George Eliot: A Tribute

I have been a reader since I was in short pants, as they say. It began with “Boy’s Life” and books about young detectives who solved impossible cases. It is a passion, I admit, perhaps even an addiction. But it has opened a world to me that would have otherwise have remained closed.

In any event, I do believe that George Eliot is the best writer of the many I have read and she is almost certainly one of he wisest of writers who ever set pen to paper (remember when writing was about pens and paper?). And the list of wise writers and thinkers is long and includes the many philosophers I have read and such great novelists as Joseph Conrad, Wallace Stegner, R.K. Narayan, Yasunari Kawabata, and Edith Wharton. Eliot is the best of the lot.

I am currently re-reading (for the third or fourth time) Felix Holt: The Radical which is about the struggles in England at the end of the nineteenth century with the issue of suffrage: should all people be granted the vote or only the few who are presumed to know? Eliot suggests that the answer lies in the hope that all can know, that knowledge can be expanded along with the vote. But she knows full well that Democracy is predicated on an educated electorate. She always gets her teeth deep into an issue and masticates it until it is easily digested. Those who know her only from Silas Marner do not know the writer at all. That is her most popular novel, but it is also her lightest. Her other novels deal with serious topics and none is more serious than the topic addressed in Felix Holt. And timely, given deep questions about whether or not our electorate is intelligent and well-educated enough to vote for the best person — given recent elections.

Felix Holt is a well-educated, liberal thinker who has chosen to throw in his lot with those who are less fortunate than himself. He works at a menial job and rubs elbows with those who are disenfranchised and worries with them about how their country is to be run. In a lengthy speech he delivers to his “fellow workmen,” Felix reveals the author’s wisdom in his own pithy observations about things as they are and things as they ought to be. To take just a few examples:

“. . .a society, a nation is held together . . . by the dependence of men on each other and the sense they have of common interest in preventing injury.”

“. . .any large body of men is likely to have more of stupidity, narrowness , and greed than of farsightedness and generosity, [thus] it is plain that the number who resist unfairness and injury are in danger of becoming injurious in their turn. . . . the highest interest of mankind must at last be a common and not a divided interest. . .”

“No men will get any sort of power without being in danger of wanting more than their right share.”

“Now changes can only be good in proportion as they put knowledge in the place of ignorance and fellow-feeling in place of selfishness. . . . . Our getting the franchise will greatly hasten that good end in proportion only as every one of us has the knowledge, the foresight, the conscience, that will make him well-judging and scrupulous in his use of it.”

“Those precious benefits form a chief part of what I might call the common estate of society: a wealth over and above buildings, machinery, produce, shipping, and so on, though closely connected with these; a wealth of a more delicate kind, that we may more unconsciously bring into danger, doing harm and not knowing that we do it. I mean that treasure of knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling, and manners, great memories and the interpretation of great records, which is carried on from the minds of one generation to the minds of another. . . . let us watch carefully lest we do anything to lessen this treasure which is held in the minds of men, while we exert ourselves first of all, and to the very utmost, that we and our children may share in all its benefits; exert ourselves to the utmost to break the yoke of ignorance.”

“To discern between the evils that energy can remove and the evils that patience must bear, makes the difference between manliness and childishness, between good sense and folly”

At a time when we struggle with the problems generated by foolish politicians and blind leaders who lead a population of diffident followers busily going about seeking pleasure while finding reasons why they should not bother to become involved in the running of a democracy that demands their attention and their best energy, a time when education has fallen to the ground and is in danger of being trampled upon and reduced to training young minds to become abject followers, the words of a wise woman writing over a century ago have the ring of truth — a truth that has also been lost in the forest of bloat and rhetoric flowing from the mouths of self-interested politicians who only care about being reelected. We can do no better than to stop and think about those things that George Eliot thought about and weigh carefully what she had to tell us.

If the experiment in universal suffrage can ever succeed, it demands an educated electorate — at least one intelligent enough to separate the worthy from the unworthy.


12 thoughts on “George Eliot: A Tribute

  1. Hugh, well done. I love the passages you framed your post with. She was quite observant and insightful. My wife and I have been watching “Poldark” on PBS. What you wrote jives with an observation the protagonist makes about Parliament. Men in leadership had a market for their products outside of England, so they cared less that people were suffering on their shores and could not afford the prices of such products. These men increased their wealth and power and did not care about the plight of others. Keith

  2. ‘ No men will get any sort of power without being in danger of wanting more than their right share ‘ it certainly sums up human nature which is with us all like it or not . I must read this one which seems to be about politics and very relevant just now. I did read Silas Marner , Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss , I found Marner the best although Middlemarch is considered by the experts to be her master piece .
    Mill on the Floss seemed a very long read which I found difficult.
    Silas Marner is so compact yet full to the brim with moral truth ; it’s a bit like comparing Dickens Christmas Carol to Bleak House another long long read. The wonderful thing about Silas is his redemption from hopelessness to a life of meaning , strangely not by his own efforts but a combination of circumstances and human interaction.

  3. Democracy and Education

    Again, Dr. Curtler has raised an important issue. As Eliot points out, and as Dr. Curtler has repeatedly affirmed, a democracy depends upon an educated, if not enlightened, citizenry. In its best forms, democracy produces such citizens.

    Much depends, however, upon how one defines the terms “democracy” and “education” at the outset. Yet, however one defines those terms, the relationship between democracy and education is crucial.

    Do we define democracy as a form of government wherein citizens have the occasional opportunity to vote for candidates, they have had no influence in choosing in the first place? Or is democracy much more than that? Do we define education as an accumulation of credit hours across a range of practically usseful courses? Or is education much more than that?

    Democracy can be defined simply as having the opportunity to vote, or it can be defined as engaged, inclusive, rational citizenship, which includes but goes beyond simply voting. Education can be defined simply as training or it can be defined as a process of increasingly autonomous enlightenment, recognizing that the latter includes and transcends the former.

    Learning the basic skills of speech, literacy and numeracy requires a good deal of memorization and repeated practice. Learning to think clearly, learning to examine arguments and claims carefully, learning to weigh the pros and cons of an issue, learning to examine the values and interests that underlay the issues, now that is something altogether different. Education yes, but far closer to enlightenment – self-disciplined, autonomous thinking.

    From an analytical viewpoint, democracy and education can be looked at as logical categories using the simple definitions of “Democracy” and “Education” presented above. Allow me to pursue this a bit further.

    With the terms “Democracy” and “Education” defined in binary form, for purposes of simplicity, one can lay out four possible combinations of these terms, as in Chart 1 below. With this chart, I analyze the possible relations between democracy and education.

    In so doing, I underscore the import of Dr. Curtler’s longstanding critique of contemporary education and his advocacy of engaged and enlightened citizenship based upon it. (For example, see Recalling Education, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2001, as well as previous blog comments on this site.)



    Democracy as the Democracy as
    Opportunity to Vote Engaged Citizenship
    EDUCATION _________________________________________________

    Education as Training I II

    Education as Enlightenment III IV


    For purposes of this comment, I argue that the conditions represented in these four quadrants represent conditions wherein the state of democracy and the state of education have an elective affinity (Max Weber’s term) toward one another, that is, these conditions have both a logical and a cultural tendency to connect to one another.

    QUADRANT I: Here one sees education reduced to training and a minimal development of the higher-order mental faculties. This amounts to a pedagogical disengagement of the mind. “Schooling”, as it were. This is entirely compatible with and contributes to a political system where democracy, too, is defined in its most minimal terms, i.e., (most) people having the legal opportunity to vote and a general disinclination to participate further, if at all. This amounts to a complete disengagement from citizenship. A “mass” public; citizenship as membership.

    QUADRANT II: In the second quadrant, one sees a widely engaged sector of the populace without the educational foundations required to effective and responsible citizenship. This can quite easily be a form of populism that Jose Ortega y Gasset referred to as “the revolt of the masses”. Elsewhere in his blog Dr. Curtler has referred to this as “ressentiment”. Others have referred to this as the politics of outrage.

    QUADRANT III: Here one finds a circumstance wherein an enlightened population faces a political circumstance that disallows effective participation and citizenship, either to some or to all. This is a sector of the populace that is informed about and cares about the substance of social policies and the frameworks within which policies are formulated. There are often major differences between distinct elements of this category of professionally-educated and intellectually-oriented citizens, the most telling distinction being which groups within this category benefit from the prevailing system and which do not.

    If you consider a distinction between Business faculty and Humanities and Social Sciences faculty in university systems, you will have a sense of how this sometimes plays out in microcosm. More broadly, one sees differences between progressives, liberals, and conservatives in any category of professionals and intellectuals. Much depends upon the character of the education each has received in preparation for their careers, as well as upon the benefits they perceive and receive in their relative social positions.

    QUADRANT IV: This combination of enlightened education and engaged citizenship appears optimal, given the classical definitions of both education and citizenship. Here one finds thoughtful and informed citizens who feel duty bound to participate extensively in the political system. It is a feature of all modern democratic societies that this category of people represents a small slice of the populace. These citizens represent the conscience of both political and educational processes. They insistently call forth the better angels of our nature. They are the reformers, in the best sense, and the transformers, who often find that political compromises fall short of their ideals. Often, they are referred to by their critics as complete pains in the ass.

    The point is not complicated: Different kinds of education educe different kinds of democratic citizenship. Three things seem clear:

    (1) it is unlikely that a dutiful citizenship that is humane , inclusive, accountable and rational can be built upon an educational foundation that focuses upon training to the detriment of higher-order thinking. And a full democracy cannot abide a circumstance when only the children of the elite have access to a high-quality, formative, intellectually-challenging education.

    (2) The tendency in this society is toward minimal definitions of both education AND political participation. I argue that these two phenomena go hand in hand. Sporadic and short-term increases in participation aside, a more fulsome citizenship simply cannot be sustained by an educational system that increasingly approximates a corporate-industrial model of occupational training.

    (3) Participation is not the end-in-itself of democracy. It is entirely possible to have a highly engaged, poorly-educated populace that actively participates in the dissolution of democratic institutions and practices.One need not look far for examples.

    It is no accident that Dr. Curtler often speaks of both the value of good education and the results of its absence. Education and politics tend to mirror each other in substantial ways.

    That we live in a democratic society with an increasingly well-schooled populace AND that we have elected Donald J. Trump (“I love the poorly educated.”) to high office is more than sufficient reason to reconsider the relationship between democracy and education. This is what I have attempted here.

    Once again, I thank Dr. Curtler for raising an important issue and I thank all for their patience with this response.


    Jerry Stark

    • Forgive the formatting problems in the chart. It’s meaning is clarified in the discussion of the “quadrants” below the chart. It would appear I spent too much time taking and teaching social research methods courses and too little time learning how to format blog comments. 😎

    • Very thorough! As you note, I embrace the classical notion of education as the freeing of young minds, the acquisition of autonomy. This is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for a democracy to prevail. And by democracy, I mean a political system in which the demoi, the people, have the final say.

      • The classical notions of education and democracy are hard taskmasters, to be sure. I have long been interested in the social conditions that support or thwart each.

        There is a complex relationship between the two. Neither classical education nor democracy can exist without institutional and orghanizational frameworks to support them, Neither is a sufficient condition of the other. Neither is easly constrcuted. Neither is easily maintained.

        To a sad extent, the social spheres of classical education are shrinking everywhere; the same is true of the public sphere upon democracy depends.

        I know well enough not to predict the future, being more Hotspur than Gladstone, but I am not entirely hopeful about the future of either classical education or democracy. Increasingly, both seem to be regarded more as problems than as solutions.

        We will just have to keep on telling the truth, as best we see it, in hopes of shaming the devil.


  4. No doubts there: a great writer. With more time I would have loved to engage your thoughts here. Might come back to it, I’ll leave in in my ‘pending’ folder.

  5. I wanted to comment on your latest post, “Spectacle” but WordPress insists “that page can’t be found.”
    Anyway… quote: Just like Hitler. An apt comparison.

    • Sorry about that. I trashed the post because I had promised myself and my wife that I would not go into the political waters again — they are too deep and muddy (and it raises my blood pressure!). I would have enjoyed your comment, I am sure.

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