The Freedom to Fail

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In classical rhetoric, the divisio is the section of a persuasive speech that presents the division, the point at which the topic is divided into two opposing perspectives. Granted, many differences exist between traditional and modern education, yet where do the most fundamental of these divisions lie? What is the divisio when it comes to the topic (or “issue”) of education?

I believe that the major point of division lies in the concept of freedom, and moreover, in a certain aspect of freedom seldom considered: the freedom to fail.

In classical antiquity and in the Middle Ages, the artes liberales—what we call the “liberal arts”—were, translated literally, the “arts pertaining to (or befitting) a free man.” These seven arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) were not “arts” as we think of them today, but rather skills used to train a free man—skills that were thought worthy of a free man. They were geared toward the intellectual professions, and for general intellectual expansion. Furthermore, they engendered freedom for those immersed in their study. Yet what was entailed in this “freedom”? What did it mean to be a “free person”? The freedom a person acquired through immersion in the liberal arts was multi-faceted.

First, it involved the relational—it granted one the ability to engage in effective citizenship, to defend oneself in court, to debate in the public square, or, for some, to govern the polis. Second, this freedom involved the personal—it granted one the agency or power to rule oneself by means of the mind. As Marcus Aurelius would say, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” And third, it involved the fundamental importance and necessity of failure—it allowed one the freedom to fail.

But before we consider the value of failure in traditional education, let us consider Plato’s allegory of the soul from Phaedrus and the Republic. Plato says that just as each person has three components—mind, body, and soul—the soul itself can be divided into three parts. For Plato, this helps explain the process the soul undergoes on its path toward enlightenment, on its great journey heavenward to behold pure truth, the perfect world of the forms—to stand upon the “heaven which is above the heavens”:

There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul. The divine intelligence, being nurtured upon mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul which is capable of receiving the food proper to it, rejoices at beholding reality, and once more gazing upon truth, is replenished and made glad … In the revolution she beholds justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute …1

Plato’s tripartite image of the soul is a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. The charioteer represents reason, the rational part that must direct the soul toward truth and wisdom (body analogue: the head). The noble white horse on the right represents the will, the spirited part that loves honor, victory, and courage (body analogue: the heart). The homely black horse on the left represents the appetites, the lustful part that loves all the physical pleasures, such as gluttony, greed, and concupiscence (body analogue: the belly). Importantly though, neither horse is good or bad in and of itself. The black horse has the potential for virtue in temperance; just as the white horse has the potential for vice in anger and envy. So, then, the charioteer (mind/reason) must direct the two winged horses on their ascent, keeping each under control, moving in the same direction, and working in concert.

Traditional education, through its emphasis on the development of the intellect by means of the liberal arts, cultivated freedom in a most Platonic way: the free person rules himself; he is not enslaved by his passions. His ordered soul ascends heavenward to the realm of perfect truth and love. The head rules the belly through the heart; or said another way, reason rules the passions through the will.

The great division between traditional education and modern education lies in their respective relationships to failure. The former has always understood the necessity and value of failure. Traditional education seeks to align its function, purpose, and relationship to the gods (in classical antiquity) or God (in Western Christendom) and nature. The triadic concept of nature comprised human nature, the nature of learning, and the nature of reality. Crucially, both God and nature are objective standards. In traditional education, we aim to imitate, honor, and revere the nature of things. Yet we often fall short in our imitation of and reverence for both God and nature; and in this, we fail.

But we do not try to change or invalidate the objectivity of God or nature, as many in modern education do with their focus on the self as object, on the self as measurement—in a utilitarian or hedonistic process in which the end is pride, pleasure, or material success—evidenced by a child-centered pedagogy, lighter curriculum, and grade inflation. This is not freedom, but imprisonment, built upon self-deceit and a perversion of objective reality.

The great division between traditional education and modern education lies in their respective relationships to failure. The former has always understood the necessity and value of failure.

Failure remains a blessing because it gives us crucial glimpses of our distance from God and from nature. Since we innately seek order, harmony, and truth, we cannot help but continually attempt to harmonize our relationship to the objective. Failure, then, is nothing more than a telling calibration of the distance between our imperfection and God’s perfection, the part and the whole, the sinner and theosis (Christlikeness).

Failure liberates, just as confession and repentance do, by enabling us to once again see just who we are and who God is; by enabling us to see how far our language has fallen when we read Dickens or Bronte; by enabling us to know clearly whether we have mastered the forms of Latin, or not. Then, of course, we catch a flash of the actual nature of a thing, and treat it accordingly. When we fail, we see the objective shining in all of its ineffable sublimity; and by our nature we seek it, failure after failure. In this recognition, true freedom begins. As C. H. Cooley wisely said, “The liberated man is free to fail.”


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2016 edition.

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