What’s a Teacher To Do?

At least one of the goals of eduacation must be to understand. That seems self-evident to me – bound up in the act of education itself. So I’m always intrigued and part of me is always puzzled by the antipathy among educators and parents for reading and thinking about profound and compelling ideas. American society seems to have a self-deluding concept of itself as being very practical. It’s hard to accept that when you read about how much time is spent watching television, playing video games, and piling up debt. In fact, American society is quite driven by immediacy. That isn’t practical; that’s just selfish and childish.

And that, in my opinion, is the real reason the vox populi doesn’t appreciate references to great literature, encounters with deep thinkers, and challenges to their children in school. The pretext is, “What will my children be able to do with this?” or, quite often more hypocritically, “Why should a Christian read pagan literature?” The real reason is, “I dont’ want to have to deal with the challenges you are introducing into my child’s mind; I don’t want to appear ignorant in his eyes; I resent the suggestion that my child can do better than I am doing.”

Financially, these are habits of poverty. Raise your children with these attitudes toward financial education and your children will live in the same poverty you live in. It’s the same intellectually and spiritually. When a parent undercuts his child’s development for fear the child will outgrow the parent, he has condemned the child to layers and layers of poverty.

That is what we are doing as an educational society. What we call school in America is an abomination and we need a prophet to expose it for what it is. The discussion led by Ken Myers to which I refered in yesterday’s post underscored this for me once again. Ken’s daughter was home schooled through high school and now attends William and Mary. One of the great jokes the Vox Populi plays on itself is the ridiculous and scurrilous suggestion that home schoolers risk not being well socialized (yet another of the abstractions that stands for an argument among contemporary opponents of common sense), as though learning to relate to your parents and to other people in small and humane groups somehow undercuts your development, while being age-segregated, broken into cliques, and treated like a number and a slave is better for your soul.

When Ken’s daughter arrived at William and Mary she was put in a dorm with a group of class presidents. She expected them to be interested in things worth thinking about, to be able to converse intelligently about a wide range of interests. In fact, she told Ken that they were unable to carry on a conversation for more than three minutes and that those conversations functioned at a very low level. My son David says such conversation is dominated by gossip because people simply don’t care about each other.

The most important thing a school teaches is the ability to communicate. The most important thing. There is nothing more important. The college transcript is a sin against the Divine Image in man if it looks impressive for a child who cannot communicate. If I can blow up Kurdistan, build bridges to span the Atlantic, create and then solve global warming, but cannot communicate, I am not educated. I am not human. I am a very sophisticated machine. But I am not human.

Communication is rooted in community. Knowledge is impossible outside of community. Being itself is an act of communion. When a school allows anything to displace the power of communication as its vital force and unifying principle, it has wandered from the path of wisdom.

And yet, every day, teachers in classical and Christian schools, not to mention state schools and vanilla private schools, strive to complete a curriculum that by its nature undercuts the child’s ability to communicate. We simply don’t have time to talk. Not with our neighbors, not with our teachers, not with our classmates. Not unless we are scheming to do something. We are the most schooled society in the history of the world, but we might be among the worst communicators and thinkers ever to walk the face of the planet.

But we can carry on with the illusion because we always have the news and print media putting a white wash of intelligence over the whole stinking sepulchre.

Please, parents, sit around your tables at home and talk to and listen to your children. Please, teachers and administrators, set aside the goal of appearing to educate your children by covering material that sinks in to the depth of a hair follicle. Replace it with the goal of really educating your students. Please talk about and listen to them as they discuss great ideas embodied in great texts and great works of art. Please engage them in a continual stream of Socratic discussions. The outcomes are not predictable, but at least they matter. At least they are real. At least they have an actual, practical point.

I know that this approach raises fears about standardized tests and other appearance based assessments. There is no need to fear. If you have the courage to actually educate a child, he will get into the college he needs to go to. College just isn’t that hard to get into. There are 1500 or more colleges in America and about 50 of the smaller ones (and maybe 3 or 4 of the larger ones) are pretty good. You only need one. And a child who can communicate will have a great shot at a good college.

The whole world changes when people talk to each other. Please do it.

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4 Responses

  1. There are different kinds of knowledge, including some that matter more than others. I believe that much knowledge might well lie ahead of us, but the supports of knowledge are crumbling around us. So I fear that science, seeking power instead of knowledge, has lost its spirit and will be led astray as a result. We’ll know more details, but have less knowledge.

    But knowledge of the soul matters infinitely more than knowledge of stars (which I love and adore). Shakespeare had that to a depth few living people attain and most of those who approach his were tutored by him.

  2. Keep in mind that when Shakespere was around he had a big vocabulary of 25,000 words. In today’s English language we have almost a million words. Many that describe things that Shakespere didn’t or couldn’t know.

    In 1600 when they looked in the heavens they saw a flat 2 dimensional. They had no concept of how far things really are. Beyond our sun the next star is about 6000 trillion miles. Now we have evidence of more than 300 million galaxies with more than 100 billion star in each.

    In 1600 most of what they thought about the physical world and how it works was wrong. There’s even a non-Newtonian branch of physics to deal with everything he didn’t understand.

    Did they have a clue that most of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy and that at the center of every galaxy is a super-massive black hole where time virtually stops?

    And of what we know today about everything is like a teaspoon of water in the ocean. I think true knowledge is ahead of us not back.

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for the reply. Of course things have changed, but it’s not a question of going back. It’s a question of what kind of world we are moving into.

    I would encourage you to read a little more about classical education’s history. Unlike today, in which enormous lip service is paid to educating the “non-elite” while very little intelligence is applied to going beyond the appearances, the Christian classical tradition has always made a priority of bringing people who had no resources into the so-called elite precisely by educating them.

    The differences today are many, but the fundamental one is that we no longer want anybody to be educated because we resent them knowing things we don’t. We are so opposed to elitism that we destroy every form of excellence.

    That is part of the reason why, with all our millions of readers and writers, we can’t produce a single Shakespeare.

    You may be right. If there had been 50,000 playwrights in 1600 we might never have heard of this middle class, hard-working country bumpkin who struggled his way through the Elizabethan theatre world to become the greatest playwright of the English language.

    But God had mercy on our souls.

    As for schools keeping up with the times, I would half agree with you. They haven’t kept up with the transition from the industrial to the information age. so they’ve fallen behind. But not by holding to a centuries old model of education. They’re clinging to a form of education that overthrew classical education with its love of industrial modes of production. But it’s really only about 100 years old, being the fruit of Dewey and the progressives.

    They have worked hard to produce people for the work force who need remediation. Classical education, on the other hand, prepared people for the work force for millenia. And it did it with brilliant and overwhelming effectiveness.

    That most education happens outside the schools is true today and quite an indictment of our schools. But it remains true that thinking is an art, that any art requires an apprenticeship, and that the classical school was an apprenticeship in thinking. That modern schools are so ineffective at their raison detre hardly argues against the schools they are at war with.

    Greek and Latin have never been more important than they are today. I have posted and will post on this many times, but would encourage you to read Francis Kelsey (ed.) Latin and Greek in American Education. It’s arguments remain compelling 96 years after the book was compiled.

    Thanks for your conversation!

  4. Things have changed and we’re not going back. Teaching Greek and Latin just doesn’t hold the same value any more especially now that we’re trying to educate everyone and not just the elite.

    What’s distroying the concept of great literature is that most of these works were selected when only a few people wrote or got published. With hundreds of thousands of really good authors the competition is fierce. I wonder if there had been 50,000 playwrights at the time if we would have ever heard of Shakespere.

    Because schools haven’t really kept up with the times and are still using a centuries old education model. Most education happens outside the schools. In fact, in the business community we always have to do a lot of remedial education because high schools and colleges really don’t prepare students to come to work ready to work.

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