On the other side of radical education lies wisdom: An exhortation; or, on the question whether really free is really good

As I review the list of alternative higher education schools, I’m struck almost immediately by their shared ethos of anarchism. They begin with a rejection of the status quo and then level their critique at the corporatization of the modern research university. They say that the university is the institution of elitism, the perpetuation of privilege, and they advocate the path of protest in the name of the “really free” as if freedom, individual and collective, economic and political, were the highest good offered by the modern world.

Yet if we were absolutely free to have what we wanted, wouldn’t we still need to learn whether what we wanted was worth wanting? Does access to a university or to whatever entail the possession of a good thing? Or might we be putting the question backwards?

I seem to recall us having been here before, in a time not long before I was born. Before I was born, I asked, “Does the path of anarchic protest do much apart from turn the tools of criticism taught to disaffected university students and newly minted PhD’s against the institutions that fostered these talents? Isn’t there a philosophical naivete exhibited in using the tools of the master against the master?”

“Why criticism,” my preborn self continued. “Why criticism as a way of being in the world? Why criticism? Why now? Why at all?,” it implored.

To review: “free,” “really free,” “really open,” “free school”… The list of freebies could be extended indefinitely.

Does being free entail being good? And with respect to goods, are they ever really free? Or do we fantasize, in our heart of hearts, about having without contributing, about living without working, about taking without receiving, using without providing, possessing without giving?

I don’t want free because I don’t care for free. I want beautiful, true, and good; I want these life-raisers.

And why “radical,” that old, dull, boring 60s discourse of uprooting and deracinating? For how long must we be held in the grips of the discourse of anti-statism and anti-corporatism? Isn’t this discourse–shall I call it “discursive hegemony”–the very product of a university education? Aren’t we tired of the language game of “subversion” and “resistance” and “diversity” and “inclusion” and “power” and “subversion” and “diversity” and “exclusion”?  And aren’t we weary of the long shadow cast by the university over our vocabulary? To be held to the discourse of social injustice for all eternity? Is that to be our fate? Or could we learn to think better, learn to live wiser?

When will we say something in our own words for once? And when will we come to ourselves? When, indeed, will we let go of what ails us and cast our eyes toward what aids us? Can we flourish–and how? Can we redeem ourselves–well, can we try?

Why did we become so infatuated with insurrection? Aren’t you tired of this, my friend? Isn’t this wearying, enervating, inflicting? Doesn’t it end, as do all things repeated, not in chant or farce but in tedium? I’m exhausted by the tedium. I can’t read one more word of Beckett. No, not one.

And when we will start to build institutions based on conceptions of higher goods? When will we start to formulate a curriculum whose aim is not to maximize the field of infinite choice–the marketplace! the marketplace! oh access! supreme access!–but in achieving our ultimate aims? When will education be about guiding, leading forth, bringing out, actualizing the potentialities in the young?

It is not the dissatisfaction of the disaffected that I question; it is neither their displeasure nor their desire. It is the direction in which the radically radically radically free are headed, that directionless direction, that path to fixation. It is the assumption that freedom is the highest good; that learning takes place as a self-guided activity. It is the desire to meet at a coffee shop and not to pay for the lights or the coffee–to love the volunteer workers. It is the loss of true guidance in a world of strangers and madmen. It is the need for tutoring and judgment, for tutoring in judgment. It is the desire to sit with Pindar and to see that human excellence can only be raised up “among men wise and just,” only then raised up “to the liquid sky.”

At dusk, this radicalism may turn out to be bad economics by another name. Yet on the other side of radical education lies wisdom.

And Zarathustra said, “And I myself – do I want therefore to be the accuser of mankind?”


“Oh nausea! Nausea! Nausea!” Zarathustra sighed and shuddered because he remembered his sickness. But his animals did not allow him to continue.

“Speak no more, you convalescent!” – answered his animals. “Rather go outside where the world awaits you like a garden….”