October 08, 2008

Education and Custom

Francis Bacon's essay on Custom and Education is worth examining at length- particularly when education is so important, as Ashok argues, to politics and the formation of the statesman. Bacon's essay emphasizes the non-institutional factors which lead to the creation of a person. Bacon was himself a politician of some distinction- Lord Chancellor under James I and VI- and an exceptionally learned man, not to mention one of the greatest essayists in English and an inspiration to amongst others, Thomas Hobbes. Bacon's thoughts therefore form part of the context in which we all live, and are worth listening to on their own.

Bacon's argument is that our education develops our facilities in different ways. He opens his essay by stating that

Men's thoughts are much according to their inclination: their discourse and speeches according to their learning and infused opinions; but their deeds are after as they have been accustomed.

The interesting thing about this statement is the way that Bacon divides the aptitudes of man and the impact of education. Though we may think in terms of our lusts and desires and the language of biologically inspired thought may be universal, our words are conditioned by what we know- and our deeds by what we are expected to do. One could argue that learning is a special kind of custom itself- or that custom is a kind of language in which we phrase our actions. Bacon's argument is fascinating- and has an obvious implication- that we cannot rely on institutional education to change the way that men act- we have to rely upon customs.

Bacon suggests therefore that if you really want a good society, you cannot do anything through politics. In modern times we overrate the power of politics, and yet as Bacon argues

commonwealths and good governments, do nourish virtue grown, but do not much mend the seeds.

Custom as Bacon argues impels men to act contrary to their reason- he cites Indians burning themselves to death, Spartans scourging themselves on the altar of Diana and not crying out in pain and Elizabethan Irishmen preferring a method of hanging. In all those three cases, we might suggest that convention impels men to take a foolish or a neutral choice. In a sense the choice to be educated is something that may not be maintained institutionally directly- it may be something that requires cultivating through convention and its generation.

This does not imply quietism- Bacon also cites Machiavelli in his essay and I think this is deliberate because it links to Machiavelli's analysis of the creation of virtu through good institutions. Essentially what Machiavelli implies is that structure can create a population who behaves in a certain way- the point that Bacon is making is that our direct inputs may not have hte effect that we want them to have. Man's magistrate is convention he tells us- it is worth thinking about how those conventions are formed, how they change and die.


James Higham said...

if you really want a good society, you cannot do anything through politics

Then again - what is politics?

James Higham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ashok said...

Thanks so much for the link! I'll be sure to return the favor soon, just struggling with an illness right now and working on some other issues.