"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

13 August 2007

Why We Teach

Richard Weaver, writing in Ideas Have Consequences in 1948:

"There is no difficulty in securing enough agreement for action on the point that education should serve the needs of the people. But all hinges on the interpretation of needs; if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, then education of the mind and passions will take precedence over all. [Weaver refers to a liberal arts education here, not particularly a religious education.] The growth of materialism, however, has made this a consideration remote and even incomprehensible to the majority. Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in this world have won a practically complete victory. Now if it were possible to arrive at a sufficiently philosophical conception of success, there would still remain room for idealistic goals, and attempts have been made to do something like it by defining in philosophical language what constitutes a free man. Yet the prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire enough wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic virtues. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires a reverence for good.

"In other words, it is precisely because we have lost our grasp of the nature of knowledge that we have nothing to educate with for the salvation of our order. Americans certainly cannot be reproached for failing to invest adequately in the hope that education would prove a redemption. They have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

"The formula of popular education has failed democracy because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and material goods without which there is no training in intellectual discipline. The spoiled-child psychology [. . .] has sought a royal road to learning. In this way, when even its institutions of learning serve primarily the ends of gross animal existence, its last recourse to order is destroyed by appetite."

One could certainly pen the same words today. Of course there are schools and teachers who understand education to be for more than material gain. But the prevailing philosophy remains the same as that which Weaver described six decades ago. Even colleges which hold to a higher ideal than material gain are every day making decisions about admissions, retention, curriculum, programs, etc. based on whether these will attract students who want to get a piece of paper to get a job, losing sight of their ideals not in the big picture but in the details -- but, of course, it is in the details where the battle for liberal education will be won or lost. As long as the bottom line -- for the college or for the students who attend it -- remains the primary concern (instead of a vision and enough trust in the Lord that He can make the vision reality), we will continue to lose the most important battle we are here to fight.

Meanwhile, those of us who still believe in the vision of a liberal arts education from a specifically Christian perspective are preparing to face another set of young people, many of whom have been spoiled by their culture into thinking college should be primarily lots of fun, leading to a high-paying job without much effort on their part. May we find ways to challenge them out of that cultural morass of lies into a world of deeper satisfactions through the discipline of mind that John Henry Newman calls for in The Idea of a University.


GrumpyTeacher1 said...

Can the element of sacrifice be imposed on students?

Probably not...

...but it's fun to think about.

alaiyo said...

Probably not. But, yes, it is fun to think about! (I expect you've been especially thinking about it for several days now . . .) :)