Monday, July 20, 2009

Have our schools abandoned our culture?

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

A bad ice storm hit our part of the country last February, and the weight of the ice brought by the storm was so great that many of the branches on the Bradford Pear trees along our driveway were torn off. We had to do some work cutting and stacking them near the road so they could be picked up by the county. My branches were still laying there in the culvert a couple of weeks after the storm when I was leaving my house on my way to church.

As I opened the window to let some of the warm spring air into my car, I looked down and noticed that the branches had blossoms all over them. There they were, welcoming the spring, apparently unaware that they had been severed from the trees.

It was a bittersweet sight: the white and pink blossoms were beautiful, but they would be the last flowers these branches would ever produce, since they had been cut off from the trees that sustained them.

Having been involved in education policy over the years, I still pay a lot of attention to the discussion about how to improve our schools. And one of the things I have noticed is that, amidst all the rhetoric about job skills and computer technology and school choice, very little is said about the chief problem with our education system, which has severed itself from the culture that produced it.

What is the chief problem? It is that schools have taken it upon themselves to change the very purpose of education. Historically, the chief purpose of our schools was to pass on a culture. Our schools are now about other things, like vocational training and political correctness.

But even if these things could be done well, and done in accordance with how we view the world, they still wouldn’t serve to do what schools are chiefly designed to do. Other than the family itself, there is only one institution in society that is uniquely qualified to pass on our civilization, and that is the school.

We are all the children of Western culture—that amalgum of beliefs and affections that informs our thoughts and actions. This body of knowledge and belief, which was the content of classical education, has its roots in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. It was not always consistent even with itself. Mortimer Adler often referred to it as the “Great Conversation”—a conversation in which the participants didn’t always agree.

But although there are many branches that go off in different directions, they have always been attached to the tree of Western culture. Even though there have always been disagreements about specific answers to questions about God, or human nature, or the natural world, there has always been a consensus about the questions, and how important they were.

It was this set of beliefs and attitudes that has allowed the West to accomplish the great achievements in art, and in literature, and in science. The Cathedral at Chartres, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, not to mention hospitals, charities, as well as the achievements of science which were fostered by a Christian belief in an orderly universe and the general value we place on human life—all of these things are the peculiar products of the Christian West. They are the blossoms on the various branches of our culture.

But as our schools abandon their original mission, and as they discard the very culture that produced these great things, they place us in danger of losing all that we have accomplished. Without the culture that sustained them, the branches may blossom for one more generation—or maybe two. But that is all.

Classical education has always been the vehicle by which we passed on this culture to the next generation. Bringing it back, as so many schools are now doing, will not only function as a way to prepare children to serve important roles in our world.

It could very well be the way to save it.


Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos, lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Martin Cothran said...


I do not normally allow advertisement posts on my blog, but this, of course, is pertinent to the post and something well worth making known.

I will also post this to the main blog. And thanks for all you do to keep the work of Dr. Adler alive.

Lee said...

Did he have a brother named Larry who played harmonica?

Just kidding. I own a set of Brittanica and the Great Book Series as well.

Larry was indeed a mean harmonica player, though.