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University of Montana campus, Missoula

University of Montana campus

As a general election looms, candidates insist that we must reclaim the values central to our democracy. This is where the majority wins: and that’s the problem.

It was Plato who first grasped this crippling flaw of the very idea of democracy. Consider: it would be a fool’s mission were we to undertake a national majority polling as we seek training in order to become an engineer, pianist or mason. Rather, we want, we need, guidance from experts, not an uninformed majority. Plato saw clearly that statesmanship was no exception. (No, being an elite brain surgeon is not a qualification for statesmanship, or vice-versa.) Only a very small minority will possess the expertise — the knowledge — required to guide another — or a nation — to excellence.

Plato’s solution was to solicit guidance from those who have dedicated their lives to the acquisition of the deep wisdom required for statesmanship. While Plato was mistaken that such dedication guaranteed success, he was correct to insist that it was necessary. And so the fundamental crisis of democracy is traceable to an endangered species: an education spearheaded by philosophy, humanities and the liberal arts — topics which extend far beyond the scope of the sciences.

For instance, if our leaders should aspire to enact national and foreign policies which are just, we must first know what justice is. Precisely what is moral obligation? What is it, if anything, that is intrinsically worthy of our allegiance? How can we know? What exactly is human virtue or the good life for humans? Do we have moral obligations to non-human animals and to the environment? How can we know? How are virtue and statesmanship conceptually compatible with the life that demands, not knowledge, but faith?

Within our mechanistic universe, are we really free and responsible for our choices? How so? Here again, science is silent. Can we fathom the moral challenges wrought by allegiance to a free market economy? And life-skills training? If we are oblivious to the arts, we will likely raise our children with an eye to sports and job preparation as we proudly but uncomprehendingly exercise our democratic right to weigh in on the most vital issues of our times.

Mindless of the toil, missteps and genius that punctuate philosophical contributions to statesmanship, we will also miss the delights of Homer, Euripides, Shakespeare, Dante, Blake, Douglass and contemporary offerings. Thus, we’ll also fail to learn from them. Unnourished by the stunning insights of biblical literature, we will surrender these to encroaching theological traditions. We will not experience the disclosive power of poetry and the fine arts. Past guidance will elude us as we strive to negotiate the thorny issues of feminism, slavery, racism, health-care, gun control, climate change, etc. The eloquence of literature and power of philosophical cogency will be eclipsed in favor of entrenched mantras.

Unlike Sunday school, true education is not indoctrination. The honest inquirer is liberated with fresh insights, energized latent sensibilities, and supplied with the means by which to scrutinize and adjudicate unquestioned assumptions and commitments. It negotiates the perilous path to the wisdom which informs true statesmanship.

Yes, the majority will occasionally get it right; but absent a lock-down justification anchored in knowledge rather than mere opinion, this emotionally charged pendulum will continue its dramatic swings from left to right. Like Plato’s majority, we’ll remain unwittingly victimized.

As we strive for an informed majority competent to address issues of leadership, the most fundamental contribution the University of Montana can offer is to warmly embrace the essential commitment of becoming a vibrant liberal arts university.

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David K. Clark is a retired University of Montana philosophy and humanities professor. His most recent book is "Atheism, Morality, and the Kingdom of God." 

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