The Educational Covenant

Real education in the broadest and richest sense has always been an unlikely proposition. Its most floral moment may have been Periclean Athens, and then only for a privileged minority of enfranchised philosophers, statesmen and citizens of the polis. The ideal was articulated in Plato’s Phaedrus, as “an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence,” by which was meant both intellectual vigor and civic virtue. Although we have laudably democratized the concept to apply not only to a favored few, I am acutely aware of the unattainability and even the preposterousness of this ideal in a real-world context of practical affairs, class disparities, occupational shrinkage and ubiquitous functionalization. Nevertheless, the ideal is the asymptote toward which we aspire, knowing all the while that we must fall miserably short of so noble an aim. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, whatever its complexion.

And minds are being wasted wholesale by a malformed pedagogy that has forgotten the meaning of the word “education,” derived from the Latin e-ducere, “to lead out” of ignorance, sloth and dispersion. As Michel de Montaigne observed, “It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better.”  The contemporary paradigm that controls thinking on the subject fails on both counts. It catapults to the forefront instructional techniques and “strategies” involving what the trade calls “technology tools,” which are confidently expected to increase teacher and student productivity in the classroom. This atelier of technology tools includes such apparently pedagogically useful and stimulating devices as e-mail, fax, Internet, virtual whiteboards, remote computer access, grammar software, spell checkers, various kinds of built-in templates, and a coven of task and answer wizards. These wizards have now replaced the scholar-teachers and personal tutors of yore and enable ordinary teachers and students to do all sorts of interesting and valuable things such as—according to a PERFORMA bulletin I have before me as I write—“create professional looking and complex Word documents.” The bulletin goes on to indicate how so notable a feat of scholarly creativity is to be accomplished: simply, we are told, “by using information.”

How all these trivial games and empty contrivances are supposed to function in the absence of ideas, which are for the most part bestowed or stimulated by dedicated reading and studying, transcends both the laws of probability and plain common sense. “[A] reasonable man understands,” writes Jonah Goldberg in The Tyranny of Clichés, “that the costs of ripping up the old and tried are often too expensive for the theoretical promises of the new and untried.” Our contemporary ideologues and planners consist of a breed of inept and myopic specialists for whom the historical past and tried modes of instruction are entirely irrelevant.

To make matters worse, the “problem of education” is compounded today by yet another factor, the political skewing of the pedagogical agenda by a flagrant Left-wing parti-pris that has infected both practice and curriculum. Our so-called “educators” consist not only of one-dimensional technophiles but also of committed indoctrinators who consider as their mandate the unleashing of an army of young ideologues who believe in the foolish and partisan notion of an achievable social utopia. Which means in practice that students imbibe without examination the entrenched ideas and policies of their mentors who staff the political Left, embracing such postulates as: undifferentiated multiculturalism, the fostering of statistical “diversity” and racial preferences, big government, equality of results irrespective of input, unbridled entitlements, the leveling of intellectual distinctions, and, of course, a pro forma anti-Zionism.

This is the very cohort that turned out in record numbers in 2008 to vote for Barack Obama, whom they regarded in much the same way as Shia Islam regards the Hidden Imam—a messianic prophet who incorporated in his being all the dogmas they had been taught to cherish and enact. The university, as we know, was one of the main targets of the Gramscian “march through the institutions,” with the purpose of influencing the young to espouse the doctrines of the socialist creed and instructing them, to cite political and educational writer Bruce Bawer, in “the utopian promise of authoritarian ideology.” We can see both the effectiveness of and the damage wrought by the Gramscian project in the recent Occupy movements.

The consequences of this twin attack on the educational citadel—the utilitarian reduction of responsible pedagogy and the political indoctrination of a student “clientele” incapable of independent thought and genuine research—have been nothing short of disastrous. What Victor Davis Hanson says of the California school system applies across the national spectrum: “politicized curricula that do not emphasize math, science, and reading and writing comprehension” will produce an incompetent future generation entrusted to “build our power plants, fly our airliners, teach our children and take out our tumors.”  When one considers the deprivations and manipulations visited upon our students, the sequel is chastening.

Moreover, the cognitive travesty that culminates in the compromised university begins in public school and even kindergarten, where pupils are not only poorly trained in the protocols of learning but early imbued with the poisoned pabulum of Leftist precepts and suppositions. Regrettably, the effects are not confined exclusively to the mediocre and radicalized public and elementary educational institution, but spread outward to society as a whole. “Today,” writes Brandon Vallorani of the Political Outcast website, “the radicalization process is taken to our nation’s corporations, universities, courts, and political parties.” The ripple effect is undeniable.

The misguided priorities that animate our education system, from primary to post-graduate, are both a symptom and a cause of a broken culture. In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May quotes a student speaker at a Stanford graduation exercise, who claimed his class did not know how it “relates to the past or the future, having little sense of the present, no life-sustaining beliefs secular or religious.” It is moot whether we can fix the culture by fixing education, or whether we need to address ourselves to the culture of which education is a part, or whether we should work on both fronts at once—a trilemma which puzzled no less an authority than Alfred North Whitehead in The Aims of Education, a book which no authentic educator can afford to ignore. One way or another, we need to heal a broken educational covenant. It is a start, perhaps, to recognize the problem and to continue bringing it to public attention.

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  • tagalog

    I'm fine with diversity in higher education.

    What I'm NOT fine with, is not providing them with a LIBERAL education. The commentary defines "education" as meaning that which leads us out of ignorance and sloth, but it forgets to mention that a "liberal" education is intended to liberate us and to teach us, as free people, how to live with freedom so that it persists. We've forgotten that "liberal" means "free." In letting that concept fade, we're in danger of creating a way of life that fosters slavery.

    In the true sense of the words, a "liberal education" leads out of ignorance into freedom. Today, "liberal education" is a joke, the study of comic books, movies, and other matters of pop culture, and political indoctrination when it should be (as one educator put it) a study of the best that men have thought and wrote over the centuries. Milton, not Toni Morrison. John Donne, not Rigoberta Menchu.

    We need a canon in higher education. In many colleges, it's gone. It needs to be brought back.

    Maybe if we taught members of minority groups what makes the West valuable and great they'd like the West a little better.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "We've forgotten that "liberal" means "free.""

      In politics, liberal means free to change and do what you want, if you're a member of one of the favored classes and are willing to conform to socialist worldview dogmas. It's a kind of freedom in theory, but not really.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "Maybe if we taught members of minority groups what makes the West valuable and great they'd like the West a little better."

      That's one of the root problems: We can't even agree on those fundamentals. Ask Howard Zinn. (OK, read his book since he's dead).

      What we could do is teach each theory, acknowledge that some of the ideas exclude the possibility that the others are true, and challenge the students to decide. That's what happens in the real world anyway, but the liberals managed to exclude all opposing views.

  • Lee Poteet

    In conversations with two friends who are members of the Education Department of a near by university, bot have admitted that our education system is broken from top to bottom. Further, they both have insisted that a full twenty percent of the students there had simply no business being in college at all as they were incapable of grasping what the whole thing was about. This was a to me somewhat complimentary to a comment a friend made several years ago that fully fifty percent of Americans had IQs of 100 or less, something I had never thought much about since the people who gathered around my in-laws dinner table were people with Ph.D's in physics or mathematics.

    I was raised reading the great classics of Western thought and literature and thinking about the questions which they raised. I have come to believe that without such an acquaintance we neither have nor can sustain a culture. But even our most prestigious universities now fear and flee from such exposure. Instead of reading and confronting the great minds of our civilization, they prefer to read the moderns who are mostly little people who ask and discuss lesser questions. The result is that they no longer know or recognize excellence when confronted with it and avoid the hard questions which must be asked and answered if we are to survive. My answer: back to the real books, the hard books and math and science for those who can handle it and trade schools for whose who cannot.

    • tagalog

      Excuse me, but it shouldn't be surprising that 50% of Americans have IQs of 100 or below.

      The IQ of 100 is the average derived from the intelligence quotient test. Of course 1/2 of Americans would be at or below that figure, while of course the other 1/2 is 100 or above. Since the 100 IQ is the average, it holds true for all people, not just Americans.

      • Questions

        You're confusing the median with the mean. The median is what refers to the half-of-all-cases-to-either-side dividing line. The mean is simply the average.

        • riverboatbill

          The "average" IQ has dropped like a rock in the past 50 years or so.

          • tagalog

            Scores on the classic IQ test, the Stanford-Binet test, have dropped. So have the scores on the SAT, until the Education Testing Service (or whatever they're called these days) modified their scoring methodology. People are still arguing, after about 30 years, over what the phenomenon means.

        • tagalog

          Actually, it's neither the median nor the mean, it's the mental age over the temporal age: a person who is 30 years old and who is functioning at the 30-years-old level has an IQ of 30/30, or 1.0. Multiplying by 100 yields an IQ of 100, age level functioning, what would commonly be referred to as "average." People who function at a intelligence level of, say, what a 40-year-old would function at age 30 are functioning at a 40/30 level, or 1.33, an IQ of 133.

    • Cerise Rowan

      A friend teaches a class called "English through film", the concept being the students are failing English "because it does not engage them", English literature is no longer relevant to the electronic age.. so they watch movies and sometimes they are supposed to read a book.
      Generally, they don't turn in the homework and the school is mad at the teacher because they needed these easy classes to bring up the school grade average.
      They want these kids to graduate with a good average because it makes the school look good whether the students have learned or not.
      Like so much of modern concept, the idea is not about actually accomplishing anything, it is about looking like you have accomplished something.
      Here's your diploma….

  • riverboatbill

    In short,schools suck.

  • Anonymous

    The globalists, progressives, socialists, Marxists or whatever you want to call them grabbed the reins of the educational system in the 1930's. Its destruction was sealed in the 1960's–our very own cultural revolution. In the early 1980's "A Nation at Risk" set us on a trajectory towards the present-day educational nightmare–the marriage of heaven and hell-far left billionaire philanthropists hooking up with right-wing money men to finance the ed reformers not bent on 'reforming' but transforming–you think it's bad now wait and see if Obama gets a second term. We'll go from the big, bad teacher unions to a centralized Education Ministry–one evil being replaced by an even worse one.

    Another thing-I don't get this article-put some skin on those ideas, man-no wonder we have Obama in the WH-elitist writers who can't speak to the common man–sure, they may be dumbed down but that doesn't mean they can't learn–even Jesus humbled himself to use the language of the masses–

    • Mary Sue

      yeah, John Dewey really screwed things up. Dick and Jane set the bar for the dumbing down of education.

    • Ageofreason

      I disagree, Anonymous, with your last paragraph. The best writing is difficult. Just try Dostoyevsky, Milton, Shakespeare. Dictionaries have a real purpose. They can actually teach, if used. Sometimes the meanings of unfamiliar words can be garnered from context, but exact meanings come from disctionaries. Are you suggesting that all complex ideas be promulgated in comic book form? Why not accept the challenge of complex words and ideas? One of the problems is that educators try to choose the easiest route rather than the challenging route. That was part of the point of the article.

    • tagalog

      It"s true that the American educational system was transformed by European intellectuals, who introduced logical positivism to the American university, where it rapidly metastasized. But they weren't all globalists, socialists, and Marxists (though some of them were); they were people who were refugees from fascism and Nazism, two doctrines that (rightly or wrongly) were seen as right-wing totalitarian systems. Logical positivism, merged with political belief, resulted in fear of American conservatism and characterization of it as racist, imperialist, warlike, and all the phobic terms that people use to blacken conservatism today. Logical positivism in itself has great value, but it has the tendency to wipe out the drive to pursue the more spiritual aspects of education to the point where the non-concrete is now viewed with what is marginally tolerant contempt and amusement. One of the most damaging aspects of logical positivism is relativism, which, when filtered to the average undergraduate, degenerates into a hardened refusal to use one's intellectual powers to judge the value of one idea against another.

  • Lady_Dr.

    You associate with people who work in an "Education Department" – personally I would not admit it. As George Will once put it "the best way to improve education in America is to close all the Education Colleges."
    When I was a graduate student at Ohio State University we called the "College of Education" the intellectual sewer. Now not everyone in such a college is stupid, but all the stupid people go there because they cannot get into any other department or college.

    And a friend of mine in the Textiles Department (actually it is a serious course of study) use to say of the "Department of Home Economics Education" – "they do nice bulletin boards."

    I too wish this article had been written for the common man – I'd love to send it to a lot of great people who simply would role their eyes and forget. There is a place for lofty writing, but this isn't it.

  • jemaasjr

    Liberal education is a fraud and always has been. I arises from the self conception that we have that we are at core rational. Freud got a lot of the details wrong, but he was correct at the core. We are not truly driven along by logic. For a society to function as more than a police state, most people have to agree about most things. That agreement becomes enforced policy. If you want a liberal society that will actually function, you teach conformity but allow divination.

    Because society at large embraces the idea of abstract liberalism, true freedom of thought, we have given educators unlimited license in what they may teach. Because people are more driven by self interest than by some notion of abstract truth, the educators have done what we should expect they would do. They teach a version of reality that favors the educators. Because they are creatures of the state, they favor the state, in anticipation that it will be run by people like them.