I love to read about education. I love to think about education. I am only starting to write about education.
One of the best ways to be about all of these is to read what great thinkers say about education, try to understand the ideas, compare these ideas with what I already know, and try to apply what is good to my own teaching.
One of the publications I often read is the Memoria Press “Classical Teacher,” because it always has great ideas written by leaders in the Classical School “world.” Here is an example: The Editor, Martin Cothran, touched on the purpose of education in his Letter from the Editor in the Late Summer 2013 Issue.
In the story of the Trojan War, there is a point of crisis for Achilles, the story’s protagonist. He is approached by his old teacher Phoenix with some sorely needed advice. But as a sort of preface to his words of wisdom, Phoenix says this: “Your father commanded me to teach you how to speak and what to do…”
Those are simple words, but they constitute what may be the first statement in history of the purpose of education–and maybe the best.
An ability to speak presumes an ability to think–language and thought being two sides of the same coin. The purpose of education, then, is two-fold: how to think and what to do–which is just another way to say wisdom and virtue.
He continues with a look at the two types of modern education impulses. One is the Progressivist, “for whom the purpose of education is political–its goal is to change the culture.” The other is Pragmatism, “the purpose of education for the pragmatist is to facilitate the industrial economy… [it] is instrumental: it is not to change the culture, but fit the child to the culture. These two largely inconsistent goals are joined in an unholy alliance that dominates educational thinking.”
As an educator that teaches in a classical public charter school, I see this everyday in my classroom. I see the mandated changes, in curriculum, standardized testing, and regulations shifting between the two, sometimes pushing aspects of both at the same time depending on which way the wind is blowing.
But Mr. Cothran has a solution.
“We need to realize that classical education does a better job of politically grounding students and giving them skills that will help them in their future profession than progressivism or pragmatism, and it is not chiefly about social reform or vocationalism. It is not about changing the culture or fitting a child to the culture; it is about passing on a culture.
Whereas classical education stresses wisdom and virtue, the political and pragmatic goals of modern education have resulted in just the opposite: Instead of education being about how to think and what to do, education is now about what to think and how to do.”
Cothran’s last paragraph judges that a modern education will not foster a free society, yet this judgement is very important for people who think they are living in one.
It is important to consider that pragmatism, with its focus on skills for particular jobs, is showing most of its cards, and progressivism, trying to overhaul society with goals that are given on a need to know basis, is keeping its hand close to its chest, with a joker up its sleeve. Each of these “not only conflict with the classical goals of education; it turns them upside down.”
We all know that the “free” public education is not free, but have we ever thought that it should be freeing?