Understanding the Educational Mess We're In

In Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus, the sine qua non of the educational transaction is identified as “an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence.” This conviction, and the double purpose of such excellence — knowledge of the subject to be learned and knowledge of the soul that digests the subject (thus relating the academic subject to the psychological subject) — has today been almost entirely forgotten or deliberately abandoned. The culture’s memory bank has been junked and students enter on their careers — such as may still be found in our diminished world — with only a small float in their cerebral registers, living on a reduced intellectual budget. Their connection with the legitimate culture, that is, with the memorial scope and vista of our history as a civilization, has been rudely and peremptorily aborted, and replaced by an instrumental modality of instruction that is grievously lacking in substance.

The attitude of our so-called “educators” toward their profession is perhaps best described in the paradoxical phrase coined by the Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the nefalios methi, or “abstemious intoxication”: “abstemious” because it eschews the plenitude of genuine teaching and knowledge-based scholarship, and “intoxication” because it is besotted by the reductive paradigm of instruction it has enthusiastically adopted.

This paradigm is instantly recognizable by the contents and procedures that dominate our public school classrooms: films galore, computer simulations, audio-visual devices, “testable competencies,” PowerPoint presentations, concept maps, information transfer, virtual whiteboards, expurgated texts, true-or-false exams demanding little in the way of written formulation of ideas, and so on. Teachers are trained to emphasize method, to prepare “instructional designs,” to focus on “techniques” of transmission, to valorize process instead of matter, to generate “lesson plans” rather than lessons — “That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” remarked the Gryphon in Alice in Wonderland, “because they lessen from day to day.” Meanwhile, since they are expected to be communicators rather than preceptors, teachers are regularly shunted around the curriculum and required to teach outside their disciplines — which, be it said, they have often failed to master owing to the institutional stress placed on tactics and delivery rather than on grist and corpus. Thus the poor geography teacher becomes a worse gym instructor.

Doubtlessly, the penchant for instrumental modes of teaching has been with us since time immemorial, but in the current climate it has been exalted into a hypothetically remedial ideology and institutionalized as a pervasive method of committee-backed instruction. It is high time we became aware, then, that despite all the media hype and the inundation of formulaic pamphlets, primers, and manuals which experts, specialists, and many public school teachers have unfathomably welcomed, and the misguided policy to hire 100,000 more ill-equipped teachers, the techniques that have become so popular these days do not work. As I wrote in Education Lost: Reflections on Contemporary Pedagogical Practice, “the fundamental premise at the bottom of modern educational theory, namely that teaching is a science whose operative concepts are those of storage, dissemination and skill-replication…is faltering badly, especially in those disciplines which are not data-based.”

To avoid or at least mitigate the disaster we have brought upon ourselves, we would do well to recognize our pedagogical arrogance and to revive the sane and prudent, low-tech high-intelligence mode of operating associated with certain earlier institutions such as, for example, the Merchant Taylors’ School in mid-sixteenth century London. The founders of the school, which turned out an elite corps of graduates including the poet Edmund Spenser, confined their speculations (in the words of Elizabeth Watson in her little book on Spenser) “to the ensuring as exactly as possible that the condition of their school and its running shall be conducive to study and learning, without attempting to implement any particular syllabus, or even to insist on any theory or method of education” (italics mine). They offered their students a true, down-to-earth education rather than the cold cultivars of merely fashionable theory.

Everything considered, and allowances made for cultural and historical differences, the Merchant Taylors’ School, in the early to middle period of English pedagogy, was a far superior secondary school to anything our contemporary ideologues and planners, whose ignorance of educational history is impressively catholic, have managed to install today. We no longer teach the classics, those documents — in the words of Melville scholar and Norton anthologist Hershel Parker — that “afford the most rich, complex, aesthetic experiences…most likely to work transforming enlightenment…in all earnest young students.” On the contrary, our current methodology, pursued in a cognitive vacancy, constitutes nothing more than another pedagogical talisman which testifies only to the bankruptcy, or the magical thinking, that has overtaken the culture of education to which we unthinkingly contribute. We have long passed the time, laments Welsh poet Gillian Clarke in her new book Ice, “when the map of the earth was something we knew by/heart.” It is as if we have simply forgotten the central axiom of human development: if you know very little, you cannot do very much. Method can never be a surrogate for substance. You must work to have something there if there is ever to be something there to work with.

We are speaking of education here, but education is not only and exclusively education; it is also an expression and a symptom of the culture in general. And thus, it is not only students who are at risk, but all of us in whatever field, niche, or social category we may find ourselves. This is precisely the argument that the late president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel makes in his Summer Meditations, in which he stresses that the only way to fulfill the purpose and historic mandate of the schools is to eschew the production of “idiot-specialists” and “to send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical, and philosophical implications of their specialties.” And not only of their specialties, of course, but of the social, cultural and political world in which they will be constrained to live and for which they will be held accountable.

In 1695, the Puritan divine Timothy Cruso, after whom Defoe may have titled his famous novel, wrote: “The days wherein we live are extremely evil, but we have yet a sad and doleful prospect of the next age becoming worse. … We see such crowds and swarms of young ones continually posting down to hell, and bringing up so much of hell in the midst of us…we cannot but use some Christian endeavors to open the eyes of these mad prodigals, and to fetch them home.”

Christian endeavors aside, such fears and imprecations are fashionable in every age and testify as much to the inevitable incompatibility of the generations as to the progressive regression of history. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if a time will not eventually come in which the apocalyptic platitude manifests as ineluctable fact, in which the fears of conservative parents are ultimately and unexpectedly realized in their refractory offspring, victims of a feckless and corrupt Academy. I suspect we may be there now.

Perhaps we can start by re-reading the Phaedrus, that is, by recognizing that the past has much to teach us and that we are not free-floating, ahistorical particles who owe nothing to the archive of our civilization. For we, too, like our progeny, will be held accountable.

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