Monday, September 04, 2017


Ancien Régime and Revolution

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945), Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943), pp. 85-86 (footnote omitted):
The revolution began with a drastic purge, a thorough guillotining of the classical curriculum, wherever found. Such Greek and Latin as escaped the Reign of Terror was left to die of inanition in dens and caves of the earth, such as the school and college I attended. The elective system came in as a substitute, proposing instruction in omni re scibili as its final consummation. During a visit to Germany, the president of Harvard, Mr. Eliot, had taken note that the elective system was working well in German universities, and he saw no reason why it should not work as well in an undergraduate college like Harvard, so he introduced it there. The country promptly carried his logic to its full length. If the thing was good for the university, good for the college, why not for the secondary school, why not for the primary school? Why not try a tentative dab at its being good for the kindergarten?—surely in a free democracy the free exercise of self-expression and the development of an untrammelled personality can hardly begin too young.

So the old régime's notion that education is in its nature selective, the peculium of a well-sifted élite, was swept away and replaced by the popular notion that everybody should go to school, college, university, and should have every facility afforded for studying anything that any one might choose.
Id., pp. 88-89:
The theory of the revolution was based on a flagrant popular perversion of the doctrines of equality and democracy. Above all things the mass-mind is most bitterly resentful of superiority. It will not tolerate the thought of an élite; and under a political system of universal suffrage, the mass-mind is enabled to make its antipathies prevail by sheer force of numbers. Under this system, as John Stuart Mill said, the test of a great mind is its power of agreement with the opinions of small minds; hence the intellectual tone of a society thus hamstrung is inevitably set by such opinions. In the prevalent popular view, therefore,—the view insisted upon and as far as possible enforced by the mass-men whom the masses instinctively cleave to and choose as leaders,—in this view the prime postulate of equality is that in the realm of the spirit as well as of the flesh, everybody is able to enjoy anything that anybody can enjoy; and the prime postulate of democracy is that there shall be nothing for anybody to enjoy that is not open for everybody to enjoy. An equalitarian and democratic regime must by consequence assume, tacitly or avowedly, that everybody is educable.

The theory of our régime was directly contrary to this. Our preceptors did not see that doctrines of equality and democracy had any footing in the premises. They did not pretend to believe that everybody is educable, for they knew, on the contrary, that very few are educable, very few indeed. They saw this as a fact in the order of nature, like the fact that few are six feet tall. Instead of regarding the thought of an élite with the mass-man's dogged, unintelligent, invincibly suspicious resentment, they accepted it as pointing to a fixture in nature's established order. They accepted the fact that there are practicable ranges of intellectual and spiritual experience which nature has opened to some and closed to others. They may or may not have wished that nature had managed otherwise, but saw quite clearly that she had not done so. There the fact was, and all that could be done about it was to take it as it stood. If any irrelevant doctrine of equality or democracy chose to set itself against the fact, so much the worse for the doctrine.

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