By Josiah Helms
Patrick Henry College
Visiting speaker Dr. Richard Gamble and Dr. Libby, PHC Professor of Literature
In his lecture, entitled “What Do We Owe the Great Tradition?”, Dr. Gamble quoted Albert Jay Nock to explain a proper attitude toward the classics: “Our devotion, our integrity of purpose, our strictness of conscience, are not exercised in behalf of the Great Tradition, but in our own behalf.”
Gamble supported his commitment to the Great Tradition by first addressing its primary nemesis: a utilitarian mindset imbued with “… a hierarchy of values so different from your own that you won’t be able to argue with each other.” Today’s modern educational establishment, Gamble said, pivots on the notion that only disciplines immediately useful to students’ quest for gainful employment, personal fame and wealth are to be seriously pursued.
“It’s all about how clever I am in the new and improved present on my way to the even newer and more improved future,” he observed. “There is no way to prove the value of the classics to someone who does not first value what the classics offer. We cannot reason someone into loving liberal learning.” Sadly, he suggested, the notion of man’s “chief good” has been left in the dust, along with any care for the past.
Yet while Gamble conceded that ancient wisdom as expressed in the classical liberal arts has nominal utility within the experimental sciences, he disagreed with trendsetting English writer Sydney Smith, who in 1809 declared that we must show our “blackest ingratitude” to the past. Rather, Gamble said, “The kind of world we require as human beings requires a certain kind of education, an education that promotes healthy communities and instills within children the ‘old norms’ that once gave ballast to Western Civilization.”
Dr. Mark Mitchell, Director of PHC Political Theory Program, and Dr. Gamble
Looking back to the Oxford of 1809 as an entry point for the notion of the so-called template of “utility,” Dr. Gamble credited one-time “literary giant,” Sydney Smith, for birthing the modern tradition of “usefulness” as the only measure of dignity in intellectual labor. “[But] if you go about with a carpenter’s square that isn’t square,” Gamble responded, “then all that is straight in the world will appear crooked, and all true 90 degree angles will appear false.”
Ultimately, concluded Gamble, while the utilitarian camp takes pains to insist that they are the only ones who care about useful education, “all education is a means to an end.” Every teacher and student directs his labors toward ends, he said, even if that end be simply the delight of contemplating and enjoying something for what it is.
Which begs an enduring question: does one’s desired end lead toward enlightenment or servitude? “Do we aim to become more fully human,” Gamble asked, “or to become a more efficiently productive part of a machine?” It is a question that both agitated and excited the packed Town Hall audience.
Dr. Gene Edward Veith, provost at PHC, took delight in how Dr. Gamble’s theme resonated with the mission of Patrick Henry College. “It helped me to realize the agenda of the educational establishment that we are trying to be an alternative to,” he said, “which is based on the words of Sydney Smith, ‘We must forget, disown, and deny.’ It helped me pinpoint more clearly where we stand as an alternative to that.”
The PHC faculty has been studying Dr. Gamble’s book, The Great Tradition, as a guide to edit and refine the College’s core curriculum. The Great Tradition, published last year, is an anthology of what great writers throughout the centuries have said about classical education.
Many students considered the lecture as an epiphany of sorts. Junior Jonathan Horton, a political theory major, cited a line toward the end of Gamble’s lecture quoting the Jeffersonian Albert Jay Nock: “We can do nothing for the Great Tradition; our fidelity to it can do everything for us.”
“It took the burden off me to realize that this debate [between the Great Tradition and modernity] isn’t a losing battle,” Horton said. “While it’s important for my own sake to study this and to treasure this, I don’t have to feel like each generation makes or breaks it. The Great Tradition lives on, regardless of what we do with it.”
Dr. Gamble is an Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He is also a friend of Dr. Mark Mitchell, PHC Professor of Political Theory, who sat on the discussion panel answering questions with Drs. Gamble, Veith, and Libby (PHC professor of literature) after the lecture. In total, nearly 400 faculty, students, and alumni attended the lecture.