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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 [1], 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 [2] 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 [3], “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 [4], which also refers to the Chinese imperial examination system and makes some interesting comparison between that model and our own.

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5 Comments To "On the Value of Old Educational Models"

#1 Comment By john personna On November 29, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

Just two generations ago .. my grandfather in Denmark was apprenticed to a grocer, who misused him as horse, delivering groceries with a cart. When his ankles were ruined the family went to the ombudsman for remedy … leading to the grocer sponsoring my grandfather as an apprentice watchmaker, as recompense.

It used to be that round-about.

My father went to college on the GI bill and taught in California schools. I went a cheap Cal State University and got into software …

I am a believer in “the bubble” but I certainly don’t think we should roll back to my grandfather’s harsh path. I hope with #MOOCs and community colleges we can work something good and less costly.

#2 Comment By PDGM On November 29, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

I’m a product of an extremely old fashioned liberal arts model, a Great Books program that had only a single major, in liberal arts. All students took the same tutorial courses; and there were four years of required theology, philosophy, science, mathematics, plus 2 years of Latin plus an option of Greek for no credit, and one year of music theory. In addition, there were four required years of what was called “Seminar” which basically meant that here, you read the literature and philosophy courses that would not fit into your philosophy tutorial, including the early modern through moderns.

I do not think that any discussion of higher education is worth much unless one first specifies what the education you are writing about is for: teleology rules here. My undergraduate education was not aimed at jobs; rather it had a Catholic version of a perhaps Greek idea of excellence as its goal. It aimed at producing free men and women, with sufficient background to make more or less coherent decisions in a wide variety of subject areas; with the added assumption that these decisions would be informed by the inherited theology of the Catholic church in its older forms.

In our society as a whole, I do not think that there are coherent underlying ideas any more that can act as a stable foundation for a liberal education. The social consensus that made this somewhat possible seems to have ended sometime in the past half to three quarters of a century; but even before it ended, it was probably only inertia rather than agreement holding it together. In this regard, Patrick Deneen on critical thinking skills in the modern academy is a good read; he notes how we now are to cultivate these, but that they are a form of naked emperor’s clothes, since without any coherent idea of what truth might be or what human beings might be, they simply hide the absence any more substantial goal in higher education.

In the absence of any coherent idea of what should be taught and why, it’s no wonder that job oriented, technocratic education has swelled to take up the slack (and here I’ll leave open which is the chicken and which the egg in this development). The majors that are involved in such education need not attempt any answer to the perennial and difficult questions of what humans are and what in consequence they should be taught. Instead, job-oriented competency becomes the standard.

Liberal Arts education requires some more-or-less coherent idea of what human beings are before it can be anything other than a smorgasbord of “take 2 from column 1; and 3 from column 2.”

#3 Comment By matt On November 29, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

“…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.”

Plato has Socrates propose that women and men receive the same education (451e ff). Though this is supposed to sound rather shocking “compared to what is habitual.”

#4 Comment By delia ruhe On December 1, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

The Liberal Arts have always been illiberal and have scrambled to catch up to evolving definitions of “liberal” and “liberating.” If the Liberal Arts can’t keep up with that evolution, then we need something else.

Whenever academics canvass businesses and bosses about what they look for in a job applicant, they all swear that they look for Liberal Arts graduates — people with a broad knowledge of the world, problem solvers, and critical thinkers. Unfortunately, that’s not who they hire.

#5 Comment By paul On December 2, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

Current Liberal Arts is ruined just like public schools.

There are degrees, majors, minors etc in every garbage possible.

We can’t figure out who killed Kennedy but we can figure out sally hemings and Jefferson had an affair.

You can get a degree in bondage and beastiality.

It all falls under the umbrella of liberal arts.

You see the college kids who don’t know the states, capitals, president…they would be hard pressed to know what country they live in or what planet they live on. They are always the liberal arts majors. Liberal arts lost its intellectual foundations right about the same time colleges needed to admit and grant degrees to minorities…embracing and promoting diversity and cultural relativity and political correctness. That’s all that’s left.

Today you can’t use a liberal arts degree to get any real private sector job. Its a garbage degree that won’t get you much further than managing a retail taco bell.

Law, science, engineering, mathematics, technology, medicine…they still have academic rigor. Feminists and minorities can claim statistical discrimination but its hard to dilute them. Math and science…your either right or wrong. In medicine your patient either lives or suffers and dies.

Its the liberals that ruined liberal arts