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What Is Education For?

Ken Myers — whose fantastic Mars Hill Audio Journal you Christians in my readership really ought to subscribe to — delivered the keynote address last year to a conference of the Society for Classical Learning, an organization devoted to promoting and supporting the classical model of education among Christians. There are variations on the classical model within Christian communities, but they all involve the study of Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, and the Christian humanist tradition of the West. At the SCL convention in Baltimore last summer, Ken spoke on the importance of classical education in our own time and place. I will quote generously from his speech, with his permission:

Education as technical training—as no more than the conferring of information and skills — is a view that was articulated by that most rational and disenchanted of modern social theorists, Max Weber. Like [Stanley] Fish, Weber was adamant in rejecting the idea that education should have a goal of being “improving.” As Mark Schwehn has observed, Weber believed that “Academics were . . . true to their own calling when they steadfastly refused to address questions about the meaning . . . or the purpose of human life.”

Weber believed that all academic disciplines—all spheres of thought and study, such as history or aesthetics or law—were unrelated and warring vocations. What is lost in this radical segregation of disciplines from each other and from life beyond the classroom is our knowledge of and submission to the unity of truth, and our affirmation of the principle that the knowledge of the truth always carries consequences. What is lost, in other words, is the recognition that we are creatures with a nature and ends given to us, who inhabit a coherent and meaningful Creation, within which the pursuit of knowledge always involves obligations.

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Weber was quite explicit—in ways that Stanley Fish is not—that this impersonal, compartmentalized, and value-free approach to knowledge encouraged the cultivation of a type of human being well-suited to the rationalized character of modern political, economic, and social institutions. Weber opened the address in which he most forcefully advanced his view of learning by stating: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystical life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.” By “rationalization,” Weber meant that all of public life was reducible to calculation. And so the best inhabitants and managers of modern public institutions live by sheer calculation, unimpeded by the messiness of moral or metaphysical considerations. Values, after all, have come to be seen as private matters, so education can safely be indifferent to them, since education serves public ends.

While Stanley Fish insists that he and his academic colleagues cannot and should not be concerned with character formation, in fact a kind of character is encouraged when the pursuit of academic knowledge is abstracted from the possibility of wider meaning and significance and the human commitments they entail. As Mark Schwehn has observed, “on Weber’s account, the process of knowledge formation, if conducted rationally, really does favor and cultivate the emergence of a particular personality type. And this personality does exhibit virtues—clarity, but not charity, honesty, but not friendliness, devotion to the calling, but not loyalty to particular and local communities of learning.”

The point here is that there is no such thing as a values-neutral education. All forms of education are meant to form a certain kind of person. There is no escaping it. What kind of person — what kind of mind, what kind of soul — does your pedagogy create?

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About the same time that [C.S.] Lewis wrote his magnificent book The Abolition of Man, the American rhetorician and literary critic Richard Weaver asserted—in his book Ideas Have Consequences—that “I see no way to sum up the offense of modern man except to say that he is impious.” Piety, in this classical sense, was (Weaver argued) “a discipline of the will through respect. It admits the right to exist of things larger than the ego, of things different from the ego.” Weaver is most concerned in this chapter of his book—a chapter called “Piety and Justice”—with the argument that the impiety of modern man is in impiety toward the order of nature; modern culture is committed to “an unrelenting assault upon this order; dominion, conquest, triumph— all these names have been used as if it were a military campaign.”

Lewis suggested that provincialism in time is a Satanic strategy; similarly, Weaver regarded this insolent posture toward Creation as a sin, at least in some sense: “Nothing short of a recovery of the ancient virtue of pietàs can absolve man from this sin.” The modern war against nature is impious because “it violates the belief that creation or nature is fundamentally good, that the ultimate reason for its laws is a mystery, and that acts of defiance such as are daily celebrated by the newspapers are subversive of cosmos.”

I think that Lewis would have echoed everything Richard Weaver says here. Lewis’s point about the loss of the classical roots of education is principally that our posture toward the past is corrupted. But because people of the past cherished a different posture toward Creation, we are doubly cut off from the wisdom of the past. We are cut off from the substantial content of the teaching of previous eras, believing that if a teaching is old, it can’t be very smart. And we are cut off from a sense of duty, obligation, and gratitude toward our intellectual and social ancestors.

Real education cannot happen without some piety in this older sense. Education can never be reduced to training. Education of the young is always a process of acculturation, the nurturing of fledglings so that they might fly, by coming to understand and participate in an order of things that was there before they were. Literary critic Marion Montgomery once observed that “Education is the preparing of the mind for the presence of our common inheritance, the accumulated and accumulating knowledge of the truth of things.”

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If you’re familiar with C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, as you should be, you know that the long subtitle to that book begins with the phrase “Reflections on education . . .” It is a small book about many big things: science, natural law, ethics, but foremost it is a book about education and about the necessarily moral and spiritual center of education. Late in the book, Lewis refers to the role that education has had in equipping people for the great task of life, of discerning (in Lewis’s terms) “how to conform the soul to reality.” There’s a real world out there, a world of practical challenges and moral meaning, a world with spiritual consequences and recognizable patterns of wisdom and folly. And the project of each human being, the pilgrimage that engages all of us, the end for which we were given life, is to grow in discernment about reality, to understand it aright, both in its large patterns and in its specificity, and then, to find our place within it. The task for which education should begin to prepare us is that of rightly perceiving the shape of reality, and then rightly discerning the task established for us within its drama.

There is an objectivity to that reality, and hence receiving that inheritance is not simply acquiring skills of reasoning and analysis; it also involves receiving an account of “the truth of things.” Each generation of teachers says to the new generation of students: “This is the way things are, to the best of our understanding.”

And then, this critical passage:

One of my slogans is that cultural engagement without cultural wisdom leads to cultural captivity. I fear that many well-meaning believers—eager to share the Gospel with their neighbors and contemporaries—run the risk of becoming as wise as doves and as harmless as serpents. I see a lot of young Christians who have rightly rejected the modern account of rationality—especially as they have seen it embodied in the Church—but they have often then embraced the skepticism or irrationalism of radical postmodernity. They reject the arrogant hubris concerning the control of nature embedded in modern technology, but they can’t quite bring themselves to affirm the forms of transcendent givenness in the world, evident in truth, goodness, and beauty. And so they are tossed to and fro by the waves and every wind of fashion, fad, trend, and voguish style. Shaped more than they realize by the disorders of their culture— especially by the media-inflected impatience with careful and systematic thought, and by a suspicion of forms—they admirably want to be more like Jesus, but they’re not really sure they want to be more like Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Jonathan Edwards.

What they are missing, I believe, is an awareness that the Church can only engage the culture by being a culture. The disordered way of life that is modern culture can only be challenged and restored when the Church bears witness to a way of living and an understanding of being that is not what the world gives. We need to recover a sense of the Church as a people, not a club or a dispensary or a clinic or a show, but something more like a nation, a polis.

Patristic scholar Robert Louis Wilken has, on numerous occasions, reminded us that the culturally transformative dynamic of the early Church was not the result of strategically attempting to influence Greco-Roman elites and institutions. Rather, the early Church demanded of its converts a commitment to an alternate way of life. Converts knew that by following Jesus, they were committing to membership in another nation. Rather than engaging the surrounding culture on its terms, the Church built “its own sense of community and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.” Early Christian leaders were more committed to building the Church—with a rich a thick material culture—than in promoting Christian values.

My talk today focused on the false understanding of education and of reason that characterized our society. That confusion is part of the systemic confusion of modernity, and is the cousin to faulty assumptions about authority, about sex, about freedom, about identity, about history, about the good life, and, not incidentally, about God. It is not enough for the Church to advance certain sound ideas about God—about sin and forgiveness—while imitating the confusion of its neighbors on everything else. Just as truth is intertwined with the affections, so beliefs are intertwined with practices and institutions that embody and sustain them.

I wish I could say “read the whole thing,” but as far as I know, it’s not published anywhere. But you can listen to this interview with Ken Myers about various aspects of classical Christian education. And again, if this kind of thinking interests you, you ought to subscribe to Mars Hill Audio Journal, an indispensable resource for thinking Christians living in this post-Christian era. Anyway, classical Christian education, whether done in an institutional setting or in homeschool, operates from an entirely different set of premises than does standard schooling. It seems to me that if we readers of this blog want to talk about different methods of education — progressive, public, private, parochial, homeschooling, etc. — we would have a more interesting, and profitable, discussion by starting with the question explored by Ken in his speech: What is education for? 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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