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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Our Splendid Ancient Heritage: WHAT IS TRUE EDUCATION?

With reference to the nature of formal education available of his day, Benjamin Franklin remarked, “much of the learning now in use is not of much use.” Similar laments could be heard from educated critics and reformers down to and including the present day. This is an old discussion, the debate between utility (relevance; a pragmatic education) and the “liberal” or humane education. In a way this debate is the leitmotiv for almost every educational debate from Plato and the Sophists, to Franklin and his more traditionalist contemporaries John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to Charles. W. Eliot and Irving Babbitt, to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Dewey and his ilk versus the traditionalists, perennialiats and, essentialists[1] right until our present day.
One cannot dismiss the utilitarian view entirely because one must be practical. Deborah Meier has written “What's wrong with demanding of Academics that they persuade us of their utility? Alas, when parents and average citizens applaud the importance of academic subjects it's generally because they misunderstand (confusing them with the 3 Rs), or because they fatalistically accept the proposition that it's a game that must be played in order to get a diploma, which in turn is a license to pursue utterly unacademic ends.”
Ms Meier is right here. For many people a diploma is just something one jumps through hoops to get at a lower level and then one 'buys' to gain a degree and a credential. Americans have many virtues -and traditionally among these has been good sense, civic virtue and generosity- but deep love and respect for "the academy" and higher culture are not among their virtues.
I teach in a high school and from time to time at college and know many university educated people; yet most of the time I hear the name of a college or university it is to speak of a sports team. I would say the ratio between speaking of sports teams and serious books is easily 1000 to 1. We admirers of books, poetry and classical music are almost a secret society. For many students in so far as the teacher stands before his pupils as a surrogate of the intellectual life of the mind and its 'rewards', he or she more often than not makes this life appear altogether unappealing. For most of our history teaching has been considered no better than a way station in life for a person of real ability and character. I myself have been told this dozens if not hundreds of times. But this does not disturb me as much as watching the hundreds of high-quality hard covered classics discarded. These are quality editions that were made to last 50 or 100 years. But someone has to make way I suppose for The Bluest Eye. I do my best to rescue them -Cervantes, Homer, Dickens, Boorstin, Hemingway, Twain-and see that they find good homes. I find they make excellent gifts to talented adult aides and ambitious students. There is much waste in American education. Frugality is not I have noticed a high virtue. Americans think if they spend money and 'renew' a curriculum they will have a 'better' product. That is why they are enamored with the 'fad of the year.'
One must lead a balanced life; “a sound mind in a sound body.[2]” One also must know how to manage one’s personal affairs and household. One must pay the bills, clean the laundry and ‘keep the wolf from the door’ and be prepared to compete in today’s society. One ought not to be completely helpless in the physical world. I am impressed by a school principal who sets up a generator, makes minor repairs on his car or who fixes a light switch for a teacher. I am impressed by the man or woman who can keep a kitchen spotlessly clean and prepare healthy and tasty meals in an economical fashion. The world needs handy and versatile people.
I always tell my students there are TWO educations:The first education is the practical one we all need that teaches us what we need to make a living -most of us have to make a living. To make a good living one must have a lot of youthful energy and courage or have some kind of expertise. This is why I took carpentry in high school. This is why I worked summers in construction. The experience I gained and the skills I gained were as important as the money perhaps more so. This is why I took a course in keyboarding or typewriting as it was called them. This is why I took a course on accounting and how to read financial statements. This is why I worked in a bank for five yeas learning in the process much about credit and customer service. This is why my father encouraged me to get a Spanish credential as well as an English and history credential rather than spending precious tuition dollars on subjects which I loved but were bound to lead to unemployment. It was expensive to get a formal education and one had limited time and resources. I was never discouraged from independent reading or study but I was taught that we lived in an age of credentialism. If one did not have a teacher’s certificate or an academic transcript to PROVE one knew this then as far as society was concerned one did not know things.
Because I have been practical I have spent most of my life gainfully employed and to do so I have had to pick up stakes move several times. Because I am frugal I have not had expensive brand-new cars but usually buy new-used cars at a discount. My goal is always to have at least one free and clear car. Never in my entire life have I had two car payments. I have preferred to save SOMETHING. “Never spend your bottom dollar” was what I was taught and I believe this is sensible advice.
But materialism is not enough. There are other things which really are of far more lasting value and satisfaction. My wife and I have contributed to Children International for many years and have the great joy and satisfaction to know we are helping others who have very little who still seem ,despite everything, to bubble over with joy and gratitude. Burns understood this sentiment and said that the poor were ‘contented wi’ little but cantie wi’ mair.” Yes, materialism is not enough. If we are to retain our freedom and our national unity we must have broadly educated informed citizens who care about the common good. I daresay , if we are to have the moral fiber to withstand economic downturns or even –God forbid- an economic collapse we must have other than material resources to fall back upon.
Isaac Kandel, another of the "forgotten heroes" made his "Address at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University" in 1940. In this age of terror this address is very timely. In it Kandel calls for an educational philosophy with integrity based on deep gratitude for the practical wisdom, Natural Rights philosophy of the Founders as well as the true roots of the "dignity of the individual", America's Judeo-Christian heritage. Only by recurring to fundamental principles, Kandel believed, could we hope to preserve our free society. Kandel wrote "The basic principles of democracy are rooted in the religious traditions of Jew and Christian alike." "Man ....cannot live on negation...he needs values that have stood the test of time." "Education, true education, should liberate” it should cultivate the genuinely free man, the man of moral judgment, of intellectual integrity.....intolerance and hatred are the foundations of the new [ totalitarian] ideologies Love thy neighbor as thyself is the injunction of the Hebrew prophets and of the Golden Rule." Kandel was a strong traditionalist, he wrote: "It is foolish to except a child to grow up in a right social direction along the lines of his own felt wants as it is to expect a man to find his way in unfamiliar territory without a map or a compass. Organized subject matter constitutes that map..." This is what Kandel said on low academic standards: "the harm done American education by the cult of...superficiality is incalculable." Kandel warned that the disunity in America could come again if we fail to provide an education "to inculcate faith in the ideals of democracy....without well-defined content, [there is]... inevitably... a negation of ideals and faith... a repudiation of the inherited forms of culture and of humanity without which the surface changes in the stream of life are mistaken for the waves of the future." According to Kandel, an important aim in education throughout history is the ideal of character formation. Kandel writes: "with the declining influence of religious institutions....with the extension of mass media...the task of character formation becomes more and more difficult... all these conflicting influences may be added a certain relaxation of standards, both intellectual and disciplinary...the 'get by' attitude."
The second education we need is the other education, the “true education” that which teaches us how to live our lives more fully by teaching us to think AND to appreciate ‘the Good Life” or what the Gael would call “ar dualchais airidh” or “our splendid ancient heritage” which the Gael or Jew know is the source of much wisdom as well as pride and joy. If you have a disastrous history you are not apt to take for granted your current prosperity, safety and independence. This is a wisdom that I see among immigrant Cubans, Poles, Estonians, Jews, the Irish and the Scots but unfortunately many fellow Americans. Too many of my countrymen live in a state of perpetual naiveté. They live or perhaps I should say “party on” as if they are good to be young, free and rich forever. We must face firmly towards the future but it is a tragic mistake to forget or lose our link to the past, in my opinion.
A liberal education, at its best, is the most practical and adaptive education a man can get. Why? For one reason, a classical education based on a broad based education of mathematics, history, literature, music and great culture languages is a very hard and challenging curriculum. It is calisthenics or gymnastics for the mind. The liberal education sharpens the mind and prepares it for greater and more original tasks. Second, a liberal education is important because we don’t know what challenges or question we may face in our lives.[3] We will be challenged by new problems and situations, new crises. The mere training of today may soon be obsolete. Our language of which we are so proud and so certain of its utility and greatness could be subjugated dispersed and pushed to the fringes of isolated mountain communities in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Cascades or the Rockies.
But the educated man can respond and survive by adapting to the new situation through force of will and intellect. Though he may be the very last of the learned ones of the English-speaking tradition like he lonely genius John Scotus Eriugenus (John the Gael from Ireland) he could translate the classics to the tongue of the conquerors and pass the tradition and the hopes of Locke, Adam Smith, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, The Roosevelts and Churchill. The third reason is ,as Cicero famously said, is that literature, the humanities or liberal arts “hinder not.” They are, indeed a great ornament and a great comfort. They are the key to a happy and satisfying life.
I have been an exile as my father was before me and my grandparents before him. They were all immigrants and naturalized Americans. I was never a prisoner in a jail with bars nor a Nazi POW like Captain Patrick Munro[4] nor a prisoner of the Gulag like Alexander Solzhenitsyn nor a survivor of the Holocaust like Victor Frankl the author of Man’s Quest for Meaning. I was spared such personal misfortunes. I was spared war time active service.
But I was still an exile. I lived far from the centers of power, far from the centers of learning, far from all my friends and family and loved ones. Often not a single person knew my name nor spoke my native tongue. But I was never bored nor without hope because I had a strong faith and I continued to educate myself through the medium of books. If I did not have many books I re-read and studied old books and good books. If I did not have books I remembered quotations, Bible verses, sonnets and songs and poems I had memorized. Even when I was unloading railcars of 50 Lb bags of Owens-Corning Fiberglas or digging trenches with an e-tool 100 feet long and three feet wide in the dark under floors of Yesler Terrace (Seattle), I carried with me the thoughts and the beauty and the wisdom of the classics.
Yes, I lived on the fringe of the English-speaking world, on the fringe of middle-class comfortable America, I had no phone, no TV no bank account, no credit cards, just a P.O. Box, and only the cash I had on me. At times I was virtually homeless except for my 1973 Chrysler with 200,000 miles on it. But I was happy, hopeful and content because I was a free man. As my teachers from Salamanca and Havana taught me, looking back into their classical republican past, sólo los instruidos son libres only the educated are free. This is of course a saying attributed to Epictetus the Stoic philosopher.
If a man has this peace—not the peace proclaimed by Cæsar (how indeed should he have it to proclaim?), nay, but the peace proclaimed by God through reason, will not that suffice him when alone, when he beholds and reflects:—Now can no evil happen unto me; for me there is no robber, for me no earthquake; all things are full of peace, full of tranquility neither highway nor city nor gathering of men, neither neighbor nor comrade can do me hurt. Another supplies my food, whose care it is; another my raiment; another hath given me perceptions of sense and primary conceptions. And when He supplies my necessities no more, it is that He is sounding the retreat, that He hath opened the door, and is saying to thee, Come!—Wither? To nought that thou needest fear, but to the friendly kindred elements whence thou didst spring. Whatsoever of fire is in thee, unto fire shall return; whatsoever of earth, unto earth; of spirit, unto spirit; of water, unto water. There is no Hades, no fabled rivers of Sighs, of Lamentation, or of Fire: but all things are full of Beings spiritual and divine. With thoughts like these, beholding the Sun, Moon, and Stars, enjoying earth and sea, a man is neither helpless nor alone! [5]

Because of my education I knew America it is why I went West –it was why I returned for brief sojourns in the East and South. Because of my education. I was able to have hope and adapt even under great difficulties that would have discouraged a lesser man who pegged his worth to mere instrumentalism and material things. As Burns said “Rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for all that.” Jefferson knew this when he said intellectual pleasures were ‘inestimable” because they could never be taken away and they are a guide to your and a comfort even in old age!
The forth and final reason why a liberal education is essential is because history, literature and the humanities in general makes you wise.[6] This is what Plato meant when he quoted his old teacher Socrates who said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We are homo sapiens, the knowing creature, because of our wisdom, not our strength. And it is only the truth and wisdom that will set us free and keep us strong as individuals, as families and as a nation. A people without wisdom –without a strong culture- without a strong memory and strong values- will come to ruin.

[1] The most interesting and influential of the 20th and early 21st century are Isaac Kandel, William Bagley, Jacques Barzun, Gilbert Highet, Allan Bloom, E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch.
[2] From Juvenal Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body) Satire X. It is highly likely that this is paraphrase or translation from Greek philosophy. Gilbert Highet, Jonathan Barnes and Werner Jaeger and others have noted that the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (Θαλῆς ὁ Μιλήσιος, ca. 624 BC–ca. 546) said,” The most happy man is he who is sound in health moderate in fortune and ,and cultivated in mind {or “of a readily teachable nature” ) or “Who is happy? One who has a healthy body, a well-stocked soul and a cultivated nature.”
ὁ τὸ μὲν σῶμα ὑγιής, τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν εὔπορος, τὴν δὲ φύσιν εὐπαίδευτος Ho to men sôma hygiês, tên de psykhên euporos, tên de fysin eupaideutos . See The Oxford Companion to the Mind Richard Langton Gregory, Oliver Louis Zangwill Oxford University Press, 1987 p.744. ALSO Early GreekPhilosophy by John Burnet, 3rd edition (1920). London: A & C Black Ltd. See also p16 Early Greek Philosophy, Jonathan Barnes, Penguin Books, 1987.

[3] Who could have predicted 9/11 or the Iraq War?
[4] (Captured at Dunkirk June 1940;he and his comrades of the 51st Highland Division fought for ten days after the evacuation). I met him and his mother Mrs. Gasgoyne in July 1967 at his home in Evanton, Scotland when I was a young boy.
[5] Golden Sayings of Epictetus CLXXXVIII
[6] Or at least one hopes so!

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