We are racing through the twenty-first century with our schools following the culture, rather than education molding the culture through our youth…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Tony Williams as he discusses how our school system has failed us, producing children who resemble the iliterate peasants of the Middle Ages. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

In the Middle Ages and early modern Europe, most commoners were illiterate and learned visually through art such as Giotto depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi and later with posted broadsides with woodcuts. After looking at these visuals, the illiterate peasants might discuss them in a group at church or in a tavern.

Meanwhile, the middle and upper classes were churchmen, bureaucrats, lawyers, and merchants who were classically educated in the methods of the trivium and the subjects of the quadrivium by tutors and at universities. Theirs was the culture of the written word which dovetailed with the rise of the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on sola scriptura and reading the Bible.

The invention of the printing press and the gradual increase in the availability of cheap books and other written material led to widespread literacy over a few centuries. Education also became more democratized over the centuries and more people attended school and became literate. Education in the West, however, was still rooted in the written word as students read classics in Latin and Greek, held disputations, and engaged in rigorous thought.

Today, our young students in school resemble the illiterate peasants of the Middle Ages more and more. Teachers are increasingly moving towards teaching the students with a barrage of visual stimuli mirroring their leisure activities with their array of technological gadgets. The need for concentration, rigor, reflective thought when grappling with primary sources is losing out to powerpoints, bullet points, streaming videos, and other latest technologies. They often do so in groups where students teach each other rather than having a knowledgeable teacher emulating Socrates or Jesus.

We are racing through the twenty-first century with our schools following the culture, rather than education molding the culture through our youth. Almost every mission statement for schools today pledges allegiance to “twenty-first century learning” without any real idea of what that truly means except “not getting left behind.”

I wonder if we shouldn’t reverse the numbers and get back to twelfth-century learning. Students should grapple with the classics through primary sources in age-appropriate ways through the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages of learning. Their teachers (as they are at Hillsdale, Christendom, Thomas Aquinas colleges) should be the words of Aristotle, Virgil, Homer, St. Augustine, Chaucer, St. Thomas More, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Luther, Burke, Jefferson, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Darwin, Einstein, Lewis, Freud, Eliot, and company, not a slide up on the screen.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2010.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Yes, but you don’t vote in your local school board elections. Any school will be what we, the people, want it to be by voting in a worthy board of trustees. Self-government is not a spectator sport.

  2. The problems you mention with education are very real. The schools are turning out functional illiterates at best, and no one seems to care, or at least very few seem to care.
    One of the major issues is that the schools no longer teach children to think, they are only teaching them how they should feel about what they are experiencing in life.
    I came across a book that helps explain a great deal of this, it is called “Credentialed to Destroy: How and Why Education Became a Weapon”, and it goes into a lot of detail about how Common Core really works and what the goals of Common Core are, along with the results that we are seeing.
    It may help to understand what is going on in the educational system, and why the children coming out of High School can barely qualify for being admitted to a Community College, let alone a University. Many can’t even find a decent job because they are not educated enough to handle basic daily jobs.
    A very sad situation.

  3. Nice short essay, but failed to account for the politics of chaos and self indulgence in which the leading educated elite have reduced university students and learning to an expensive version of the Mickey Mouse Club for the undisciplined and selfish. In the last forty years this has filtered down to the local K-12.

    The twelfth century at least had a cadre of reasoned intellectuals.
    Not having to worry about enough to eat has led us into cultural silliness.
    It’s not conservative vs. liberal.
    Worse, it’s despotism and violence versus the pillars of Western Civilization.
    Or, more bluntly, the inmates are running the asylum.

    New Barbarism indeed.

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