Whatever one may say about our twenty-eighth president’s views about The United States role as promoter of democracy and capitalism and interventionism throughout the world, I think we have to give him full-hearted applause for his views on authentic liberal education.
Take this for example,
When you say a young person must be prepared for his life-work, are you prepared, is he prepared, are his parents prepared, to say what that life-work is going to be?
The answer to this is NO!
Do you know a boy is going to be a mechanic by the color of his hair? Do you know that he is going to be a lawyer by the fact that his father was a lawyer? Does any average and representative modern parent dare to say what his children are going to be?
Again the answer to the first two questions is “no” and “no,” but there certainly are more than a few average modern parents who do in fact dare say what their children are going to be, or at least dare to say what their children wont be. Witness the shortage in religious vocations for example.
Wilson hits the nail on the head when he says,
My chief quarrel with the modern parent is that he does not know, and that he hands that question over to the youngster whom he is supposed to be advising and training.
The elective system of education which began in the university (where it properly belongs), and crept back into the college and has now permeated most high schools and is even seeping into (if you can believe it!) the primary school, is an exact exemplification of what Wilson is saying.
These days parents say to their children,
“Son, daughter, you must be successful in life. I don’t know what you are going to be or how you are going to accomplish this. I who am older and wiser than you don’t know how you should be educated. I don’t know what precise path you should take. I will not prescribe a certain path for you to follow. No… making these important decisions about your life and your success must all be left up to you who are relatively ignorant about all things. Every choice about your intellectual formation must be made by you according to your own whims and passing fancies.
That is what the elective system is isn’t it? I just can’t get over how silly it is on the face of it. It represents a complete abdication of responsibility on the part of those who are supposed to know better.
It would be like a pediatrician saying to a child ,
As your doctor I recommend health to you. But what health is and how you should acquire it is completely up to you. You must make your own diagnoses and choose your own prescriptions.
You might think that this comparison is too strong.
Yes- that would be ridiculous for doctors to let their patients diagnose themselves and write their own prescriptions. But the health of the body is a very delicate and important thing. There are very precise methods, rules, and best practices that must be adhered to in order to obtain and maintain health.
But Socrates would reply,
What is more important, the health of the body or the health of the soul? Which is more easy to achieve? If the health of the body requires certain precise methods and practices, how much more would the health of the soul require these!
It is not difficult to understand why parents abdicate their responsibilities as primary educators and why as a consequence, the children themselves, or rather the passions, whims and fancies of the children, become the primary architect of their own intellectual formation. The reason is that many parents no longer know what an education is. And so they substitute the imagined idea of their child’s success in a career, a career which they know not, for education.
This unknown career becomes the child’s purpose in life, and the school is asked to educate the child in order to make him “college and career ready.”
As Wilson says
“…when he says he wants his son’s training suited to his purpose of life he must admit his son has no purpose in life. Then we are asked to suit our processes to this undestined youth.”
Now this is a predicament. The school must educate children to be successful for a myriad unknown careers. Wilson write about the state of education in the early part of the twentieth century,
“With this complexity, what has the modern school attempted to do? It has attempted to do everything at once. It has said: Here are a lot of boys and girls whose future occupations we do not know and they do not know. They must be prepared for life. Therefore we must prepare everybody for everything that is in that life. We haven’t found it amusing. We haven’t found it possible. We have attempted it and we know we have failed at it. You cannot train everybody for everything. Moreover you are not competent to teach everything. There is not any body of teachers suited in gifts or training to do this impossible thing. Neither the schools nor those who guide them have attempted to make any discrimination with regard to purpose or to settle upon methods which will promise some degree of substantial success. That is the situation we are in.”
Wilson said this in 1909 speaking to the New York City High School Teachers Association.
More than a century later …. progress?
How often we have heard visitors to a “certain school offering Classical education” remark, “I wish I could have had this when I was growing up.” And then *not* enroll their own sons or daughters because the child wishes otherwise. Many parents recognize the better option when they see it, but have not the fortitude to ‘fight the good fight’ against the will of the child. Would that more parents were confident to choose and persevere in the finer, but more difficult (short term) option! A great endeavor is indeed a challenge, but how great would be their (long-term) joy! (Perhaps reading more Homer would make this plain?)
I know- that is frustrating. But you will be delighted to know that the “certain school offering Classical education” has devised a brilliant new recruitment strategy. Rather than condone the present conventional system of allowing the children to visit and make the diagnosis and render the prescription- we tell the parents that we would prefer that they visit the school for a day first and then we will talk about a student visitation. Isn’t that clever?!
The great irony is that only a liberal education will prepare students for any and every possible future. (Doctoring, lawyering, and lawnblowering alike.)
One of your best posts.
Thanks Paul. I think the picture of the doctor helped out quite a bit. You may count on seeing one more post based on Wilson’s speech “The meaning of a liberal education” – which was too long for just one post.