I don't mean those technical compendiums of references & standards that you might find in an engineering textbook, but those which digest volumes of literature down into the dense matter which 'Social Studies', 'English', and other such textbooks are formed from. This bit of unassuming tech was one of the earliest products of our endless 'education reforms', and one which Noah Webster particularly helped advance towards its modern format of providing 'brief essays of fact', with the good intentions that students would then begin learning from:
"...A selection of essays, respecting the settlement and geography of America; the history of the late revolution and of the most remarkable characters and events that distinguished it, and a compendium of the principles of the federal and provincial governments, should be the principal school book in the United States. These are interesting objects to every man; they call home the minds of youth and fix them upon the interests of their own country, and they assist in forming attachments to it, as well as in enlarging the understanding..."
Impatient to produce the desired results in students - knowing important facts - he sought the effects of an educated understanding, without attending to its cause: having enough familiarity with the material and the ideas and methods involved within it, so that you would be able to state a brief summary of it along with its key facts. But memorizing the facts without having the understanding which enabled them to be sifted out and cited, was, and is, an empty sham.
Or how about his assumption that a textbook of these essays would or could be interesting to the minds of youths - have you found that youths are typically interested in reading or committing lists of features, names, dates, and rules to memory? Are textbooks what you see people bringing to the beach to read for personal benefit and enjoyment? On the contrary, our experience with such materials is that the 'pre-chewed' information that textbooks provide, are inevitably poorly and unimaginatively written - typically by committee - and are less likely to put down roots of interest in a student's mind, than to turn them away from, and even against, any whiff of such subjects in their future (say hello to: "I just hate history!").
This textbook processing of education shortchanges students of worthy materials, while at the same time giving them the impression that they know something that is important about a subject, thanks to the metrics of quizzes & tests that *prove* that they know what is important to know. But their confidence comes at the price of never having understood what was valuable about the subject which those facts were extracted from,
The textbook can inform the student that "Cicero wrote important texts such as 'On The Laws', 'On Duty', and the 'Philippics'", and can even tell them what they were about, but those students will never gain any sense at all of what it was about his reasoning and eloquence that inspired those, like John Adams, who had their lives not only enriched, but the courses of their lives changed because of the experience they found in their consideration of them.
- Yes, Athens and Sparta defeated the Persians, and then warred with each other. And...?
- Yes, Cicero wrote many legal arguments, speeches and popular essays, and was a Consul... and? He matters... why?
- Yes, the (a) Magna Carta was signed and sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. And...? What of it?
Students are not educated through textbooks into an understanding of a subject, they aren't led into developing the habit of considering various perspectives and vantage points to enable them to "See things as they are", the technology of the textbook reduces a mass of literary text to a few condensed facts, and trains the student to mistake the skill of skimming for, recalling, and repeating other people's opinions of what those facts are facts of, as their own understanding, while never actually coming into contact with what was valuable in them, themselves. Absent such active contact, those facts can make no deeper impression upon their minds than the short-term memory needed to pass the next test, and the dimness of their understanding is inversely proportional to the impression of brightness that the student is given of their own abilities via their test scores. The dangerous side of technology has always been that we become distracted by its benefits, and fail to notice that when technology is doing what it does for us, it's at the very same time taking something else away from us, and the textbook is a... well... a textbook example of that. Textbooks, factual or not, are someone else's narratives, scenic postcards given out in lieu of hiking through the actual landscape, and our students are given grades and diplomas as merit badges for having hiked a landscape they've never set foot within.
Less understood is the fact that textbooks efficiently perform their dis-educational effects, no matter what pedagogy or reforms might currently be guiding their use. Whether it's the '1619 Project' textbook, or whatever textbook moderates and conservatives would rather have being used in schools, they all tell students what to think, and keep them from having the experience of actually thinking such matters through - such an education does not part or even thin the shadows, but thickens them, begetting less wisdom & virtue in students, than folly & bravado from the feeling of knowing what they in fact know little to nothing of. The textbook is the modern technology that projects shadows on the walls of The Cave, and blinkers the eyes of those who might have noticed their thinness. The fact is that Textbooks, and the schools which rely upon them, are veritable engines of Dunning-Kruger-ism, whose products are then graduated into our society, year after year, after year.
Putting skills to the test - que bono? Who benefits?
Our Founding Reformers wanted to focus education on more 'useful skills', to benefit the working man and the economy, but they failed to consider what benefit such a focus would actually bring, or who would benefit most from trading those 'elitist works' away for more utilitarian skills. Alexis De Tocqueville noted in his 'Democracy in America' in 1835, in Book One, Introductory Chapter, he notes that once
"... the exercise of the intellect became the source of strength and of wealth, it is impossible not to consider every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea as a germ of power placed within the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the grace of wit, the glow of imagination, the depth of thought, and all the gifts which are bestowed by Providence with an equal hand....", it was through a liberal education that the people as a whole gained access to the valuable and powerful qualities of mind that had once been the real advantage which the elites had always had over the 'working man', and that education,
"...even when they were in the possession of its adversaries they still served its cause by throwing into relief the natural greatness of man; its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge, and literature became an arsenal where the poorest and the weakest could always find weapons to their hand....."Far from being 'elitist material' of little worth, that literature is what first alerted and armed the working man against the predatory tendencies of those with more wealth and influence than they had. A person armed with such an education is generally able to not only respect and recognize threats to the quality and maintenance of justice, but is competent enough to learn the skills of most any trade as need arises for whatever time and circumstance they find themselves at in life.
But how easily can someone who's been trained mainly in vocational skills, 'pick up' the ability to free themselves from the darkness of popular opinion, ignorance and prejudice, which are 'skills' that a republican form of governance relies upon 'We The People' having? Those skills are best developed during school age, and can't easily be picked up later in life - not even in college. As reported by those few remaining professors who have something worthwhile to profess, our new educational dark age of useful skills has even elite college students demonstrating their skills along with an utter lack of what an education should have, and should be, providing them:
"...The students in his Shakespeare class undoubtedly boast a median verbal SAT score in the upper 700s (out of 800). The large majority probably received a perfect score of 5 on the AP (Advanced Placement) English exam. If any group of college students should be capable of deciphering complex texts, writing incisive expository prose, and constructing compelling analytic arguments, it is they. But apparently they’re not.Today, when both 'working man' and college elite have spent their valuable school-age years learning 'skills', whether mechanical, narrative, or 'critical', rather than a deeper understanding of the nature of life and reasonings most effective role in it, what happens when the world changes and those 'skills' become less or no longer useful? What happens is what has happened, whether their economic plight comes from those skilled jobs having gone over seas, or from 'anyone but liberal arts degree!' students getting hired, they are left defenseless against the language and designs of demagogues seeking to transform their plight into power over them, for the demagogue's advantage.
To understand how this predicament came to pass, one needs to understand how students manage to get into places like Harvard or the Claremont colleges in the first place. It is not by learning how to read, write, or think. It is by jumping through the endless series of hoops that elite college admissions offices have developed over the decades to winnow down their skyscraper stacks of application folders.
To win a place at such a school, students most receive top grades in a broad range of AP courses, show evidence of participation in a dozen or more extracurricular activities—sports, arts, student government, et al.—demonstrate “leadership”, engage in “service”, and gather experiences, often through purpose-built programs, to write about on their personal essays, statements designed to convince the admissions officer of the existence of an actual human being beneath the credentials. To do all this, they will work without cease for years on end, sleeping little and foregoing the freedoms of adolescence.
This is not a system that’s designed to foster intellectual engagement. Students learn to skip and skim, not just their assigned readings, but everything. Everything is done at maximum speed and with the least possible effort. Curiosity and passion must be actively suppressed. Students become experts, not so much in subjects as in working the system..."[emphasis mine]
Who it is that benefits most from an 'education' of Textbook centered schooling, are those in positions of power, or seeking to gain power over their fellows - they have a vested interest in having 'skilled students' who know little or nothing of what enabled our Founding Fathers to establish this nation, which is the one thing that our schools are successful at producing.
The slow-motion trainwreck of our educational transformation was accomplished by building upon the good intentions of our Founding Reformers 'adding' some useful skills to the educations that they themselves had received, and that turn towards the 'skills & facts' view of education, began a gradual process of eliminating that form of Education which had not only distinguished the West from the rest of the world, but which when properly taught (logic through grammar, the method of reasoning through the consideration of plot and theme, the ability to discover and communicate the essentials through rhetoric, an appreciation of truth and beauty through the contemplation of style, structure and meaning of a story, and the lessons that nature to be commanded must first be logically understood) that form of education is what established the Greco/Roman-Judeo/Christian West, and made it possible for America to be founded in the first place.
Webster's 'brief essays of fact', although a boon for the publishing world and to those 'educators' who write the textbooks that the schools which students are required to attend, require their students to buy, have progressively devolved into the standard form of 'Textbook' used today, which are segmented, often non-sequential (especially in History/'social studies'), poorly written, boring and expensive tomes for testing a fleeting appearance of knowledge of what students actually know very little about - a self-reinforcing system for the mass production of Dunning-Kruger-ism which is one of the deadliest fruits of our modern educational system, and something which the Pro-Regressive Administrative State could not exist without.
Learning to fail the test
But how did a once educated people sell themselves on this course? Why, they followed the 'science!', of course - or at least the scientistic appearance of its methods, quantifications, and statistics of test scores, that frauds in lab-coats use to reassure the unwary that all is well. The wary, OTOH, weren't as easily misled, those like Charles Dudley Warner noted in an earlier post, or as mentioned in the previous post, Albert Jay Knock and the Italian nobleman he spoke of in 1931, who'd wondered why he'd met no educated Americans under 60 years of age. BTW - how do you suppose Knock's Italian nobleman determined that? Do you suppose that he quizzed each person he met on their recall of Social Studies facts & conclusions? As the Positivist 'science' of 'Social Studies' didn't exist at all prior to the 1800's, and didn't become commonly accepted until into the 20th Century, my bet is that Social Studies wasn't the yardstick he used to measure the educations of Americans by.
Or do you imagine that he tested them on their 'Critical Thinking' skills? Well... seeing as their conversation occurred prior to 1931, and 'Critical Thinking' wasn't concocted until 1945 (by a student of John Dewey), I'm going to go with 'no' on that one as well.
How do you tell whether or not someone is educated? More to the point, what if how you test their level of education, doesn't in fact test their level of education... what might be done to students by using false tests to guide them in their education?
To turn the uncomfortable questions towards what might be seen as 'my side' with traditional literature, do you suppose that he buttonholed hapless Americans and quizzed them on their knowledge of the Great Books of the Western World? Tallied up their dismal scores on 'key facts' of Dante & Milton and exclaimed 'Momma Mia are these American's uneducated!'?
While I'm a huge fan and proponent of most of the works typically categorized within GBWW, using those works as a database for quizzing people on what they know of them, runs contrary to the nature of what The Great Conversation which those works are a part of, is - such conversation isn't judged by the facts found in it, but by the depths of understanding confronted and revealed through it. It is a mistake to view what is available to be learned from, as being just as, or more, valuable than what there is to be learned - the evidence of an education is found in indications that a person has left The Cave, not in tallying up how much they've stuffed into their cave!
To put an education to such a quantifiable test as to presume that those who know more facts, are better educated, presumes that the student making a perfect score on an ACT/SAT exam, must be better educated than Shakespeare, or Cicero, or Aristotle, could have been, as they came along before most of the facts known to us were able to be known to them. How would such a view as that, view Plato, who when teaching his young student who was named Aristotle, knew nothing of the works which Aristotle would later go on to write? Or of Cicero who knew nothing of Petrarch, who in turn knew nothing of either Shakespeare, or much else of what we now refer to as 'The Great Books'? And of course though most of them understood Geometry well enough, those past masters could have known nothing of calculus, or even algebra, let alone 'Social Studies' or 'What are the 12 causes of the Civil War?'... are you getting the picture?
Richard Mitchell's "The Gift of Fire".
So if all of our popular 'Educated Tests' fail the test as a test of a person being educated, how did our Italian nobleman conclude this about our great grand parents? He did it the old fashioned way, he talked to them. It wasn't because they lacked a recall of facts or skills, but because in conversing with them, he witnessed their habits of repeating the statements that others had made, the shallow reasonings they gave for them, and the ineloquent language they used to state them. As they demonstrated their lack of the habit of adequately questioning, assessing those ideas that they mechanically talked about in an unthinking repetition of follow-the-dots talking points, with the flow-chart imitation of logic that ties them together. Through the test of conversation, it became clear to him that they literally didn't know what they were talking about, which is a tell-tale sign of someone who is still dwelling comfortably deep within The Cave, and lacks the ability to see their way out of it (AKA: an education).
It's not just a matter of can they reason, but do they? As a matter of course? It's not just a matter of reciting the virtues, but of working at applying and living them. Getting a good education is not just about checking boxes of facts to know, or passing a test upon this or that collection of them, but on being able to observe, inquire, and relate the new, to the past, looking for what their contrasts can bring to light, and considering how best to go forward in light of both, and perhaps even imagining things anew. It's about the ability to be 'self-directed' by what is in reality true, and being able to do so while living in society with others.
If that's what you want for your child, and I would be amazed to hear the reasons of those who might not want that, the standard establishment schools are not where you're going to find it. Instead, you will find students who are being processed through a textbook education, who will spend more than a decade in them being trained to skim for, and memorize facts for recalling on quizzes and tests so they can get a good job and 'succeed in life!'... with little or no attention given to understanding what a successful life is, and depends upon. They might know about great works, but without actually knowing those great works, their minds will not have been challenged to pursue any depth of knowledge of what life could, and should be, or how and why to seek out and question the depths of their own knowledge - and politically ambitious men are taking note of how useful such minds as theirs will be to their own ambitions.
One of the more astounding things to me about our Founding Reformers, is that despite Webster and his fellows knowing first hand the danger of power having sway over the minds and actions of a people, nearly all of them wanted to empower legislatures in providing their idea of education, to the public. Even as Webster noted that,
"...In despotic states, Education, like religion, is made subservient to government....", as did John Adams with observations such as,
“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”, somehow they managed to square the circle in their minds as they nearly all came together in sentiments similar to Webster's statement, that:
"...Education should therefore be the first care of a Legislature; not merely the institution of schools, but the furnishing of them with the best men for teachers. A good system of Education should be the first article in the code of political regulations;..."Somehow they expected that we'd somehow escape the consequences of putting the process of educating future voters, under the political control of progressively more ambitious and ideological men. And sadly we have not. And as more and more Americans have been raised with progressively less and less familiarity with what had once been commonly understood, we've lost our grip upon what Jefferson had described as the common 'expression of the American mind', which has had profoundly dangerous ramifications to everything that our Founding Fathers had valued, cared about, sacrificed, fought and died for.
To our Founding Fathers' credit, it did take nearly two centuries for their good intentions to bring us down to the level we are at today, while in the birthplace of those endarkened ideas in Europe, those lessons began to bear their horrific fruit of slaughter and terror within just a few decades. But now that we've nearly caught up in the West's race to the bottom, it would be worth it to look at the nature of the education which we're being told will 'take it to the next level' by turning away from truth and towards power; and what a society looks like which condones and supports that - which we'll do in the next post.