Thursday, June 30, 2022

Foundations & Compasses - Books are never 'Just books'

From John Adams to John Quincy Adams, Philadelphia August 11. 1777:
I wish to turn your Thoughts early to such Studies, as will afford you the most solid Instruction and Improvement for the Part which may be allotted you to act on the Stage of Life.

There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this usefull Purpose than that of Thucidides, an Author, of whom I hope you will make yourself perfect Master, in original Language, which is Greek, the most perfect of all human Languages. In order to understand him fully in his own Tongue, you must however take Advantage, of every Help you can procure and particularly of Translations of him into your own Mother Tongue...
The one thing that Americans' ideas of education today have in common with those Americans of the 1830's, are the good intentions of its education reformers. With the very best of intentions of wanting their kids to get a 'good education', they, as we, sent them to school while intending to:
  • ensure students know key facts,
  • teach students useful skills to get a good job,
  • boost the economy
  • track students' progress and test their comprehension,
  • give students an understanding of what being an American means,
  • solve social issues,
, and if you share those good intentions, then you too are part of the problem that is our 'educational system' of today.

Wait... what? Yep. And the sad truth is that in addition to the Marxist professors we're so eager to heap the blame upon (with good cause), much of your Chamber of Commerce and other well intentioned fellows also share in the blame for why so many students today not only can't read & write, but don't want to.

Sure, it is reasonable to want students to enjoy some or all of those benefits from having gone to school, but while those could be results of having been educated, they are not causes of, or purposes for, becoming educated, and treating them as purposes and causes can even work against that goal.

For instance, being able to identify what facts are key to great works such as those of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, is to be expected of a good education, but simply memorizing 'key facts' from a textbook's summary of such works, is not going to cause the modern student to become educated in the way that John Adams' son had been. It's not facts, not even 'key facts', that makes those great works great, and extracting those facts for students to memorize, instead of studying the works themselves (''Thucydides...make yourself perfect Master..."), keeps students from engaging with that greatness, and awarding them an 'A' for what they've memorized, misleads the student into thinking that they've mastered something worthwhile... and helps ensure that they never will. The popular summary phrase of "Dewey said that schools should teach children not what to think but how to think" may sound wise, witty & even cute, but without teaching students solid content to think with (which in many cases, especially with traditional content, Dewey preferred to be excluded, see coming posts, or read him), that phrase reveals itself to be a deceptive method for training students in exactly what to think (or not), and how to think it, by not engaging them with the very materials that are most worth thinking through.

Our 'well intentioned' pursuit of educational effects without regard for their causes, has played a significant role in turning our schools away from that which the Adams' had enjoyed; turned it away from what Alexis de Tocqueville had praised (see previous post) for finally breaking the elitist's monopoly over education by putting "within the reach of the people" the capacity for conceiving of and striving for liberty; and turned it into one who's answer to how a student is doing in school, will be a transcript certifying how well they've learned what their school district has determined to be those 'key facts' which establish a basic minimum competency, which - good or bad - any competent school administrator is also going to be able to use to influence parents and business leaders to expand their school system further still. The graded pursuit of such easily quantified, tested, and graded facts, as if they could cause what they are but a minor effect of, has transformed our system into one that is educational in name only, and that same system will, when it's discovered that not one in twenty 'straight 'A' students!' can explain what those 'key facts' were key facts of, or why they mattered, will loudly call for new reforms with better textbooks, increased testing, more homework, and of course more stringent teacher accountability.

It should be no surprise that just as our Founding Reformers' good intentions led America down a very different path than that which they'd intended, those same good intentions are likely to lead us and our progeny down more ominous paths than we can imagine. Why do the good intentions we share with them, lead so very far from where they, we, intend them to lead us? Because they reorient the 'N' on their, our, your, educational compass, from True North, as if locked onto a glittering anomaly which wanders increasingly south of where True North truly lies.

Now if you were to ask me how I know that (apart from what this ongoing series of posts has and is still to answer to that), I'd try to resist asking you what it is about our schools that causes you to doubt it, and instead suggest that if we sight between what can be seen of education on the ground, and what it aimed towards before these good intentions became the norm, and where both are and aim towards now, it will at least be clear that they point in two very different directions. Which, if either, is True North, we'll work through in subsequent posts.

With that in mind, we can see that where education aimed at in our Founder's era (Dr. Johnson defined it as ranging from forming manners, to developing reason for judging '...rightly between truth and error, good and evil.'), can be got at from the direction of education's etymological roots in educere, educare, and educatus, roughly meaning “to learn”, “to know” and “bring out, lead forth” (I took a 'short' dive here, and a loOong dive here, into that), so that a liberal education sought the light of truth in an understanding of what in reality is objectively true, and so served to liberate a person from the shackles of ignorance & falsehood, so as to bring clarity and order to their lives.

For a prime example of what education looked like on the ground in that era, I'll submit the letter linked to at the top of this post, from John Adams' to his son John Quincy.

For the objector's part, I think it's generally accepted that what education aims at today are those bullet points above, which are what most people do answer, Left & Right, when asked why they send their kids off to school to get an education. And we get a prime example of what that sort of education looks like on the ground today, is what this undoubtedly smart student describes in his strategy for efficiently skimming for answers in the 'Grade A!' scavenger hunt:
"...Joe O’Shea was president of the student government at Florida State and a Rhodes Scholar. At a lunchtime gathering for leaders to the university he boasted:
I don’t read books per se. I go to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly. Some of this comes from books. But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all the information I need faster through the web. (As quoted in Jacobs 72)
Professor Jacobs comments that Joe O’Shea was “obviously a very smart guy” and “has an excellent strategy”; however, his viewpoint suffers from thinking of reading simply “as a means of uploading data.

That said, the ability to upload data is often precisely what the educational world wants students to do. This can be indicated by the nature of the tests that are given at the end of a unit. If students have successfully uploaded the relevant information, they will pass these tests, no matter how they did so...”
Clearly Adams & O'Shea describe two very different approaches to education, and I think it's a safe bet to say that O'Shea is just the type of 'scholar' which caused Albert Jay Knock's visiting Italian nobleman to ask why he'd met no educated people in America born after the 1890s. To skim for 'relevant information' in books, textbooks, and the like, rather than bothering with attentively reading books, is the very thing that Charles Dudley Warner had warned against as the folly of taking literature too lightly, believing that "... this most important former of the mind, maker of character, and guide to action can be acquired in a certain number of lessons out of a textbook!...". Warner's essay from the 1880s, "The Novel and the Common School", foresaw that the (then) new idea of 'progressive education' would transform 'education' into what it is today:
"...The notion that literature can be taken up as a branch of education, and learned at the proper time and when studies permit, is one of the most farcical in our scheme of education. It is only matched in absurdity by the other current idea, that literature is something separate and apart from general knowledge. Here is the whole body of accumulated thought and experience of all the ages, which indeed forms our present life and explains it, existing partly in tradition and training, but more largely in books; and most teachers think, and most pupils are led to believe, that this most important former of the mind, maker of character, and guide to action can be acquired in a certain number of lessons out of a textbook!..."
Along those lines, it's worth noting that while understanding does require information, simply recalling information does not require understanding, and equating the two will lead you down two very different paths. In what way does our schools path of educational good intentions, as exemplified by O'Shea's hunter-gatherer approach to information, have something in common with the approach of either Warner's or Adams' day? I think it's painfully clear that these two paths are oriented towards very different ideas of where True North lies, and they do so because they have very different destinations in mind.

When those who value information over understanding run the schools (such as these so-called 'English teachers' who aren't interested in reading books), the educational path that they're going to want to lead students down, is one that tells them which 'key facts' they are to accept as acceptable answers, and which ones to reject, without ever fully understanding why - which is a system that info hunter-gatherers such as O'Shea will likely thrive in. OTOH, students who've learned to habitually root their knowledge in what they understand to be true, are going to notice when those in authority give them information that doesn't 'add up'. Of those two, those who're in charge of selecting the information they teach because they see it as being useful for 'the greater good' of the society that they're so intent upon reforming, are not spending millions of our tax dollars on building and expanding our school systems so that they'll produce more of the latter types of students who'll question them on what doesn't 'add up', what they do want, are the former types of students who'll seek and accept the approved information as being useful, and there are few better ways of encouraging more of those types of students, than by tying bullet points from textbooks, to grades, and test scores, and diplomas.

As Hannah Arendt put it:
"The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any."[The Origins of Totalitarianism]
, that ability to destroy the capacity to form convictions, is what has transformed modern educational systems into the power tool of choice for those seeking the power to say what is, and is not, for 'the greater good' of a more stable State (with themselves in power over it).

The process of moving an educational system away from the pole star of what is good and true, is accomplished through having school reformers selling ever more 'useful answers!' which gradually nudge its lessons further into the orbit of utility until that society's educational system is no longer providing the form of education (that of developing the reasoning for judging '...rightly between truth and error, good and evil.'), which sound convictions can be formed through. Possibly the most important lesson to be learned from the history of school reform in America, is that the very first reforms of our Founding Reformers, whose good intentions we still share in today, began altering our understanding of what Education is, and is for, which began fracturing the foundations which America was understood to be founded upon. The subsequent cycle of school reforms that have each promised to 'fix' whatever was visibly seeping in through the cracks that could be seen, drove those unseen fractures ever deeper into the foundation, and each new reform, each built upon the last, layer after layer after layer, has studiously built it up into a veritable leaning ivory Tower of Babel.

No further reforms - leftist or conservative - added onto that fractured foundation, can hope to steady its structure or prevent its inevitable collapse. It's not possible to 'fix' the swaying of a tower built upon a fractured foundation, without first fixing the foundation, but such an obvious fact is too easy to ignore, as is ignoring the fact that ignoring that will also increase its instability and hasten its ultimate collapse. No further educational reforms - no, not even 'educational choice' (how can either choosing a private school that more effectively teaches the same errors, or insinuating govt oversight into what had been sound schools, be helpful?) - can help, unless first its foundation are fixed and its lessons are realigned with True North.

The choice we need to face up to making today, is to discard those good intentions which cause more harm than good, and restore the proper purpose and content of education - then, with a stable foundation to stand upon, we can look at reclaiming what we can of what has been built upon it. If we don't do that first, the relentless pull of intellectual gravity will eventually succeed in collapsing our educational system, and how such a colossal structure as that can avoid collapsing into a black hole from which no light can escape, is hard to imagine.

To succeed in repairing that foundation, we need to inspect its cracks and determine what caused (and still causes) them, and the reorienting of our educational compass, which we'll begin looking closer at in the coming posts.