Education as a success (pt. 2)

Previously I said we ought to remark education as a success instead of the popular notion, oddly an almost universal response to many of our current institutions, that it is a failure. I think I got my point across as entirely as I gathered it. Modern schools should be considered for whether they teach students enough, but at the same time, if they are to ever change for the better, we ought to concern ourselves with whether they achieve precisely what their reformers desire.

Today, for another nice redaction the Good Lord has provided to an idea of mine, I read these words from Chesterton in what I’m deeply considering may be my favorite non-fiction book (surpassing Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven) What’s Wrong With the World in chapter X: The Case for the Public Schools.

The word success can of course be used in two senses. It may be used with reference to a thing serving its immediate and peculiar purpose, as of a wheel going around; or it can be used with reference to a thing adding to the general welfare, as of a wheel being a useful discovery. It is one thing to say that Smith’s flying machine is a failure, and quite another to say that Smith has failed to make a flying machine. Now this is very broadly the difference between the old English public schools and the new democratic schools. Perhaps the old public schools are (as I personally think they are) ultimately weakening the country rather than strengthening it, and are therefore, in that ultimate sense, inefficient. But there is such a thing as being efficiently inefficient. You can make your flying ship so that it flies, even if you also make it so that it kills you. Now the public school system may not work satisfactorily, but it works; the public schools may not achieve what we want, but they achieve what they want. The popular elementary schools do not in that sense achieve anything at all. It is very difficult to point to any guttersnipe in the street and say that he embodies the ideal for which popular education has been working, in the sense that the fresh-faced, foolish boy in “Etons” does embody the ideal for which the headmasters of Harrow and Winchester have been working. The aristocratic educationists have the positive purpose of turning out gentlemen, and they do turn out gentlemen, even when they expel them. The popular educationists would say that they had the far nobler idea of turning out citizens. I concede that it is a much nobler idea, but where are the citizens? I know that the boy in “Etons” is stiff with a rather silly and sentimental stoicism, called being a man of the world. I do not fancy that the errand-boy is rigid with that republican stoicism that is called being a citizen. The schoolboy will really say with fresh and innocent hauteur, “I am an English gentleman.” I cannot so easily picture the errand-boy drawing up his head to the stars and answering, “Romanus civis sum.” Let it be granted that our elementary teachers are teaching the very broadest code of morals, while our great headmasters are teaching only the narrowest code of manners. Let it be granted that both these things are being taught. But only one of them is being learned.

It is always said that great reformers or masters of events can manage to bring about some specific and practical reforms, but that they never fulfill their visions or satisfy their souls. I believe there is a real sense in which this apparent platitude is quite untrue. By a strange inversion the political idealist often does not get what he asks for, but does get what he wants. The silent pressure of his ideal lasts much longer and reshapes the world much more than the actualities by which he attempted to suggest it. What perishes is the letter, which he thought so practical. What endures is the spirit, which he felt to be unattainable and even unutterable. It is exactly his schemes that are not fulfilled; it is exactly his vision that is fulfilled. Thus the ten or twelve paper constitutions of the French Revolution, which seemed so business-like to the framers of them, seem to us to have flown away on the wind as the wildest fancies. What has not flown away, what is a fixed fact in Europe, is the ideal and vision

The many, swiftly engendered reforms in testing or curricula come and go at the pronouncement that what came before failed, but overall, the ideology behind these educational reforms has remained the same: technocratic and anti-democratic, obsessed with progress and unconcerned with what’s been proven viable by experience. The product is as I said before, students who become adults with little virtue, or what virtue they’ve had they could have gotten just by being alive and not enrolled in school. I think many college professors would look at college students and say education has in some cases reduced the virtue of students. I know some parents must feel that way, sending their kids to school for 15 years or so and they grow up to be a stranger.

The problem is wider than the fences bordering our schools, but if schools are to be taken seriously — if I’m supposed to fear Betty DeVos like Hell itself — I think it needs to be abundantly clear that the project of educating minds is taken seriously and viewed for what it is, tradition, or the handing on of what is worth knowing.


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