I remember when I was in high school having to take a test that evaluated what type of job I would be best suited for. Little did I know that by taking the test, I would be encouraged to pursue such a career, even if such a career isn’t what I wanted. Thankfully, I wasn’t forced to pursue any of the career options.
In reflecting on those past experiences, I have noticed how more and more high schools and colleges are becoming more technical, that is, we’re experts on specific subjects and are fed information like computers, but we miss out on the bigger picture. That is because we have a pragmatic educational system rather than a classical educational system. Under such a pragmatic system, certain subjects simply don’t matter because they aren’t “practical.”
My reason for writing this entry was inspired by a New York Times Op-Ed piece by NY Times editor David Brooks. Brooks brings up the point that humanities are dying, but I would argue that the humanities are dying for reasons other than job security.
1) The humanities aren’t practical – in high school students are pushed to get a degree that creates jobs. My degree is in Philosophy, one of the most abstract degrees a person can get. The question I get asked all the time is, “How can you get a job with your degree?” The question I often fire back is, “How can you think without my degree?” Similar to what Brooks pointed out in his opinion piece, by studying philosophy (or English, or History, or another of the humanities), you begin to understand human nature more, which makes you a better thinker (which, in turn, actually does have practical ramifications at work).
2) The humanities have destroyed themselves – for years professors in the humanities have contradicted the purpose of their subjects. English teachers began to buy into deconstruction, taking away the form and structure of the English language, leaving little point to studying the English language. If no one can really understand each other, then why learn how to communicate? Philosophy, which is the love of wisdom (and wisdom is the discovery and application of truth), was betrayed by so-called philosophers, saying that there was no truth. They sang that the end of philosophy was near and it was so. History teachers taught that history was made by the victors and that history was tainted. History had to be deconstructed and applied to modern understandings, thus negating any reason to look at history through the eyes of those who lived it.
Thus, while I agree with Brook’s assessment, I wonder if the humanities are truly something worth bringing back, at least in their modern form. Of course, we are still faced with the truth that practicality is killing education in America. We think education is to help us procure better jobs rather than make us better people. We think that the more rare (but needed) a degree is, the more money it can gain us, without once thinking such a degree should change us as a person.
In our public schools, we’re seeing more and more students become illiterate. They might be able to read basic English, but they cannot tackle Shakespeare, Chaucer, or other great writers. Give them Plato’s Republic translated into modern English and they will still be stupefied. Give them Chesterton, Dickens, or even Schaeffer and they are left baffled. “But he spells out ‘you’ instead of typing ‘u’!” They will pick up Aristotle’s Metaphysics aside from completely glancing over words such as “metaphysics,” they will wonder why the book is translated into “full English.” Or they will simply get back to their video games and send a text message to a friend.
Yes, students might be able to put words together and form a basic understanding of what they are reading, but they’re not really reading. That is, they’re not tackling the text, seeking to understand it, wrestling with the author and the ideas. We program what these students should learn without teaching them how to think. Specialized education has its place, but it is always after a student has learned how to think. Education is the key to becoming a better person and one of the first steps in learning to self-educate one’s self is to learn how to read properly.
Such an education can only be achieved through a classical education. Remnants of classical education remained in the public school system up to about the 60’s, when pragmatism began to take over in full force. Yes, our technological knowledge has risen since then, but have we advanced as a people? Have we become morally better? Have we become more humane? Have we become better people? The answer is that we have not. We have become more lazy, more ignorant, more inhumane, and more immoral. Thus, a classical education is a life raft to a culture drowning in its own maladroit society.
A classical education is one that focuses on learning how to think and how to read properly. We need schools that focus on subjects and teaching our children how to think rather than programming them with the right answers so the school looks well-run on a state mandated test.
From first grade all the way up to seventh grade, children should be taught grammar (by learning Greek and Latin and applying these learnings to English), logic (via a Socratic method, with the teacher leading a discussion and letting the students respond in a controlled manner), and rhetoric (teaching children the art of debate and composition). In all of this (unlike a Greek or Roman classical education), they should also begin their studies in basic mathematics and science. Likewise, they should learn an appreciation for the arts, whether that be drama, music, painting, or the like.
Once they are in high school, they should continue to learn all of the above, but in a more practical manner. In math, they should continue to learn advanced mathematics, but also learn how to apply such math to their lives. In science, they should learn astronomy, biology, chemistry, and the like, but also see how this is applicable to their lives. This should be done across the board.
Only when they reach college should they begin to hone their learning into a specialization. Even then, a specialized degree should not be obtained until the student has completed an MA or a PhD (or the respective equivalents).
What all the above does is force students to think on their own, to apply what they have learned to their lives, and to become better people. A basic education provided by a classical education is superior to the current system. It frees the teachers from having to “teach to the test” and instead to help guide children to learn what is needed to be a better person. Most importantly, it gives students skills that translate into anything they do in life, which is far more valuable than a specialized education.