Freedom for Excellence: Restoring Ideals to the Education and Formation of Children

Do we wish to build a future of comfort and security for our children or do we aspire to shape them for a life of heroism, contemplation, service, and purpose beyond themselves?

In some way every life disappoints. Daily reports in the media remind us of the depravity and wickedness of which humans are capable. Selfishness and self-absorption characterize our lives. Spiritual torpor and moral ambivalence prevail. Noise and disorder sadly dominate our common spaces. It is all too easy to become depressed, jaded, cynical, tired. Ideals appear to be absent.

For most of us, life is lived as a quest for comfort and security. We wish not to be bothered by the smelly homeless person anymore than we can tolerate the annoyance and tiny inconveniences of bad service in a restaurant. We seem to have little moral or spiritual resources for patience much less heroic dedication to a cause or an ideal.

Despite these conditions we find thousands who dedicate their lives to the selfless, compassionate care of other human beings in hospitals and nursing homes, in homeless shelters and child care centers. Others give their lives to searching quests for truth in universities and schools, monasteries and temples. Still more can be found heroically and courageously fighting on behalf of the oppressed and the imprisoned. In short, saints, warriors, and contemplatives can still be found in spite of the wickedness, din, and ambivalence around us. Ideals and idealism refuse to die.

The question before us might be posed this way: do we wish to build a future of comfort and security for our children or do we aspire to shape them for a life of heroism, contemplation, service, and purpose beyond themselves? For some a life of comfort will suffice. There is much about comfort that is, well, comfortable. However, let’s assume that for many others a life in dedication to ideals is appealing for ourselves and for our children. It is within reach yet it is not the picture of the future that our education systems and broader culture offer our kids. We must, therefore, take it upon ourselves to form children for this life without any expectation of assistance from the ambient culture. What are we to do?

First, we must govern ourselves with a dedication to ideals of compassion, beauty, truth, and goodness. Dedication to an ideal requires discipline and effort, self-government and self-discipline. These words have largely fallen out of favor except when they refer to the self-discipline required to serve some sort of economic end. We should restore their attractiveness. Let’s encourage competition for ideals and virtues rather than for resume building summer activities, places at top colleges, the best internships, or socially respectable jobs, houses, or friendships. It is not necessary for our cultural tastemakers or politicians to act. We must act by restoring our own personal commitment to ideals and by then encouraging them in our children, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. This is a deeply democratic approach to the future that begins with our own agency!

For ourselves and for our children, freedom must be viewed as a “freedom for excellence” (moral and otherwise) not merely the absence of external constraints on our desires. Such a freedom for excellence demands the progressive formation of a child such that, in time, they develop the capacities to act with prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. The prevailing view of morality in our contemporary culture is rooted in minimalist freedom: if I don’t hurt you and you don’t hurt me or we both consent to doing whatever it is that we choose to do then no harm will come and no transgression will occur. Do we not want more from our children than that? Do we not want the next generation to be selfless and kind and good?

The Education of Achilles, Eugene Delacroix, 1798–1863. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Mark Edmundson in Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, observes that in the Iliad, Peleus, the father of the warrior Achilles, encourages his son to be the very best in the army, to take risks, and to achieve remarkable feats of great bravery. He applauds courage and daring, and does not cosset his son or encourage a soft life of comfort and pleasure. Years of battle form Achilles as a warrior with the capacity to act freely and courageously in performing heroic deeds. How many parents or caregivers today act, teach, and encourage as Peleus does? Are we forming the next generation for greatness? Are we building a future of excellence? Or are we forming our children for a life of possession, consumption, and desire fueled by the endless quest for more money, more sex, and more entertainment? The answers to these questions are the blank page upon which the future will be written.

I am deeply indebted to Mark Edmundson’s Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals and the work of Servais Pinckaers for inspiring this piece.