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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.