Napoleon’s Tomb

A photo of Napoleon’s tomb

In my continuing effort to understand why great civilizations rise and fall, I recently finished a wonderful biography about Napoleon by Paul Johnson, a columnist for Forbes magazine and a prolific writer on social, cultural and economic matters around the world. My interest in reading about Napoleon began three years ago during my first visit to Paris. I had traveled to Europe on previous occasions but never to Paris. As we crossed the Seine on the way to our hotel near the Louvre, there, right in front of us, was Napoleon’s tomb. I was shocked and amazed. How could one of the most controversial figures in world history merit such a prominent and glorified place in French history?

Johnson’s biography helps us understand both Napoleon’s motives and his misplaced glory. I was intrigued to discover that raging forces swirled around Napoleon his entire life. Born in Corsica, he was raised in turbulence with few close relations. Many forces conspired to undo him: chronic distrust, significant self-indulgence, genius in some matters and impulsiveness in others. Of course, he is best known for his daring and magnificent military conquests. But in the midst of his victories, he failed to learn how to govern. He could last for a time, but he never developed the infrastructure that could ensure an enduring peace. Johnson suggests that many great military leaders suffer from this weakness: They know how to win the battle, and even the war, but often fail at nation building.

Earlier this year, I read another Johnson biography about Winston Churchill, who presents a striking contrast to Johnson’s thesis and Napoleon. Churchill enjoyed both military success and political acclaim. What made the difference? I offered my observation of Johnson’s statement and Churchill’s contrast to a British friend to discover why he thought Churchill emerged and behaved differently. One of his many comments struck me. He suggested that Parliament played an important part in creating the political and social stability a nation requires. I then began to reflect on our own nation, president and Congress, the importance of the rule of law, the role of the citizenry in a democracy, the place of education within this democracy, and my responsibilities at Westmont. I could make many observations about the strengths and challenges of our current political leadership, both the president and Congress, but spending time dissecting personalities and reviewing or prognosticating about trends and motives seems tiresome and unproductive. Instead, I began focusing on the critical need for an educated citizenry.

For the past 25 years, our education system has endured severe stress. Every level of education has been scrutinized. As one study after another has pinpointed yet another crisis, higher education has been challenged to justify its expense. In the midst of these debates, a temporary suspension of good judgment has prevailed. The many voices within our society characterize education as an easy thing, acquired simply by going to an iTunes Store, pressing the download key and waiting for the next product to arrive. Education isn’t easy. It’s rigorous—and it should be rigorous. Any degree program advertising itself as “quick to degree” doesn’t provide the time we need to develop good judgment. The caricature of “competence-based” learning versus time spent in class is overdone. Some subjects just require seat time. Others can be assessed by a competency exam. But we need reasons for our decisions based on evidence.

Studies just being released indicate that the experiences and resources required for the greatest amount of cognitive and emotional growth in a college education all take time: time spent with faculty, time conducting guided research, and time wrestling with great questions in the company of peers who inspire and motivate each other.  In a recent article on neuroscience and education, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio highlight the connections between emotion, social functioning and decision-making that help us understand the role of emotion not only in education but also in all of life. There is simply no quick and easy way to become a productive and contributing citizen or employee. We need time. We need guidance. We need opportunity. The title of their article is “We Feel, Therefore We Learn.” Their work is fascinating, and they strengthen their argument by applying neuroscience to the development of the whole person. In particular, they demonstrate the connections between morality, creativity, culture and society.

I admire their work in documenting and demonstrating the importance of all aspects of who we are to the learning process. So often we envision education as a transmission of intellectual knowledge between one mind and another. Yang and Damasio help us wrestle with and understand the multifaceted components of the human mind, brain and person that must be engaged if we are to be well educated. Of course this takes time, and it costs money. But civilization is at stake. Our moral duty as citizens should cause us to pause and ask whether or not we’re demanding enough of ourselves and others when we identify what we mean by an educated person. When we consider the importance of an educated citizenry that undergirds a functioning democracy, we realize the vital importance of a great education. It’s not only the best investment you can make for your own future, but the best investment you can insist on for creating the kind of citizens we need for a thriving democracy.

None of this diminishes the real and vexing problems of the cost, expense and debt burden on some students. We have to continue contending with the reality of the expense while making the case for a rigorous education and working to find ways to finance it. We must also face the reality that in seeking to find low-cost alternatives, we run the risk of imploding the very freedoms and values we cherish.

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