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On the Value of Old Educational Models

As some of you will have noticed, I’ve been writing a series of posts on education. I’ve tried to mark them all as belonging to the “Education” category, so click on the “Published in Education” link at the bottom of this post if you want to see the previous entries. All this is moving towards a series of theses that I will be posting … eventually. Onward:

It is very difficult to write reasonably and usefully about education-in-general, because all our models of education arose in cultures radically different from our own. The oldest surviving educational treatise we have is Plato’s Republic, in which Plato takes it for granted that only a tiny percentage of the men in any given society, and no women at all, will receive a formal education. This would remain the expectation for most of the next two thousand years. The artes liberales — the liberal, or more accurately the liberating, arts — were meant for the very few who were thought to be able to benefit from such liberation, and to benefit others.

(It’s interesting to compare the Chinese imperial examination system that lasted for around 1300 years, in which admission to the civil service of the Empire was purely meritocratic, based on immensely difficult standardized tests. But here too only a very, very few could hope to receive the training necessary even to take an examination.)

Throughout much of the history of Europe, poor men and rich women would sometimes contrive ways to make themselves literate, but education only gradually worked its way down the social ladder: when the glover’s son William Shakespeare learned his letters, and later some “small Latin,” at the grammar school in Stratford, he was taking advantage of a relatively new opportunity. (Not so long before, poor boys got themselves educated through the Church or through some accident of patronage.) And the belief that the whole citizenry of a given country should receive some kind of education is an idea that only took hold in the nineteenth century in America before in Europe, and somewhat shakily in both places.

Moreover, even these more recent models were created in cultural and economic environments which offered what seems to us a tiny range of vocational options. Try this exercise: first, think of a dozen or so professions that the typical American college graduate might pursue; then, ask yourself how many of them existed 200 years ago.

Now, this doesn’t matter equally to all forms of education: defenders of some version of more-or-less traditional liberal arts education (I’m having to be vague here because there are so many different models of the liberal arts) typically want to emphasize the distinction between being trained for a vocation and being educated for life. But even the staunchest advocate for the good old artes liberales will typically say that that form of education also, as a kind of fringe benefit, prepare people to enter and succeed in a wide range of professions. As John Milton put it in a passage I quoted in an earlier post, “I call therefore a compleat and generous Education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and publick of Peace and War.”

But as I’ve already noted, in Milton’s time, and until very recently, “all the offices both private and publick of Peace and War” didn’t add up to all that many different “offices.” It’s different for us, and so we have to ask ourselves whether the ancient models have become irrelevant to our educational needs, or whether they simply need to be adapted to the current climate.

P.S. I wrote this before reading Ron Unz’s long, detailed, thoughtful essay on the myth of American educational meritocracy, which also refers to the Chinese imperial examination system and makes some interesting comparison between that model and our own.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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