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The Teachable Remnant: Failing Our Few Eager Students

Teachable students tend to excel when they are tested and pushed hard, and our system should appropriately challenge them. They flourish when they are shown what a truly well-informed person must know, what more than the adequate can be accomplished. They will do the extra reading and homework, take on the more demanding essay topic or project if there is someone to set and evaluate their work. They are enriched by compulsory courses and by a rigorous schedule of readings that will refine their tastes and equip them to enjoy what is difficult. In short, these students benefit enormously from the most strenuous intellectual training they can handle.

Without strenuous training, teachable students will still be better than average, but they will not be all that they could be, and the years when they might have developed what E.D. Hirsch calls “cultural literacy” will pass by all too soon, leaving them only partially educated. The canard that “critical thinking,” or worse, “creativity,” is more important than factual knowledge glosses over the reality that one’s thinking is only as good as one’s knowledge. “We all have gaps in our background,” professors have said to me in shameful defense of measures to reduce program requirements or course content in the name of diversity or the postmodern smorgasbord. True enough, but the gaps eventually become so vast that they can never be made up, or only with an effort many times greater than if the books had been read at the appropriate time and under appropriate guidance. The purpose of education is not only to fill gaps, of course, or to fill students with facts. But core ideas and texts must form the foundation of any education worthy of the name.

It seems obvious that our present system is not providing this sort of education: students in both high school and university read less than ever before and earn academic credits for vacuous courses on gender roles, popular culture, witchcraft, and the like. Even serious courses have been lamentably gutted -- their reading lists and assignments drastically reduced -- to accommodate illiteracy and apathy. Programs emphasizing choice over requirements all but guarantee that most students, even many of the best, will opt for the flimsiest subjects, often at the urging of pragmatic, grade-minded advisors. Our young people are thus not only allowed but even encouraged to squander their time and energy.

I am far from the first to urge that the primary task of our education system must be to find, encourage, and preserve student excellence, and that to this end we must institute rich content and high standards in our schools. But do we have the will to pursue such a goal? The teachable remnant are those who carry forward to the next generation the best of Western civilization, keeping its values, its knowledge, and its ways of thinking alive. But perhaps because so many in the West have forgotten or lost faith in our cultural heritage, we do not feel the injustice of denying it to our children.