Friday, May 27, 2011

Eliot on Education

Modern Education and the Classics

These ten pages of excellent and admirable reflection on the ends of education are so filled full with throw-away insight one wishes on every page Eliot had elaborated. It ought to be much longer. Cutting to the quick of the multitudinous debates on education Eliot states the overlooked obvious: to know what an education must be one must know what it ought to do. To know what we want to do, we must know what we want from life. "Ultimately, then, the problem is a religious one." Let us discuss.

Eliot discerns a number of confusions which plague those seeking an education and in particular he notes a contrasting pair of missteps, the notions of education for getting on and education for leisure. The first problem might be rephrased as education toward getting more. Getting more money, more possessions, more power or agency, rising in social respectability, and so forth. Not just more, mind you, but specifically more than others. Now Eliot's examination of this position is quite unexpected. One might have predicted the commonplace defense of "education for its own sake" or for "self-betterment" or some such similar apologia. Yet his critique is more oblique and, in fact, timely. With this justification,
Education becomes something to which everybody has a "right," even irrespective  of his capacity; and when everyone gets it–by that time, of course, in a diluted and adulterated form–then we naturally discover that education is no longer an infallible means of getting on. . .
Readers who recall our discussions of the Founding Fathers' thoughts on education will sense my imminent accord. Dispensing with yet another discussion of what a "right" can and cannot be, we recall that Jefferson's education plan for Virginia would have offered someone as much education as he was able to make use of, i.e. as much as he could actually comprehend. As we said, though, Eliot's criticism is more subtle and in fact roots itself in the observation that such a justification for education is in fact relative: by not specifying what education is actually for, simply making one-upmanship the end, if you give it away to everyone you foil your plan. The result of education for everyone irrespective of capacity and irrespective of end is merely to wade into the quagmire of mediocrity we sop in today.

The other half of this pair of fallacies is the notion of education for leisure. Of this apparently highbrow claim we may simply ask: what is leisure for? Why ought one devote himself to laboring Aristotle and Homer, and the unavoidable drudgery required by serious study? Cannot recreation and entertainment sufficiently pass the time and provide relief from life's cares? Why exactly ought one study?

One might imagine a rejoinder from proponents of either position: "surely more education cannot be a bad thing?" they may say. Once again we say: why do you call it a good if you don't know what it is for? Saying such of course passes over the unintended consequences of incentivizing education, or particular disciplines, without attention to what people can do, want to do, what needs to be done, and how these variables change, onsequences like thousands of students learning the same amount of material, or slightly more or less, over a greater period of time and at greater expense. Students spend more time, parents more money, but no one focuses on what anyone hopes to accomplish other than to get on, to get ahead of the other students, a fashion perfectly captured in the gross and absurd process of applying to universities.

This "education inflation" is difficult to reverse first because when you allocate resources such as building a campus and hiring large faculties, it is difficult to shrink them without losing much money re-allocating the resources and second because you turn out students trained to be teachers in other universities. The whole scheme is set up to expand without purpose or end.

Such prescient observations but set the stage for Eliot's point about the philosophy of education, of which he identifies three: the liberal, the radical, and the orthodox. The central fallacy of the liberal program of education is that it passes no judgment on the discipline. The student ought to study what he wants at the exclusion of what he dislikes and what he is good at instead of what is challenging. Such is a recipe for a most distasteful and parochial education. Toward the end of understanding, who would not be disappointed by the mathematician who cannot see his discipline's relation to music, and vice versa? As Eliot notes in the most disarmingly everyday way, "those who have more lively and curious minds will tend to smatter."

Now whereas liberalism does not know what it wants of education, radicalism knows and wants the wrong thing. Radicalism shuns the classics as deprecated or simply wrong. All that remains is, as one might expect, Eliot's position of an orthodox education. An education distinguished from its rivals by placing specific and finite ends toward education and the classics. The importance of Greek and Latin is not the pragmatic end of improving one's English or employing it to invoke some esteemed past, but as an integral part of a living Christian tradition. "A professedly Christian people should have a Christian education."

This may sound a cheat the to Classicist, but why read Homer? It's a beautiful poem, but why should you be glad about what it glorifies and condemns? You may learn from it, but what will you do with what you learn? Or if you simply wish to know, why? I'm not saying any of these reasons are unsatisfactory but whatever they are, you need values of your own to make use of an education. Art may hold the mirror up to nature and education may reveal its causes, but to what end? The philosophy of education flows from one's philosophy of life.

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