Thursday, July 24, 2008

The civilization that had to teach itself with its own books

The following is the text of my Letter from the Publisher in the new issue of The Classical Teacher:

I was talking with a couple of fellow teachers at an end of school party recently. One of them, a student at a local seminary, told me about a Greek professor at another prominent protestant seminary, the author of a widely used Greek textbook, who had gotten in a car accident and lost part of his memory. Among the various things this professor could no longer remember, ironically, was Greek. So, continued my friend, the man had gone back to try to relearn the language—using his own textbook.

What a fitting metaphor, I thought, for the plight we face in education today. As a civilization, we are the authors of a great and glorious educational tradition, one which took centuries, even millenia, to achieve. Yet here we sit, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, having forgotten what we knew, and having to relearn it from our own books. We have created a famine, to quote the Bard, “where abundance lies.”

Unlike the Greek professor who forgot Greek, however, our memory loss is self-inflicted. Our education establishment here in the United States spent the better part of the twentieth century throwing its heritage overboard in a mad rush to load up on the latest educational fads and gimmicks. And most of these innovations have themselves been discarded in their turn, only to give way to new ones equally transient.

No wonder the education reform ship never seems to get underway.

We can now look back on a long chronicle of failed attempts at “school reform,” very few of which have even attempted to take a prudent look at our cultural heritage for instruction and insight. We have attempted instead to “build bridges” to future centuries, only to find out, once there, that we had been going down the wrong road in the first place.

Wide is the gate and broad is the way that lead to educational destruction, and there are many who go in by it. But we don’t need to be looking for a bridge to a future century; in fact, we might learn more by taking a look back at past centuries to see what our educational institutions were doing right.

“Progress,” said C. S. Lewis.
means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
And one benefit we could gain from going back and getting on the right road, is the simple lesson of how much can be learned when on the right road. To put it another way, not only do we need to look to our past to find out the best way to educate children, but, in looking to our past, we will find out that looking to our past is the best way to educate children.

In going back to classical education, a system of education that reigned in Europe and America until the early twentieth century, but we will also not only realize that classical education is the best philosophy of education, we will realize that it is a system of education that values the past.

Russell Kirk famously said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” How, then, can we ignore them?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

MC: Russell Kirk famously said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” How, then, can we ignore them?

Russell Kirk, according to
“sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time.”

Some earlier references (what was that about needing to relearn from the past?)

1) The attribution to Bernard is due to John of Salisbury. In 1159, John wrote in his Metalogicon:

"Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size."

("Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea")

2) In his last letter to Hooke on the various issues involved, written in February 1676, Newton grandly acknowledged that Hooke had “added much in several ways,” to the science of light. And as for himself, “If I have seen futher iti s by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”

How sweet — but for that in that famously touchy age, the fact of Hooke’s modest height gave the conventional phrase a nasty edge both men could have recognized.