When speaking of the proper care for the natural world, the word that best describes our efforts is stewardship. Stewards are care-takers. They lovingly guide, protect, and cultivate that which is under their care. In the language of stewardship the concepts of indebtedness, gratitude, love, and responsibility all find their proper places. But it is not only in the context of the natural world that the concept of stewardship has meaning. When we examine the topic of liberal education the idea of stewardship is indispensable. For as inheritors of a civilization, we are its stewards. And because the gifts of civilization are tender plants requiring constant nourishment, our task as stewards requires perseverance, courage, and, ultimately, faith that succeeding generations will take up the mantle when we are no longer able to bear it.
It is, in the end, impossible seriously to engage the great tradition without cultivating the habit (or is it the art?) of attention. Tocqueville notes that the habit of inattention is the greatest vice of democracy. This vice is exponentially more pervasive in an age where email, text messaging, Tweets, and YouTube are only a click away. Learning to attend carefully is, perhaps, one of our culture’s greatest needs. Paying attention requires self-control. We must learn to listen before we speak and think before we act. These habits are essential for self-government.
But with all this, there is at the heart of much writing about liberal education a sort of cosmopolitan temptation that, ultimately, does a disservice to the concept of stewardship. When proponents of liberal education describe it as the attempt to grasp the whole, they are partially right, but if we do not continue with the acknowledgment that the whole is grasped via particulars and that, as human creatures, we necessarily inhabit only a small and particular part of the whole, we are missing something crucial.
If a liberal education teaches a person to love abstraction, to relish the exchange of universal ideas of justice, charity, and beauty, yet to be inattentive to the neighbor down the street or the beauty of a well-tended garden, then something has gone wrong. Such an education is suited to abstract beings who naturally belong in no particular place and have none of the senses by which particular beauty or empathy can be experienced. Such an education is, in other words, not fit for human beings.
In other words, a liberal education should teach students how to be human beings and how to live in some particular place. If a course of education cultivates a hatred for home, it has failed. If it cultivates a dissatisfaction with the local, particular, and the provincial in favor of distant, abstract places where cosmopolitanism drowns out the loveliness and uniqueness of local customs, practices, stories, and songs, then the education has failed. To be well-educated is to be educated to live well in a particular place. It is to acknowledge the creatureliness of one’s existence and thereby to recognize our many debts of gratitude and the scale proper to a human life. A successful liberal education cultivates stewards who are disposed to love their places and who are equipped to tend them well.
“The foundations of democratic respect are, for Dewey, a certain way of experiencing everything, not an exclusive and abstract regard for human rights or justice that is independent of nature. For the truly democratic character, ‘every existence deserving the name of existence has something unique and irreplaceable about it.’ This is the sort of natural piety that Dewey hoped for as a consequence of abolishing hierarchical ways of looking at the world.”
[quoting Dewey] “…the local is the ultimate universal, and as near an absolute as exists.”
“…a warning against taking the usual abstractions about democratic society as antecedent to the unique, direct, and qualitative relations people hold with each other in situations. It would be more accurate to say that a democratic society is one that is composed of democratic associations than to say that a democratic association is one that exists because of a democratic society.”
“…it is through and by the local that I can acquire this sense of connection with what is beyond it…Democracy must grow from within, that is, from what is local, spontaneous, voluntary, and direct. This includes neighborhood, family, classroom, workplace, and grass-roots movements…we must avoid sacrificing the quality of what is had locally merely for the sake of reach [emphasis mine].”
“Genuine listening, especially of those who speak against our beliefs, does more on behalf of participatory democracy than voting.”
“Local communities must be sustained by loyalty and solidarity while also remaining receptive to continuities within the larger context of a pluralistic society.”