoustics, for instance) is not a fair measure.

    “Being able to think horizontally and comparatively requires understanding the fundamental distinctions between things, and conflict can be very good for that.”

    Yes, I agree exactly. If you don't care about making them agree, but just want them to be able to argue it ably, conflict is a fine way to go. And I don't mean this facetiously.

    “I do not believe the professor's primary burden is ensuring learning, but in providing the info and insight into his field; rather, the burden of learning is on the student.”

    So then what is he there for?

    I think a good argument can be made that Universities should be academic tech schools — get them to read & write journal articles ably. But is this what you mean?

  8. Dan, I may be old school, but in my not-so-humble opinion, he should have obliterated her p.o.v. then and there — although, without singling her out personally. (Which he didn't, anyway.)

    I do not much like the notion that professors should coddle their students or refrain from hostile responses, at the university level at least. The students are there to advance themselves, to learn, to seek an education; the professors are not there to spoon-feed it. If the student cares more about some idiosyncratic belief system, or about 'feelings', etc., the student should forgo higher education or at least find an education more suited to his purposes: like, a seminary school or ecclesiastical education.

    Not all the burden lies on the student's shoulders, of course; but an accomplished professor should have less reason to mince words and positions (and understanding!) than this professor. It was obvious that he lacked self-confidence, particularly given the fact that this area of Missouri is quite conservative, in the neo-right Christian-right sense, and he no doubt feared some sort of reprisal. Or perhaps the reprisal would have been motivated by economics, and the desire of university systems to make money: as the customer is always right, so too the student paying the cash.

  9. Curtis,

    I agree completely that professors shouldn't be worried about “self-esteem” or similar etheral, useless concepts.

    However, a combative stance does not necessarily educate in a way we wish. People pay more attention during hostile arguments, and remember more, but are less likely to view arguments prented this way as legitimate. So, if you don't get a room of broughbeaten students, or a room of students who learned that dullness is the best way to avoid confrontation, you get students who remember your argument and believe it is worthless.

    An accomplished professor should be in command of his words. Professing is a form of public speaker that is closer to acting than chatting.

    (I'll leave aside the issue of a physics professor opining on comparative epistomology :-) )

  10. Curtis,

    Of all the times I have seen professors respond t comment, it seems that about 50% the responses are hostile and 40% are useless. Really, the only purpose of doing this is to improve the student's metacognition — in other words, to respond with a view on what teaching and learning strategies are used, and why. Hostile responses serve to shut-down student feedback, which may be preferable to thin-skinned professors but cuts them off from a source of feedback.

    The unlearned conflation of physics and metaphysics is interesting. I wonder how common it is?

  11. I surmise anon's problem was that his white, heterosexual, Christian soldier status led him to believe his opinion was right, regardless of context.

    I share all his status ailments but military service, and I only recall ever having a stigma attached to me once, because I was a damn Yankee in a special topics Civil War class taught by a true Southern gentleman. I don't ever recall an instructor unfairly singling me out without me making a name for myself first, whether with my mouth or my writing. I don't want to take an unfair stab in the dark, but my concern is that retribution came because you were an opinionated, not because of your myriad adjectives. Feel free to elaborate in rebuttal, but the terseness of your post and anonymous status screams troll.

  12. Aaron,

    I can't speak for Anon, but I'll try to address your point from my experiences. Hopefully Anon will chime in, too.

    I received my undergraduate degree from a small college where the head of the Student Democrats voted for Bush.. so in South Dakota, stuff like this might not be such an issue. But since arriving at Nebraska (smack-dab in an all-Red state) I've had a respected scholar respond respond to a background by criticizing (what he thought was) my background.

    More seriously, I've had two liberal professors complain about student-professor and student-student political harassment by Leftists (once by a homosexualist activist, once by a black-studies activist). Academia is full of repression and attempted repression by Leftists.

    Your comment seems to imply “retribution” is a fair response for discussion in a university environment. I hope that is not so!

    Also, fix your blog. ;-)

  13. Recently on a local PBS station which broadcasts classes from a small, local state university late at night, the professor — the most annoying sort of man — was reviewing a set of criticisms of his teaching style from his students. I guess he had solicited feedback, and he was using this particular session to respond to the feedback.

    Though extremely annoying (for reasons I won't go into here), the professor, who was teaching a basic physical sciences class, brought up something important from a previous class assignment when one student's written criticisms attacked him for his stance on Christianity. Apparently, he had previously assigned his students the task of surveying web pages devoted to the physical sciences. One student had selected a web page on rainbows and had written her short essay on the subject by incorporating the “meanings” of rainbows found in the Bible. In fact, she had spent little time actually looking at the physics of rainbows, as outlined on the website, preferring to address the metaphysics of rainbows through the lens of Christianity; when the professor gave her a low grade, she automatically assumed he was hostile to Christianity.

    Unfortunately, the professor minced his words when responding to the criticism. Christianity and science were two separate approaches, and this class was on the *scientific* aspects of the physical world — that's about all he could bring himself to say in his discomfort. But she was probably too far gone for saving, anyway. I suspect that she learned very little from the class, after that.

  14. Wow! Great comments!!


    I agree. As someone who takes teaching seriously, I am surprised by the willingness of many faculty to contribute to a hostile learning environment.

    You may also be interested in my earlier post on the liberal university v. left university [1], as well.


    Could you talk more on the historical transformation of work, and how it relates? I was thinking it wouldn't much — I imagine humans form an attachment to the manner they create a work product, regardless of how they are doing so or even if they enjoy doing so.


    I agree that ties of folk and kin are created by the environment, but I don't think it's out of a mostly environmental need. I think the need for folk, trade, and kin networks is genetic, and I would imagine it would be possibly to test that assertion as well.

    I like your point about capitalism introducing formal laws. There's a correlation between the rise of capitalism and the rise of liberal education, and it may relate to the use of formal reasoning by both.


    Get a job. Oh wait, you have one. [2] ;-)

    Federalist X,

    Could you explain your thought more for me?


    I grand that liberal education is more a basket of methods and thrusts than a list of subjects. One can easily imagine a Liberal Domestic arts, or an illiberal History.

    I don't think I'm attacking liberal arts on normative grounds, so I disagree that liberal education is evil or corrupt. Misguided assumes a preferred direction, which should be addressed (hopefully) in part III.

    Interesting points on group-thinks. And that's certainly an argument that was used to promote universal public education. [3]

    I like “There are creators of these things; but the ratios are different now, since fewer creators can supply for more consumers.” That has implications when looking over time, and not just at a specific time, too.

    Belonging is a real need, stronger than understanding. One of the findings from Dr. Kurzban's research [4] is the cooperative-competitive nature of humans, especially males. Hierarchies rapidly form, not empathy circles. Certainly humans would be adverse to sense of constant questioning (a deep non-understanding of the outside world), but I think this is different a need to feel that one is deeply understood.


  15. Unless we want to be like the rest-of-the-world, we better shut down those liberal schools (the rest-of-the-world has been using our education, right?). If we want to be like the rest-of-the- world, wealthy, then we better keep them open, and use them. I didn't learn calculus not because they couldn't have taught me; I could not afford to take the classes. Nothing wrong with schools, our kids are using technology, so they don't need to learn. (military, knowledge, wealth)
    Three generations of warfare; (tribe, kin, trade); (education, knowledge, wealth); (military, knowledge, wealth).

  16. Trade= Exchange has a radically different meaning from Trade=Economic Caste – and a radically different effect.

    The historical transformation of the latter into the former, circa 1450 -1850 a.d. has much to do with your argument.

  17. There is nothing wrong with a liberal education; however, it is the left leaning subversive professors that disturb me. I have had more than my fair share of unfair retrobution for being a white, male, christian, heterosexual, servicemember and having my own opinion.

  18. So on an unrelated note… when are you going to be posting a link from tdaxp to Brendan’s Student Loans? Sure Jim River has it, however a prominent link from here would sure help too!

  19. Dan,

    Since your post is speculative, I'll add some speculations to stimulate further speculations.

    I'm not sure that your focus on the *types* of subjects taught in “liberal education” is apt for your thesis. You seem to be starting with the notion of [evil? misguided? corrupt?] LIBERAL EDUCATION and then trying to find an argument to justify your predisposition. This is not to say that I disagree with you, per se, but only that the focus seems a bit off. I think that Mark Safranski's posts on “group think” are probably more to the point: The weakening of the troika is a reflection of a different grouping of sources of information. In this case, the “liberal” in “liberal education” could be interpreted as “freely given” or “widely given.” The three branches of your troika are three traditional sources of information and learning, with all the mythology, superstition, methods of relating to the world, etc. associated with those groups. We could make much of “bloodlines” or genealogy for defining KIN, for instance; but in truth much of the binding power comes from shared histories, fables, and the like. (Guilds are no different; guilds passed methods of making and doing down the line and had unique histories and myths.) The move to a centralized dissemination of information broke these chains of learning — i.e., a liberally applied education from a central source broke up three, er, group-thinks or weakened them by presenting a stronger group-think.

    Centralized dissemination is nothing new, of course. The Catholic Church, and now various protestant churches, have done much the same. You should perhaps explore how the explosion of megachurches in America has led to greater competition with State education, as each vies for preeminence in our society.

    I also have a musing on a type of “creationism” at P.C. you might find relevant: nowadays, most Americans “make” via ideas rather than objects. Most of us don't weave our own cloth or forge our own tools, thus we don't need to know how to do those things. With cheap products, we don't need to know how to repair our own possessions as long as we can buy replacements without too much effort. (We don't rebuild cars but buy new cars, or repair televisions but buy new televisions, etc.) There are creators of these things; but the ratios are different now, since fewer creators can supply for more consumers. But as I am doing here, many Americans “create” via ideas: songs, art, novels, financial portfolios, blog posts, legislation, and other immaterial items. So capitalism has developed hand-in-hand with the expansion of Liberal Education in some odd co-evolutionary matrix.

    As for people being more susceptible to 4GW … well, I'm losing my train of thought. Heh. Is a need for belonging the real need? Or is it a need for understanding? I think it is understanding, and that our sense of belonging comes from feedback which verifies understanding. Our so-called liberal education may teach us to question many things — particularly when what is taught through state institutions is at variance with the fables, myths, histories and superstitions taught via the troika — but we do not seem to gain as much understanding as we require. Science teaches us to keep questioning. 4GW forces do not fill their ranks by giving a sense of belonging so much as by giving a framework of understanding — usually a simplistic framework. But now I am tired and truly only speculating…

  20. (Folk, kin, trade) = person. Wasn’t that on the quiz we took a while back?

    Folk and Kin, implicit laws formed by warfare between humans, know your enemy by non-zero sum equations.

    Trade, implicit laws passed down from one human to another.

    Then along came capitalism, and explicit laws. Get rid of kinetic warfare; simply open a network centric portal. Replace warfare with kinetic trade between humans, humans with most wealth wins.

    Second, make everyone a tradesman explicitly.

    Ya, I got it, define wealth.

    Very interesting post.

  21. dan: very interesting post. i hope to have time soon to comment on it with the care it deserves. for now, i'm finding the image of socrates and the slaveboy in the meno irresistible when reading your article.

    does the aporetic moment, the “sting” of the torpedo fish, conclude the philosophic desire? or does it give rise to a stronger, more intense desire? depending on which path one chooses here, we either wind up at a rather incomplete, unsatisfying pedgogy, or we participate in a rather full, stimulating, self-perpetuating love.

    perhaps the troika took a wrong turn a few miles back?

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