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Book Review: Three Thousand Years of Educational Wisdom by Robert Ulich

The history of thought on education, the means by which the youth of a given people are absorbed into society through imbibing the collective wisdom of their people, is also the history of thought on human nature. Any society educates its youth according to its ideal of humanity. A society which values a man of faith, for example, will provide an education that is oriented toward the development of faith, toward knowledge of theology, and perhaps toward a clerical vocation. A society that values the industrious and technical will naturally educate its young to acquire these habits and values.

What Robert Ulich has done here is assembled a collection of documents from many diverse times and places which exhibit the ideal of man in those times and places and the means by which each of the societies involved hoped to cultivate their ideal. In compiling these into a single volume and paring them down to manageable selections that highlight the essential features of each system, Ulich has given the reader the ability to see each system side by side and so compare them and contrast them, deriving what is best from each and cutting away what is superfluous or erroneous.

A volume like this one, then, is worth a great deal more than the tautologies, platitudes, and jargon-laden gimmicks that fill teaching manuals and most other recent books on education. This is not a book for those who think that education, the process of becoming a full human being, is nothing more than preparation for “college and career.” This is a book for those who believe that the best education springs from the best anthropology.

Locke’s advice on teaching

The great skill of a teacher is to get and keep the attention of his scholar: whilst he has that, he is sure to advance as fast the learner’s abilities will carry him; and without that, all his bustle and pother will be to little or no purpose. To attain this, he should make the children comprehend, (as much as may be,) the usefulness of what he teaches him; and let him see, by what he has learned, that he can do something which he could not do before; something which gives him some power and real advantage above others, who are ignorant of it. To this he should add sweetness in all his instructions; and by a certain tenderness in his whole carriage, make the child sensible that he loves him, and designs nothing but his good; the only way to beget love in the child, which will make him hearken to his lessons, and relish what he teaches him.

John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 161

Ethics (Great Books Reading Project)

I have found when reading Aristotle with young people that his emphasis on virtue is one of the most difficult things for them to understand. Perhaps most difficult for them to fathom is the idea that virtue and happiness are intimately linked. They have in large part been so thoroughly trained in some form of “enlightened self-interest,” so to speak, that they are unable to comprehend the idea there is are eternal and immutable truths about goodness and about human nature. Happiness is most readily identified today with intense but momentary physical pleasures of various sorts.

This has perhaps been the understanding of happiness among the majority of the youth of any generation, including, no doubt, that of Aristotle. Yet, it is an understanding that is supposed to pass away with age and wisdom. The cult of youth which predominates in modern popular culture, however, prevents the notion from passing. Rather, the aging cling to it with a perverted tenacity that defies reason.

Aristotle is certainly a philosopher from whom the modern age has much to learn.

Walking is a revolutionary act

It seems that not even a poster campaign featuring rappers, basketball players, and cartoon characters can provide the encouragement needed to incite young people to read today. In spite of L.L. Cool J’s best efforts, the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress test scores revealed that a shocking 60% of 4th graders scored below their grade level in reading. One recent poll found that almost half of American teenagers read other than assigned school reading less than twice a year. Perhaps the problem is larger and runs deeper than a celebrity can solve by having his picture taken with an open book. Perhaps, indeed, those celebrities are part of the problem. Reading is not declining because schools are worsening, though they are, nor because children cannot relate to the books available to them, as those who have made a bad situation worse sometimes assert. Instead, the problem is, ultimately, at the root of modern society.

Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” envisions a dystopian future in which taking an evening stroll is a crime. Instead, people are expected to rush to work in the morning, rush back home after the end of the work day, and spend their evenings in the glow of their television sets. While it is, as of 15 November 2014, still legal, to a limited extent, to take an evening stroll, the dystopian future Bradbury envisions is not too far distant from reality. According to a recent report by Nielsen, the average American spends a stunning five hours a day watching television. Americans, it seems, are just too busy to read a good book. They are busy watching the celebrities who pretended to read for a photograph encouraging children to read.

One recent study concluded that living in a household with a 500-book library accelerated the reading levels of children by an average of 3.2 years. Given that a book can be purchased for less than a dollar at most thrift stores, a 500-book library is surely as affordable as a new television. Yet almost every American home has a television, but not a 500-book library. In fact, almost none of the families Americans watch on television have 500-book libraries either.

The problem is quite clear. We live in a society that has developed a disdain for reading. We live increasingly busy and technologized lives. When we return home from the ratrace, we park ourselves in front of the television. Rather than taking a walk, we sit on the couch. Rather than having a lively family dinner discussion, almost half of American children eat dinner in front of the television. A society without home libraries, evening strolls, family discussions, and the sacredness of a communal meal is not a society conducive to the life of the mind. It is a society which has, through more if not through legal fiat, become the dystopia Bradbury imagined.

The helplessness and hopelessness invoked by Bradbury’s story is sure to bite into anyone who laments the loss of the very essence of humanity in the acts of reading, discussing, walking, and eating. This is especially true as there is no easy solution. There is no new curriculum proposed by any particular politician nor any photograph of a celebrity that will solve this problem. There is only the radical countercultural act of taking an evening stroll.

Plutarch on teachers

We now reach a topic more important and vital than any yet treated — that of the right teachers for our children. The kind to be sought for are those whose lives are irreproachable, whose characters are unimpugned, and whose skill and experience are of the best. The root or fountain-head of character as a man and a gentleman lies in receiving the proper education. As farmers put stakes beside their plants, so the right kind of teacher provides firm support for the young in the shape of lessons and admonitions, carefully chosen so as to produce an upright growth of character.

Plutarch, “On Bring up a Boy”