We ought to discern the truth about our modern schools, remove our children from their ravages, and turn to the building of homeschooling communities and to involvement in classical charter schools. It is the only reasonable response to our modern schools, which have become unreasonable and morally irresponsible.
As parents bring school age children into the structures of public education, the accumulating weight of colossal failure intrudes upon incessant propaganda asserting the merits of compulsory public education. As the shine of materialist schemes fades under the shadows of mortality, more and more souls are beginning to realize that they themselves were not well educated by the public schools. There is the growing apprehension that something deep and purposeful is missing. The exact quality and quantity of this gaping lack is difficult to grasp. It is, however, increasingly intuited. To begin the process of clarification, it is helpful to learn that there are two distinct types of education; one is the kind we would like for ourselves and for our children, the other is a travesty foisted upon the American public for generations.
I have been teaching in the public schools for nearly a quarter of a century. From the beginning, I realized that modern methods and content lull children into what I call an “educational coma.” The majority of students are accustomed to giving automatonic responses as if they were test subjects in Pavlovian experiments. Many students demonstrate a genius for doing the bare minimum as forgetfulness becomes habitual and apathy takes root in their souls. I perceived long ago that the ideologies propagated by the modern school are soul crushing. I endeavored to understand and explain why.
My conclusion after decades in the classroom is that modern education is intellectually and morally bankrupt. This may come as a shock to many because the “idea” of public schooling is entrenched in the American mind and it has become a sacred cow. It is true that many good things seem to happen at public schools. However, it is not by theoretical design but by practical accident. Good people bring good things to schools in spite of doctrinal fiat to the contrary. What makes the modern school a charade is that its methodology and pedagogy are anti-intellectual and morally troubling.[*]
I discovered that modern methodology leaves the faculties of the intellect and free will primarily untreated. In the early twentieth century, the grandfather of American Education John Dewey, asserted an educational program that assumes humans are purely material beings. His influence leaves the modern school with social pragmatism as the highest concern. Man’s highest capacities are left unconsidered. The philosophical cultivation of the mind is reduced to the material concerns of the lower sciences and the power of free will is relegated to determinism.
I was rather confused in my first few years in the classroom. Soon, I discovered a truth. I began to notice a profound difference in my students’ disposition towards literature when I exposed them to the Greek Myths. I caught a glimpse of a flicker of a flame in the souls of many who encountered delight in the ancient Grecian tales. Seeking an understanding of that flame, I began to take a long hard look at the myths myself and that sparked a fire in my heart and mind that would forever prevent a return to the vacuous American textbooks.
I shortly discovered the modern “myth” that “myths” are just fanciful explanations of what science would later explain. To the contrary, the myths conveyed transcendent truths obscured by the ideology of the myopic modern age. I was moved to discover the epic poets, philosophers, and many more beautiful classical works. I began to bring these amazing works to my students and things began to radically change for them and for me.
Being raised in the public schools, I was in an educational coma for years until the Greeks woke me up. So although I was awakened and able to bring my students myths, fairytales, and poems, I was unaware of the proper methodologies and tools of teaching. Still, a drop of water to a thirsty soul is a blessing. I spent the next few decades discovering the liberal arts, the true nature of human learning, philosophy, literacy, mathematics, music, and the cosmos. Like a polaroid slowly developing before my eyes, the more I learned about authentic education, the more I saw the sharp distinction between an authentic education and the hollowed out modern methods.
For nearly the last thirty years, I have been trying to understand and articulate the difference between what the modern schools are doing and what I have learned about an authentic education. The great teachers of the past have warned us about these modern methods by their treatment of the sophists whose progeny are the architects of the modern school. Unfortunately, sophists no longer have a bad reputation. In a mode similar to the swindlers in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the new educational “experts” are the new sophists who have made the worse arguments the better, concerning the vast majority of our public schools.
There is one great teacher who was prescient enough to write about our modern methods before they became ossified in the 1970’s and that was C.S. Lewis. In his short essay called The Parthenon and the Optative (1944), Lewis makes a clear and sharp distinction between an authentic education and what modern education has become. Lewis has a brilliant way of bridging the modern era with the Great Western Tradition and highlighting the errors of today.
Lewis incisively compares the two kinds of education thus: “the one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody, and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm, though not equally dry….” This description requires a current translation because the words he used have been tortuously abused by modern “experts” since 1944, but Lewis is accurate. He goes on to explain that the other kind of education “begins in appreciation and ends in gush.” The gush has proliferated into the present age to include self-esteem building, safe-spaces, micro-aggressions and an increasing number of faux privilege claims.
Lewis continues to compare: “when the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it and he knows he hasn’t got it.” This truth contradicts the egalitarian sensibilities expressed by the “no child left behind” movements. However, it is a self-evident fact that not all human souls take to an authentic education equally. This fact is less problematic than the modern school would claim. The modern school falsely assumes that all can learn equally. After so many years in the classroom, I can assure you the best scripted outcomes-based education will never yield an equality of outcome, not even close. Still, the success or failure of the modern education is the real problematic issue.
Lewis accurately portrays the outcomes of “outcomes-based education” he calls the “Optative” as he forcefully decries: “the other kind fails most disastrously when it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can’t construe. It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to be intellectual without intellect….” I have seen no better characterization of the modern school’s outcomes than this. Few things are more exhausting than a “dunce” who fancies himself erudite, yet we are producing armies of such ill-cultivated souls.
Hopefully we can come to see is that our modern schools have not prepared us for our true ends any more than they will prepare our children. The modern university is more like a house of assignation than a school; a kind of spa catering to sophistical ideologies and turning our children into activists who have no grasp of the things for which they agitate. As Lewis describes, our college graduates are dunces unaware of the differences between the true and false, the good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly. Philosophy and the workings of the human intellect are unknown to them. History has devolved into myth for them. Man is assumed to be a malleable entity with no formal or final causality. The great works are not only unknown to them in a real sense, but the modern student is imbued with the arrogance to judge the classics by their covers.
The authentic education is grounded in a proper philosophy, anthropology, and understanding of the nature and origin of the cosmos, language, and thought. The art and science of a Parthenon education concerns the virtuous treatment of the intellect, will, and appetites as well as a proper treatment of the body. These things are utterly absent from modern schools, in spite of vocabulary pretending to the contrary.
The proper ends of an authentic education are the virtues which correspond to the transcendental values of the true, good, and beautiful. The modern education is bereft of all of these and much more. Its aim is to make students ready for college and career for the sake of society. College and career are good and important things but they are not ends, they are fruits. Ends must be first things and college and career are second things that follow an authentic education just as fruit grows as a result of excellent habits of agriculture. The authentic education is about excellent intellectual and moral habits. Those with excellent intellectual and moral habits make excellent college students and citizens, not the other way around.
I doubt that Lewis would be surprised that his distinction between the Parthenon and the Optative would have been born out as it has, in such dramatic ways. In light of the sharp distinction Lewis makes between the two kinds of education, we would be wise to take note. Modern education ought not to be a sacred cow; it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If we understand Lewis and are able to discern the truth about our modern schools, we might begin to remove our children from the ravages of the modern version of the Optative school and help to build homeschooling communities or get involved in classical charter schools honoring the Parthenon. It is the only reasonable response to our modern schools, which have become unreasonable and morally irresponsible. Our children will thank us in the end and we may just avoid the death of the Great Western Civilization in the process.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
*More information can be found at Common Core State Standards Initiative and the IPPF Framework for Comprehensive Sexuality Education.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “The Education of the Virgin Mary” (c. 1618) by Diego Velázques (1599-1660), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.